Friday, November 17, 2006

"What are you thinking about?" "Nothin`"

Believe it or not, it's been a long-standing dream of mine to run off to a monastery (preferably of the Asian variety, largely due to the awesome mysticism that surrounds them) and just meditate/train/whatever for a year or so, leaving everything else behind. There are quite a few reasons for this: I respect and - to a degree - yearn for that level of asceticism, never seem to have time to just sit and think about the deeper issues of life, and want to know if I could endure it. There may be a few other incentives I left out, but that's the meat of it. Needless to say, I was intrigued when I learned I might get the opportunity, even if it was for only five days.

Initially I was undecided on whether or not I should go. The whole affair ran at around $400 for only 5 days, and that was 5 days of sitting and doing nothing. Still, it was not a rare chance and the weekend was already one extra day long, so I would have to take minimal vacation days. I can actually pinpoint the moment I "decided" to go. I was talking to my friend Jeff, who likewise had ambitions of attending the Zen weekend. The exchange went something like this.

Jeff: "So how close are you to coming to this Zen retreat?"
Me: "Really damn close - 80 or 90%"
Jeff: "Well which is it?"
Me: "I think...yeah, I think it's 90% right now"
Jeff: *SLAP* "THAT'S your other 10%. You're lucky you didn't say 80%, I don't even know what I would've done then."

Is there any way to refuse a gesture like that? I submit that there is not.

So off we went. The trip itself was actually interesting in that A) it was my first time driving in Japan, and B) I haven't driven a manual transmission in a few years. I didn't tell my unfortunate passenger (who neither had an international driver's license nor knew how to drive stick) that I Googled "how to drive a manual transmission car" the night before we left. I actually learned a few things that I didn't know even when I was driving stick back in the day, so the search was well worth it. Also, as if those shenanigans weren't enough, we managed to get a parking ticket in the 30 minutes or so we spent eating while our car was parked in front of a nearby building. Some other foreigners who lived there said "it was probably okay," because a lot of Japanese people did it, but we must have missed the memo saying what time the ticketeer (as I henceforth like to call them) came, as a ticket we could not understand was posted on the windshield when we came back. Undeterred, we found our fellow Zen enthusiasts, and rode up into the mountains.

After about thirty minutes of blocking traffic and nearly driving off the road, we reached the temple. Tetsugyuji (translation - METAL COW TEMPLE[or Iron Ox, if you're lame]) has a quaint setup in the mountainous area of Oita. It has everything you'd need to survive - plus a meditation room, minus a bathing facility. The plan was to spend most of our time in the temple proper, ie the meditation room, where we would practice zazen for more than nine hours a day and sleep for less than eight. Super!

Although the sesshin (as such a retreat is called) has a cap of 25 people, it proved unnecessary - this year the retreat only garnered the masochism of six Zenners, Jeff and myself included. We soon learned that even though there was only six of us, the odds of all of us staying were slim. The head abbot, Reverend Silverman, told us that having everybody stay was the exception rather than the rule. It was around this time that I first began to grasp just how difficult it was going to be.

Our guide for those five days was one Paul Tesshin Silverman. He left Pittsburg at the age of 18 to fly to Japan and train in Zen, and was eventually ordained as the first non-Japanese abbot of a Zen temple. Now he does not live at the temple save the times of the year he runs the sesshin (I think it's twice a year for five days each time), but still acts as head Abbot. He seemed very much like a normal person when I first met him - so much so, in fact, that I did not guess he would be running the show after we left the station. But the more you're around him, the more you seem to realize there's an aura of content, control and purpose that directs all of his actions. But you don't understand this until a few days of zazen.

The last thing you need to know is what exactly zazen is, or at least the style we were practicing. Zen (and everything that I will say from here on out is still mostly armchair theory - this might be the only temple that does it this way, or it might be like every other temple) is the art of thinking of nothing. Nothing aside from what you're doing. The meditation involves thinking of nothing but your breathing, and I say this without exaggeration. The idea is that you sit on a cushion (in any style of sitting you like, although half-lotus/full-lotus/seiza are recommended), let your eyes relax (ie don't stare at any fixed point, but don't let your eyes close or wander either), and then...breathe.

