Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fear and Zazen in Norfolk

Last weekend I attended my second proper sesshin - two and a half days of zazen, Buddhist teachings and ceremony, work, silence and socialising. I enjoyed it tremendously of course.

I'm not the most sociable of people - I like to have my own personal space and time, which was a slight issue for me - but they were a great crowd of people, and the atmosphere was great and I made a few new friends.

I found the extended periods of zazen easier than last time. My posture is better - I didn't get the tense painful shoulders this time and I've almost got my sit-in-lotus-without-leg-going-completely-numb technique perfected. Also I have a greater acceptance now of discomfort which makes it easier to tolerate. And although my mind still wanders a lot, I think my Zazen was deeper - I certainly noticed a difference to my sitting when I came out, which was considerably deeper.

The Gudo, Jean Pierre, (who I just found out has a physics PhD) is perhaps slightly less approachable than Guy (the Gudo at my last sesshin), but I really enjoyed his teaching style. He's clearly a very intelligent man with a profound understanding of Buddhism. He put a new and refreshing emphasis on appreciation and expression of gratitude (even if we know not who or what to be grateful to), getting away from the tendency to interpret Zen as a sort of nihilism or amoralism, which is prevalent is a great deal of western thinking about Zen. There are two sides of the coin and the True Way is a path taken between them.

There was one incident, however, which I found really hard. I had a question I wanted to ask during the mondo (formally and publically asking the Gudo questions). I kept turning the question over in my mind, imagining the amusing way in which I was going to deliver it. However, although I got up and asked Guy a question last time, for some reason this time I couldn't summon the nerve. I've done the highest bungee jump in the world without hesitation (twice) and I've been cage diving with great white sharks, but public speaking still terrifies the wits out of me. (On the way home Gaby told me that there's a book on overcoming fear of public speaking called 'And Death came Third' - because public speaking comes top of people's fears and death comes third , don't know what comes second)

So after the mondo I asked the Secretary if it was possible to speak to the Gudo more privately at some point. Immediately I was suprised to be hurried into the room where he was sitting closely with what I can only describe as his 'Inner Circle' all of whom of course went silent and I was asked to divulge my question.

My mind went completely blank.

The question had gone. I was aware only of massive amounts of adrenaline rushing around in my brain and my consciousness of the attention of the people in the room. It was my first proper meeting with Jean Pierre and while at some level I had probably hoped to impress him and the senior practitioners around him with my understanding of Buddhism, instead I was exposing myself as being about as 'un-zen' as it is possible to be. There go my fantasies about reacting spontaneously and unselfconsciously to a roshi's koan. I made self-depreciating remarks to hide my embarrassment and buy some time, but there it was - I had intruded on the Gudo outside of the mondo with my little question and now I couldn't remember it and I was standing there like an idiot, watched by all the most important people at the sesshin. I was mortified with embarrassment. A timely reminder of suffering in the midst of my cosy zen thoughts perhaps. It felt like I was there for about a minute trying to remember the question but it was probably half that. Anyway after a bit of prompting I remembered my question: 'You were talking about the Buddhist teaching that 'Nothing is hidden'. Can you explain further what it means?' He explained it in terms of the famous Butterfly Effect - of effects resonating across the universe. It didn't mean that at any point in space and time we had access to all information. Ah it means that nothing is cut-off or separate, I thought. I stood and gassho'ed to the Gudo with a smile saying 'Thank you very much'. He asked for my name, and I actually felt a secret reluctance when I gave it to him, as if at some level I hoped instead that he and everyone else in the room would forget all about it and forget all about me and I could leave the room and it would be as if it had never happened.

I sat with these feelings through an hour and a half of Zazen. After that I needed to speak to Rosemary who was playing the role of Agony Nun for the weekend, and fortunately just after that we all had a few drinks to celebrate the last night of the sesshin. That helped too. I came to thank Jean Pierre when it was time to leave and he told me to keep up the brave face - and he shook my hand and told me that a question about Buddhist philosophy was like a gift to him. Very gracious.

It was a good lesson, all round.