Monday, October 10, 2011

Beginner's Mind

My third day (second full day) at Tassajara is the day I finally begin to feel settled. I'm more comfortable physically and clearer mentally, and I'm starting to internalize the schedule, instead of having to run back to the announcement board all the time to check on what I'm supposed to be doing next.

At the morning work meeting we have guests: representatives from Esalen Retreat Center, New Camaldoli Hermitage, and the Esselen Nation. They have gathered here today for the quarterly meeting of the Four Winds Council, the four spiritual centers based in the Ventana Wilderness (Big Sur). An Esselen elder speaks to us about the history of Tassajara. "This is a holy place," he tells us. "Long ago, we used to bring our sick and elderly people here so they could bathe in the healing waters." He welcomes us all to this place and thanks us for taking care of it. This gesture, when taken in context with all that has happened between that long-ago time and now, is breathtaking in its graciousness. He leads us in a joyous call-and-response song of greeting in the Esselen language that brings tears to my eyes. "Ike [ee-KEH]!" he says, in closing, which means "Yes!" or "It is good."

I wish I could lurk in the shadows at the Four Winds Council, but there is work to be done. This morning I am assigned to kitchen duty. I get to crack a whole bunch of eggs in a row, which I enjoy immensely. Then I chop some vegetables. The morning goes quickly; I've never really been into cooking, but I think I could get used to this kind of work.

The kitchen at Tassajara is a well-oiled machine, which comes as no surprise. The place is famous for its food, has inspired several popular cookbooks, and in the summer months feeds hundreds of wealthy guests. Even an influx of volunteers who are unfamiliar with Tassajara ways doesn't seem to faze the kitchen staff. The hierarchy reminds me of my time working on tall ships: the tenzo, or head cook, is responsible for meal planning, much as the captain selects the course a ship will take; the fukuten, or kitchen manager, supervises the kitchen staff and makes sure the tenzo's plans become reality, in the same way that a first mate directs a ship's crew. Today's fukuten delegates the instruction of new folks to other kitchen staff, and before I commence chopping, I am trained in the proper way to use, carry, and clean a Tassajara kitchen knife.

Though it doesn't come up today, later I will learn that work in Tassajara's kitchens is supposed to be conducted in "functional silence" -- speech is only to be used as necessary. I struggle with this; the screened food prep area outside the kitchen seems to me an ideal setting for casual conversation, and I get restless when left to do monotonous work with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain me. I understand that it's a lot easier not to cut yourself when you're fully focused on what you're doing, and I also understand that being present in the task at hand is just as much a part of the spiritual practice at Tassajara as formal meditation. I understand the rule, and I respect it, but I still don't like it. Some fukutens are more strict in their reinforcement of the rule than others, and I find I enjoy kitchen work significantly more when it is more loosely applied.

After lunch I rejoin a couple of my fellow workers from yesterday to deep-clean the Lower Shack, a tiny pantry containing what the work leader describes as "all our controlled substances:" tea, coffee, and sugar. There are also tubs of beans, cleaning supplies, and, alas, ample evidence of Tassajara's mouse population. (As Buddhists have reverence for all forms of life, there are no lethal traps here; however, a couple of monastery cats roam the premises.) The three of us wipe down shelves, tidy up their contents, and move stuff around in the small room as though we're playing that old sliding-tile game. We eschew functional silence in favor of continuing and building upon yesterday's conversations. One of my companions doesn't call herself a Buddhist, but regularly meets with San Francisco Zen Center and has been volunteering for Tassajara work periods for years; the other is a mostly-retired filmmaker who still does occasional work for the National Museum of the American Indian. Both are full of good stories.

At dinner I chat with Allen, another volunteer who practices at San Francisco Zen Center. (SFZC and Tassajara are part of the same organization, as is a third location, Green Gulch Farm; all are residential centers of Zen study, and members frequently circulate between them.) When he learns that I came here knowing next to nothing about Zen, he is eager to answer any questions I may have. Alas, I tell him, I still know too little to even know what questions to ask. He beams. In Zen, he tells me, the quality of beginner's mind is something every expert strives for. Later, in a book by Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of SFZC, I will find the quote he refers to: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
In the beginner's mind there is no thought, "I have attained something." All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.
Allen tells me not to be intimidated by the formality of Zen practice; the formality in itself has no value. Its purpose is to focus your intention and your presence of mind. A lot of people think that the purpose of zazen (meditation) is to empty your mind, he says, but that's not really what it's about. Zazen is about studying yourself in order to know yourself so that, finally, you can forget yourself. If you don't know yourself, you are always going to be getting in your own way. This is the most practical and appealing explanation of zazen I've yet heard. He adds the reassurance that it's more than okay to make mistakes here: "This is the least judgmental place you'll find anywhere."

