Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In the Spirit of the Mosquito

I’d forgotten how much I miss the scent of incense and just-lit matches. I was immersed in it at the Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul. I visited there yesterday with several other members of my Zen Buddhism class, co-groupers from a social fieldwork project.

The place was incredible and in the warehouse district. The ceilings were huge, 25, 30-feet tall. They’ve had problems with pigeons occasionally flying in through open or partly-open windows, leading to their placing extra, narrower screens on the windows. The ceiling is held up by old-growth timber; the building was one of the Great Northern Railroad’s many local warehouses, and the Center’s Zazen room was the vault for the building. There are several motion-sensor cameras above each door coming in from the outside—a sensible precaution in an area with many bars and restaurants—but aside from several altars in different rooms and a few paintings in the meeting room, the walls are blank of adornment.

Much of this was told us by Tom, a member who was our practice instructor for the morning. Tom had grown up Catholic but was attracted to Zen Buddhism as a spiritual discipline that was “in service to humanity and not to a god.” He had joined the Center after “30 years of reading and dreaming” and had been a member for 10 years. Initially dismissive of the lessons he learned under the Church, but in the years since meditating and practice, he has become more convinced there are strong correlations between what he’d grown up with and his current practices. He said he was “too much of a smartass” back then to retain much, but now claims “if only someone had taught me then about anything,” he would have been more likely to combine them. He calls the two practices, in their separate ways, “talking with God.”

The Zazen was wonderful, relaunching the memories I have of time spent on my knees, and I was happy to discover that the stance I was most comfortable with was also a legitimate one, called the Burmese sitting position. This was a tremendous improvement over the sitting I was required to do as a younger and more pliable participant in sesshin back in the late 80s, settled on my knees resting on my heels for hours. (I saw only one person sitting this way, and he seemed comfortable in it.) Had this stance been offered me, I might have remained a Buddhist.

The Buddhism the Center espouses is Mahayana or Greater Vehicle Buddhism, which prioritizes the enlightenment of all beings over the enlightenment of the individual. The chant they conducted after the dharma talk was, in fact, the Bodhisattva’s vow:

May our intention equally penetrate every being and place with the true merit of Buddha’s way. Beings are numberless, I vow to free them. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.

We sat for a little more than a half hour with a few minutes break at the halfway point. I was surprised how easily it all came back to me: the peacefulness, the attuned hearing, the sense of something interior being let out, my attention to the play of sunlight moving slowly across the floor. I focused on a window just in front of me, remembering to have soft eyes (it helped to push my glasses off my face), and counting my breaths. I did not experience Satori but I did feel very good.

This is the chant we did after sitting and before the Dharma talk. Tom had told us it was the chant they did weekly.

The unsurpassed, profound, and wondrous dharma is rarely met with, even in a hundred, thousand, million kalpas. Now we can see and hear it, accept and maintain it. May we unfold the meaning of the Tathagata’s truth.

I noted during our stretching break and at other times that some people, mostly men, were very conscious of imagined eyes on them. Their own eyes darted to and fro. I noticed this because I recognized my own tendency to do this. I also noted that the Buddha whose presence dominated the Zazen room was very feminine-looking, and might even have been a female Buddha. If this is so, I liked it.

The Dharma talk itself, I fear, was dull to me. Not much was said that struck me as original (aside from the comment that provides the title for this post or the African proverb preceding it) and several times I thought to myself, “This would be a good place to end.” I found myself experiencing not only monkey-mind but monkey-body—rocking, stretching, moving beyond necessity to find a comfortable position.

I took down several takeaways from the Dharma talk:

• “Where do I start in my new life?”
• “There’s an African proverb that says, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night trapped with a mosquito.’”
• “The Eightfold Path operates as a prescription against suffering.”
• “Why do I feel the need to speak?”
• “I see the power of speech and how actions emerge from that.”
• “Even a small action, how like a ripple it moves out.”
• “Being aware right now, of all judgment, with deliberation.”
• “What I want to escape isn’t my life. What I want to escape is my struggle.”
• “In one minute we are told there are 60 seconds, and within each second there are 60 or 62 moments. So we have a lot of time to notice thing. We should not miss our life. Right now is the only time we have.”
• “It’s exhilarating to fight this losing battle with reality.”
• “The mind is an untrained elephant.”
• “Everything is alive and whole and complete [including us] as it is.”
• The Eightfold Path (also called Indra’s Net) is holographic—every piece reflects the whole.

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