Every breath should be deep, controlled, and tranquil. We were also counting every breath, but the catch is that the second you think about anything besides counting your breath - and I mean ANYTHING - you go back to one. And holy crap, is it ever frustrating.

*inhale**exhale* leg kinda hu- DAMMIT!....*inhale**exhale*

The best part is that getting past number one is such an accomplishment it immediately leads you to think "WOW I'M PAST ONE! .... DAMMIT! ...*inhale**exhale*" I think my record was three, MAYBE four, but I'd be pretty lenient with myself to say that. I only once made it to twenty when I allowed my mind to wander the whole way through, although I tried many times. You quickly forget about counting at all if you let your thoughts swim around.

We first meditated the night we got there. It was fairly dark, a little cold, but we were fresh enough from civilization to not know or mind. After a paltry hour or so, we hit the sack, sleeping in the same place we had just meditated. Although I was in bed by 9:00 or so, I rolled around until midnight, and even then my sleep was not exactly fitful. Come 4:15am, Abbot Silverman ran down the adjacent hallway like a bat out of hell, ringing a bell as he went, waking all of us up to start our first day without solid foods, without speaking, and without bathing. Let the fun begin!

Our first real meditation block began at 4:30am. It was dark outside and it was cold. In my remarkable foresight I had only brought one thin pair of pants, a t-shirt, and a track jacket. You are also not allowed to wear socks inside the tatami room where we meditated, but it was just as well - your socks get a mighty funk when neither you nor them see any cleaning for several days in a row.

Only 15 minutes into the meditation I began to feel dizzy and nauseous. The cold, the lack of sleep, my numb legs and my hunger were all stacking on top of each other, and before I knew it I was being pulled up from the wall that I had fallen over headfirst into. I've rarely passed out before, although I'm not so foreign to the experience to not know what happened; but wow, was it ever hard to continue sitting in that position, hungry and cold, for another hour after I was pulled upright again.

I think I can safely say that this was when I most considered quitting. Yeah, I know, only 2 hours of meditation into a full three and a half days of it, but I was pretty shaken. When the session was over and we went on with chores (for my friends who know, it's very much like what you see in anime - running down the hallways with a rag on the ground, rapidly sweeping off the tatami with brooms, banging on the paper screen doors with odd dusters, etc) and finally had breakfast. As I said before, no solid foods, so we juiced a ton of oranges and carrots, and that was our meal.

Mmm...juice. Without any food at all, I wouldn't have made it - but I drank that juice like a fish drinks water, and a few full bowls found me reinvigorated. Once we started the second meditation (2 1/2 hours long interrupted only by 3 sessions of standing, walking in a circle while still meditating, and then sitting down and starting all over again), I felt a lot more confident about staying. It was probably for the best that I had such an awful experience within the first few hours - after that, whenever I considered leaving, it was very quickly followed by "well, at least you're not trying to headbutt a hole through the sliding door," and my doubts fluttered away like leaves in the wind (yes - it was that dramatic).

Every day was full of meditation, food preparation, chores (outside and in - in the middle of the day when it was sunny we would often go outside and weed the place, which is more or less impossible, but no moreso than counting to 20), a bit of eating, and one lecture from our resident Abbot. Routine sets in quickly with days like that, and even over just a few nights you begin to become accustomed to everything.

At least, most of us did. Two people left the very first day. One of them was the only girl in attendance, who had some recurring leg problem that made sitting in that particular fashion really painful for her. Or at least, that's my guess. The other guy, probably in his mid or late 20s, just couldn't hack it. We learned later that he rationalized why other people were staying while he was leaving, and told Silverman "Well, those two guys came all the way from Saga, so that's why they're staying..." which we found pretty funny later. Sure, we had come in the same car, and thus used each other as support for staying... but there ARE trains and buses that take us back home, should the need have arisen. This brought our numbers down to a paltry four. So much for the 25 limit.