I appreciate Allen's down-to-earth Zen 101. If I needed any reassurance that what I learn here will be useful to my pursuit of spiritual growth in a Christian context, he has given me plenty. But Zen is kind of a slippery fish. Everyone here I speak to about it will tell me something a little different, giving me a new piece of a complex, multi-dimensional, and often paradoxical puzzle.

This evening, instead of zazen, we meet in the dining hall for a "dharma talk" from Abbot Steve, who has come from SFZC to attend the Four Winds Council earlier today. His address gently rambles between topics, all loosely interconnected. He says that our lives are not separate from the forms of life around us, that our bodies, the body of the earth, the bodies of the crickets we hear in the background, are all one with the body of Buddha. This phrasing is interesting to me because Christians also often refer to the "body of Christ" -- but when we do so, we mean "all the Christians." This "Buddha body" is a much more expansive categorization.

Another contrast appears when he touches on the subject of the afterlife. "Paradise is now," he says, "because there is only the present moment: there is only now... now... now....  To wish for something else, for some other paradise, is kind of disrespectful of this body." I believe in an afterlife, but I have to admire the humble contentedness implied by this statement. I agree that, for me, this life is enough and more; whatever comes after will be... well, I was going to say icing on the cake, but if what I believe is true, it's more the other way round. Still, I live in good health and reasonable prosperity in a wealthy nation, and so, I presume, does Abbot Steve. For us to say that this life is enough is, perhaps, not all that much of a stretch. It seems to me that the promise of comfort beyond this life, or the disavowal of such, holds a very different weight for those who are less comfortable here.

He repeats a story a friend of his told him, about a time when she became frustrated with her carpool buddy's persistent silence. Her irritation built and built until she asked herself, "What if I stop this story in my head about what should be happening? What if I just sit here and be comfortable with my own breath?" And then, she told him, everything seemed to be perfect.

...Until she started overthinking it. But Abbot Steve reminds his listeners: "Being compassionate with one's own tendencies is important, because if you're not compassionate, you won't even know your own tendencies."

"The work of [Zen] practice," he continues, "is to carefully investigate your tendencies, your preferences. Not just your preferences but your obsessions, what drives you. When you notice a 'should', what if you bring in [a spirit of] inquiry and curiosity, rather than one of judgment?... [That feeling] can just be heard and invited to relax. What's the fear behind it? What's driving it?"

After taking a couple of questions from his listeners, he closes by serenading us with a song from the great blues musician Lead Belly, called "Relax Your Mind." Soon we are all joining in on the chorus:

Relax your mind,
Relax your mind
Will help you live
A great long time
Sometime you just got to
Relax your mind.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Day Two at Tassajara

I don't sleep well my first night at Tassajara, and though I hoped for better, I'm not really surprised. As delicious as that dinner was, it's a pretty dramatic shift to go from the diet at the Little Farm (lots of meat, dairy, and cultured foods) to the all-vegetarian, grain-heavy menu of the monastery. I know that wheat is one food that consistently challenges my digestive system, so I resolve to avoid it until I can sleep through the night again. This fast shouldn't be too hard, I figure; the menu for each meal is written out on a whiteboard, with common allergens (dairy, nuts, sugar, garlic) clearly marked.

At 5:30 I hear the wakeup bell: it's a monk or a student running past, ringing a bell, from the student sleeping quarters all the way down to the farthest guest quarters and back again. The two passes have a nice snooze-alarm interval inbetween, but I still have no intention of getting up for this morning's meditation. I rise groggily in time for breakfast at 7:30.

Every breakfast and lunch here begins with what I can't help but think of as a prayer, which we recite together in robot-voice. (Dinner happens immediately after evening service, so presumably the food-blessing is covered in there somehow.) There are laminated copies for those of us who don't know it by heart.

