Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My first sesshin

A sesshin is a Zen retreat. In one sense I think 'retreat' is an appropriate word since you are withrawing from the stresses and distractions of 'worldly' life for a while. On the other hand, the purpose of doing this is to confront yourself and existence in a very direct way without flinching. Sitting there with nothing to distract you for hours and hours, there's just nowhere to hide any more.

This post is somewhat belated since it refers to the sesshin I attended in November, but hey, I didn't have a blog then.

I've taken a while to get around to attend a proper sesshin - mainly because I was intimidated by the prospect of sitting for so long with nothing to distract me, but also because of circumstances. Also I thought we were going to be eating gruel all day.

On the whole, the food was great, although I didn't have an urge to cook up a big pot of genmai (a sort of cross between porridge and vegetable soup). Meals were generally ritualised, and largely silent. The atmosphere was warm and friendly.

I've not really placed much importance on the ritualistic aspects of Zen, seeing them as mere religious and cultural trappings. I don't wear or even own a kimono. I don't see a purpose for it at this time. However in the context of a sesshin at least, everyone in black robes was at least visually clean and added to a sense of ritual. Whether this offsets my concern of attachment to rituals, trappings and religiosity in general is another matter. For now I remain a 'plain clothes' student of Zen.

One thing I noticed was that at times during the ritual of meals and between all the long zazen sittings, I managed to remain very focussed and aware in a way that I wouldn't normally.

Something else interesting I noticed during the zazen was a sense of discursive thought as a sort of bodily function, like digestion, or breathing, or the beating of my heart. We tend to automatically accept the virtual world of our thoughts as reality even if our thoughts are that we are mistaken or that we cannot know anything. Thoughts just bubbled away sometimes and then stopped. I didn't take them as real. I think this is what Deshimaru meant when he said Think with your whole body.

In spite of having a slight phobia of public speaking and in spite of being intimidated by the Godo (oh my god, he's a Zen Master! stupidness) I'm proud to say that I got up during the Mondo session, bowed to the Godo and asked a question. Godo Guy Mercier (if you didn't guess) is French and although his English is good, he used a translator to help with the mondo.

Me: "To recieve ordinations in Soto Zen, is it necessary to believe in traditional buddhist concepts of Karma and Rebirth?"

Godo: "No... you do need to have faith"

Me: [thinking he was talking about faith in the reality of literal karma and rebirth] "I don't think I could ever accept something on faith alone"

Godo: "Continue to practice, sew your rakusu and study the sutras."

I bowed politely. Disappointing I thought, but I don't need formally recognised ordination to continue to practice.

One of the priests came and spoke to me afterwards to clarify that this was all based on a language problem. The Godo had been referring to confidence in the practice, not blind faith in Karma, rebirth or other such obscure metaphysical processes.

Being the moment

I had 'an experience' during Zazen a few weeks ago.

I had become aware that no matter how focussed I was, there was still a residue of self there - a sense that the phenomena in my awareness were being observed. Right at the end of a half-day zazen session, Rose - the lady who directs our sittings - said a few words about 'being one with the moment'. I 'tried to become one with the moment', wondering what it meant exactly and suddenly it seemed as if there was not the slightest bit of space between 'myself' and 'phenomena'. This lasted for several minutes and then I had a powerful sense that 'me' and 'that moment' were one and the same thing. There was 'only one'. It wasn't an idea, it was a direct experience (without an 'experiencer').

Now, I'm not sure if this would be classified as a 'Kensho' experience or not - unlike the Rinzai sect, the Soto Zen sect doesn't place much importance on such events and Rose said she didn't feel qualified to assess my experience. But she did say, and I've heard the same advice many times, that it was important not to be attached to the experience - not to try to reproduce it.

It seems like wise advice but then again it doesn't seem difficult to take myself through the same steps - instead of 'just sitting' actively try to 'become one with' phenomena in the same way only to realise once again in a very direct way that that 'I cannot avoid being one with phenomena'.

Ahh...the temptation to the dark side is strong...

...Back to the washing up.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Just sitting

I've been practicing Soto Zen for about four years now.

The main practice is zazen, which can be described as a form of meditation. It involves just sitting still, preferably in a stable posture such as the lotus position and paying attention to what is going on without being caught up in thoughts or imagination. It's about facing reality - the reality of life, the reality of ourselves, the reality of phenomena. We have a tendency to try to escape from reality, not just in the obvious ways such movies, drugs and so on, but into the virtual reality of our streams of thought and imagination. The practice of Zazen is too pay attention to what is actually going on right now. When thoughts or images arise we observe them and ourselves as they arise, and we watch them pass without being captured by them. We don't mistake this constructed, virtual world for the real thing.

Friday, December 23, 2005

David and Keith from Six Feet Under

Emily and I are both big fans of Six Feet Under - great storylines, superbly observed characters. When we watched of course there were certain characters that we each identified with. I tended to identify with Nate and still do, even though he's been acting like a bit of an idiot since Lisa died. But something which became increasingly obvious with time was the similarity of the relationship between David and Keith and our own relationship.

This brings us no end of amusement - partly because they are both men but mainly because of the sheer uncanniness of the similarities. Even the lines they use are the same. Even though I'm not a black gay ex-cop I *am* Keith and even though Emily isn't a white gay funeral director she *is* David.

I'll have to be careful what I say here because I'm bound to be biased but Keith tends to be straightforward, easy-going and practical, although sometimes a bit moody and emotionally closed. David is more emotional and neurotic, but hard-working and dedicated . The resulting dynamic is very similar to the one between Emily and myself. Even some of the lines are the same.

David lines:
"Now I walk around all the time feeling like everybody's gonna humiliate and murder me."

Keith lines:
"Let it go!"

There's a scene where David arrives home planning to eat with Keith. Keith is sitting watching TV with an empty pizza box in front of him with a guilty expression on his face. That's a familiar scene.

Although sometimes they seem very different and although they have fights, they love each other very much and their relationship is actually the most sucessful and lasting in the show. Just like them, Emily and I have our fights but we adore each other and we have a great relationship.

I want to become Japanese

This is a translation of a Japanese T-Shirt I have.

I have a fascination Japanese culture, especially classical Japanese culture.

I suppose it started when I read James Clavell's 'Shogun' as a teenager and then I got that adolescent fascination with ninja and martial arts and so on, but there's more to it than that. Traditional Japanese culture is both very alien to the West, complex and highly refined.

It's influenced by Zen of course, which I have a special fascination with. And it is the birthplace of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest film directors - or even one of the greatest story-tellers - of all time.

What with being a father and saving to buy a house, incredible as it sounds, I've yet to visit Japan in person - although its certainly high on my 'To do' list.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

God backwards

Emily and I are planning to get a dog. Actually it's mainly Emily that wants one. She was very close to her ex-dog 'Willy' who in spite of not being terribly well-adjusted himself, helped her through some pretty tough times. She's already bought a little name tag that reads 'I can lick my balls' for a boy-dog and another that says 'Sniff my bum' for a girl-dog. Sweet isn't it?

Anyway we were having a discussion about what this potential pet of ours could be called. We decided to call it 'God'. Perhaps 'Backwards' could be its middle name? Thing is, we'll probably get him from a pound or a sanctuary so chances are he'll already have a name.

Starting a blog

This blog thing seems to be working OK now. If only I could think of something to say...

I won't bore you with a long biography and a bunch of 'facts' about me. I'll let my words speak for themselves.