You find a lot of ways to communicate when you can't talk. Pantomiming was huge, as was any kind of gesturing. We actually left with a lot of really good inside jokes that I'm laughing about even as I write this. Not being able to talk really only makes things more ridiculous, which - if you know me - really says something about how silly you can get just before bed, after all the meditation is done for the day.

Now so far, I've only told you about what happened around me...but inside my head is another story entirely. The goal of Zen is very simple, but difficult - it's to completely embody whatever task you set yourself to without considering a single other thought. When you are pulling weeds, you are pulling weeds. You're not thinking about how hungry you are or the food you'll eat or how much you'd like to sit down. You aren't even thinking, "I am only thinking about pulling weeds" - you just ARE. At least, this is the goal. I think I accomplished it on occasion and by accident, but it was always a flicker, and like so many things you destroyed it by examining it.

The same went for meditation. Your mind is a flurry of thoughts, and mine perhaps moreso than some others. My humor usually takes advantage of this by jumping to bizarre tangents all on its own, but for zazen meditation, this is exactly the opposite of what you want. The goal is 100% focus, completely undisturbed, unconcerned with everything that is not your present. It. Is. HARD.

But it's not a goal without benefit. As Silverman said, "we are absent from most of our lives," and in a way it's very true. Every single day we think of where we'd rather be or what we'll be doing or what we've done, with the result of wanting to be somewhere else. But what we don't realize is that by even thinking about those things, we remove ourselves from our present situation. We are no longer completely where we are meant to be, and it dilutes our present experience. This wandering can creep into any aspect of our life, which is why zen isn't a religion per se, but more like a philosophy or a discipline. It brings you back into your moment, back into your life.

To jump back into the practice of Zen, one of the most interesting parts were the daily one-on-one meetings you could have with Abbot Silverman if you felt up to the task. The first goal was to show that you had proper breathing. My first meeting proved that I had a lot of work to do on it, but the second time it was good enough for me to receive a koan. Almost everybody who reads this knows what a koan is, but doesn't realize what it's called. The best two examples: What is the sound of one hand clapping? And if a tree falls in the forest, and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? I was given neither of these koans, though the answers are probably completely different than you would think...I know that's what I found, at least. Here are the three koans I got in the time I was there -

You walk into a room. There are three tables. On the center table is a football, on the right table is a baseball, and on the left table is a basketball. Which ball is best?

The window is dirty. Clean it.

You approach a great castle. At the top of a castle is a flag. Is the wind moving the flag, or is the flag moving the wind?

I won't reveal the answers here, though as I said before, they are very, very different than what you would think. I had hours to consider each of them, and still the "solution" was difficult to grasp.

This post has gone out of control, so I'm going to wrap it up. I finished the course in its entirety and everything was glorious for the following week or two. Taking a bath was exquisite. The blandest potato tasted like filet mignon. Words came more carefully, their meaning felt more deeply. Unfortunately, this feeling was fleeting, particularly because real life grabbed me and shook me. I haven't had the time or presence of mind to sit since then, and it now feels ages ago. But I know that one day I will get a cushion, I will dim the lights, and I will sit and stare at a wall for an hour. When that's one of your greater ambitions, life comes easy.

Note: This post is super late in coming. The actual dates I went up to Ooita to do this is - October 6th - 10th. Also, this post is brought to you courtesy of Min Deng, who proved to be the final straw that broke this camel's back and finally got me plodding through to completion.


Jessica said...

Yay pictures! XD

You totally should've shaved your head for those 5 days.

M said...

Amazing! You do have a gift for writing - I could actually feel for a moment what you were experiencing and see things as you saw them during that period of time. And those pictures are breath-taking. I can't believe they're not out of a glossy travel magazine. Now I'm breathlessly anticipating the next installment of Brett's adventures :D