(If you can't read it, click to see it bigger.)
I like this verse, the mindfulness and humble gratitude it communicates, even though I have no idea what some of it means. About a week in, another volunteer explains about the Three Treasures: they are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher (of the truth), and the Dharma is the teaching (the truth that is taught). The Sangha is the community (of truth-seekers).

After breakfast we gather for the first work meeting of the day. The work meetings, after breakfast and lunch, bring the community together for announcements and work assignments. They follow a predictable pattern: bowing to the shrine and to one another, introductions from new arrivals, farewells from those who are leaving, announcements from senior staff, general announcements, lost-and-found announcements, and work assignments.  Everyone stands in a big circle (after lunch, most of us wincing in the bright sun), and the proceedings are guided by that day's work leader.

My first assignment is to work with three other women to deep-clean the Upper Shack, a kind of pantry which will see less use in the winter months. It's pleasant work, with no rush or stress attached to it, and I enjoy getting to know my fellow workers as we scrub and sweep. I'm grateful to be doing something low-key today, because I'm not in great shape after last night. We continue this job after lunch, wrap up and go find the work leader for another assignment, and are sent to clean the bathroom attached to the zendo. As this three-seat bathroom is cleaned daily, it's hardly grueling work either, and we finish up with a little time to spare. Thus ends my first seven-hour work day at Tassajara.

We have a new roommate, Karen, filling the empty third bed in Cabin 10. Elaine (my existing roommate) has news: she's leaving. This morning, while working, the thought came to her: "This is not where I need to be right now." She let the idea linger for a while without latching onto it, and finally concluded it was, indeed, time to go. She speaks with the work leader and one of the priests and gets their approval (reluctantly, I suspect); she'll be leaving in the morning. It strikes me as ironic, how settled she seemed last night, and yet how certain she is today that it's time to go. I respect her ability to listen to her intuition -- this is something I'm trying to be better at, myself -- but at the same time I'm sorry to see her leave. There has been something very familiar about the easy way we latched onto each other from the get-go, something that reminds me of summer camp cabin-buddies and the way little girls can form instant friendships based on proximity.

As dusk begins to fall, the sound of mallet striking board rings out over the grounds, and I shuffle over to the zendo for evening zazen, or meditation. You remove your shoes and place them on a shelf, then walk down the engawa (the exterior walkway, worn smooth by many bare feet) to the zendo's front entrance. You enter with your left foot first, bow, and fold your hands properly before proceeding to the other side of the zendo, where someone with a clipboard will assign you a seat. (The clipboard is only necessary in seasons when there are visitors, such as now; the regulars have regularly assigned seating.) Then you bow before entering the row you've been assigned, and bow to your seat before arranging the cushions, parking your bum on them, and rotating clockwise to face the plain white wall. You arrange your legs as close to the lotus position as you can manage, and maybe stretch a little, and then you stop moving for 40 minutes. Or at least, that's the idea.

The first ten or fifteen minutes of this are wonderful. It's been quite a while since I took time to just be still, to stop overthinking everything and just rest my mind. And here in this quiet place it is easy to be conscious of the Divine, of how beyond close and how beyond vast is God. This awareness is deeply joyous for me, and I silently revel in it.

Then, alas, my body catches up with me. My thigh is sore, my shoulder hurts, my neck is stiff, my ear itches. I can temporarily resolve many of these discomforts with a few moments' focus, concentrating on sending warmth and light to that painful joint or stretched muscle, but it's a short-term fix, and I end up spending the rest of the time chasing discomfort around my body and hoping it's over soon so I can lie down. I'm no meditation expert, but I'm pretty sure that's not the way this is supposed to work.

The session closes with a slow pattern of drumbeats and bells, and a small amount of singing/chanting words I do not understand. I return to my room feeling stiff, but stilled, and sleep much more soundly.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Settling In (or Not)

People carrying trays of food walk back and forth between kitchen and dining hall, and the rest of us loiter in the courtyard between, waiting for dinner. Many of us are drinking tea from the self-serve tea/coffee bar, with which I am utterly delighted.

Just look at all those tea options in the white jars!

Finally, everyone forms two lines facing each other, and at the signal of two sticks of wood clacking, all bow with hands pressed together. We proceed casually into the dining hall, each bowing once more before picking up a plate and silverware. Again this nudge toward mindfulness; it's like saying grace without words.

Dinner is some kind of amazingly delicious kale/garlic/cheese glop over rice, chips with salsa and guacamole, a tasty salad with grapefruit and jicama, and chocolate pecan pie with giant bowls of real whipped cream. Wow. I load my plate up and find an empty seat.

Tassajara's year cycles from the busy summer months, when it opens to vacationers as a hot springs resort, to the austere winter season of study and meditation. Inbetween are the spring and fall work periods, when volunteers are invited in to help with cleaning, repairs, and preparation for the season to come. Just now, when everyone is dressed casually, it's impossible to guess who is a volunteer and who is a resident, let alone what sort of hierarchy exists within the monastery itself. My dinner companions turn out to be volunteers who have been here many times before. They are full of helpful information and interesting stories.

One tells about the great forest fire of 2008, when the entire facility was evacuated except for five monks, who chose to stay and protect the monastery from fiery doom. The story of how they successfully did so was published this year in a book called Fire Monks, which proves easily the most-talked-about book of this two-week session. It was written by "a friend of Tassajara," as one resident describes her, and during my time here I will discuss it with many people, all of whom seem to think it was quite well done. I'll acquire a copy from the bookstore at 10% off on my last day here, thinking, I'd like to write this kind of thing someday, and eventually even get around to reading it (though at the time of this writing, that last bit hasn't happened yet).

After dinner, I do a bit of exploring with my new roommate. We wander quietly through a lovely garden full of flowers and herbs.

Elaine has heard mention of a free box somewhere around here. We both like free stuff (and I have some stuff to give away), so we are determined to find it. It turns out we were misinformed, though; in the student quarters, we locate an entire wall of well-organized shelves of free things. This is good resource management; I like it!

Soon enough, the bell is ringing from the zendo. Tonight, instead of the regularly scheduled meditation, there will be a special full moon ceremony. I figure this will be a great introduction to Zen Buddhism.

In retrospect, I think it may not have been the best way to begin. I've been feeling an underlying resistance against this place since I arrived, specifically the Buddhist aspects of it, or rather, how I imagine them to be. I imagine Buddhists are supposed to be very serene and impassive, quiet and restrained. I mean, that's what Zen means, right?* But I don't feel like a serene person. I feel like I have to fake calmness to fit in, which makes me feel cramped.

*(No. But we'll get to that later.)

And there's a further complication here: I'm a Christian. Though I'm genuinely interested in learning about Buddhism, and strongly suspect there is a lot to be learned here that will complement my own faith, I'm expecting not to be wholly on board with this whole Buddha-program. So all of this underlying resistance kind of comes to a head during this ceremony.

There is a lot of standing, bowing and kneeling, a lot of bells and drums and chimes with a lot of silences inbetween. I have no idea what's going on, but it does go on... and on. There is ceremonial lighting of incense (Tassajara uses the good stuff, which, unlike most incense, doesn't irritate my throat) and lots of chanting in various languages. (Here is the text of the ceremony in PDF.) The English-language chanting is done in the same way as the traditional Japanese: monotone, without the normal inflections of speech. It sounds like everyone is pretending to be a robot. The priest leading the chanting has some odd nasal intonations which give him an extra robot-y voice. I like this aspect of the ceremony, and I enjoy chanting along with some of the stuff I can understand and agree with. But this evening, the things I don't agree with hold my focus. I don't claim to take refuge in Buddha; Buddha is just all right with me. I'm not nonviolent; in fact, I can think of a number of situations in which violence sounds like a fairly good idea. I'm not interested in forswearing intoxicants, and while I agree it's bad to speak ill of others, I'm pretty sure I haven't done that for the last time.

Another part of my discomfort is that I'm forced to rely on the guidance of others to direct me through this ceremony, and it makes me uncomfortable not to know what I'm supposed to do next. And another part is that I'm really, really tired. All of this adds up to me being good and sick of the ceremony by the time it finally ends (it's probably been all of about 40 minutes, but it feels like forever) and I can go to bed. Lying down feels very, very good.

Before I fall asleep, I flash back to a moment after dinner when Elaine said contentedly, "I feel like I've been here forever." She explained that she feels she's fully arrived in this place, not still thinking back to home and what's behind her. And indeed she seems to have wholly settled in. I don't feel that way at all. When I close my eyes I'm still behind my bug-splattered windshield, lurching white-knuckled over that rocky mountain road, and when I stare at the ceiling I can only hope to feel half as settled before the two weeks of Work Period are up.