ROUSED BY THE ALARM at 4 a.m., I get up to sit. Just to sit. An hour or more of Zen meditation before my more "public" day begins.
Sunday morning at the Zen Center, or Zendo, is more intensive than the usual weeknight periods. I especially enjoy the chanting of morning service. I used to resist it; I was always out of breath, yawning. I didn't understand Pali or Japanese. Nor did I truly understand the English verses in the deepest sense. This with three degrees in English literature.
In 1977, as a newly ordained Zen Buddhist lay priest, I found morning service a nerve-wracking experience. My hands shook when I bowed or lit the incense. Two portions of the service require recitation of the Buddhist lineage from memory. During the preceding verses, I would struggle to rehearse the forthcoming names. Impossible. Like trying to rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time. Finally, I realized that I should simply chant the names when their turn came, not before. It I made a mistake, I simply made a mistake. That's all.
Dan and I prepare to paint and paper the interior of a friend's house. We try to work mindfully, well focused, Zen practice in motion.
I make a living at small carpentry jobs, minor-league cabinetmaking and painting, today's kind of right livelihood, while I try to recreate may life itself through Zen.
Recently, ministering to the growing number of students who practice at the Zendo has become more of a full-time job. Dozens of people sit several times a week. Calls and letters come in from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. Colleges send classes to us for a taste of Zazen -- sitting meditation.
It's a very busy life. When Shirley and I were married five years ago, I spoke about the quiet Zen life I envisioned for the two of us. It has become anything but quiet. And we wouldn't want it any other way.
Sections of the ceiling are incredibly rough. I can't seem to scrape or sand it smooth. Have to accept the roughness there. Maybe the flat paint will help conceal it. Some of the woodwork is actually imbedded with sand, a result of the previous owner's attempt to mask cracks with texture. It is gritty everywhere, and hard going.
Some people think that in Zen practice you are supposed to stop thinking, cancel yourself out, become null and void. What really happens, I find, is that we stop the stopping. Tensions are caused by our tendency to lock into, freeze up on, certain ideas or emotions or beliefs. Body and mind alike become habitually rigid, deadened, in the midst of life's flow. All Zen practice asks is that we allow ourselves to participate in the flow.
I scrape at the wall. The work is hard. But what really gets in my way is the wall I create in my mind between myself and the real task at hand. Why do I resist? Bit by bit, we spackle all the holes and cracks, keeping our hands in the rough reality of the work.
Last weekend, I overheard my 80-year-old mother say, "I'm not Zen. I'm Presbyterian."
I am up at 5, but instead of sitting, I attempt a few notes for my talk at the College of William and Mary on Thursday. A Catholic priest has invited me to give a presentation on Zen for a graduate course in "Advanced Counseling Theories." He wonders if I could shed some light on the parallels he sees between Zen and psychotherapy.
The painting goes well. We finish the ceilings and most of the woodwork. Tomorrow, we begin to paper. Next week, we'll install a skylight.
This evening, I forget that I have scheduled private conferences with my Zen students. Fourteen people show up, and I have to apologize to them. So much is happening these days. It is embarrassing to forget.
A few new faces show up in the Zendo this evening. Each Wednesday (newcomer's) night, we alternate short sits with walking meditation. Sutra chanting, tea and conversation follow. Sometimes as many as 25 new people struggle to sit quietly, count their breath, concentrate on the here-and-nowness of what they are doing.
When the Zendo is empty of people, it is naturally quiet. When the Zendo is full of quiet people, then the silence is rich and thick.
I used to wonder about this business of being a so-called Zen teacher. Actually, there is nothing to teach, no way to teach, no one to teach it, no one to teach it to. One can only learn -- or un learn -- for oneself. As I ring the bell for the second sit, somebody's haiku comes to mind: "Along this road goes on one./The evening cool!"
I love Wednesday nights.
Shirley and I take our time on the way to Williamsburg. As I drive, I think about my children: Leslie, my two sons, taller than I. I have been practicing Zazen since 1967, when their mother and I were divorced. When I lost my last teaching post. When I came close to a nervous breakdown. The divorce caused us all a terrific anguish. I think that we are all just now getting over it. The sitting has helped me. I don't know what has helped them
Ten miles north of Williamsburg, I realize that I have left my notes for today's class on the bureau back home. So much for Zen mindfulness.
There are about 15 students. After a short period of Zazen, I simply invite their questions. I talk for nearly two hours. And never miss my notes.
Afterward, some of us go out for pizza and beer. We don't talk about Zen. We just enjoy ourselves.
Leaving Williamsburg, Shirley and I notice graffiti on a water tower. Fraternity symbols. A yinyang diagram. And there, in bold, black letters about four feet high, are the letters Z-E-N. We can hardly believe our eyes.
Our first intensive weekend retreat, or sesshin, in several months. Shirl has worked hard, buying food and baking bread. She also makes sitting cushions and sleeping mattresses -- futons -- as a source of extra cash.
Sesshin is a combination of terms which means, more or less, "to focus the mind." To that end, we get up at 4, down a quick cup of coffee and drive to the Zendo.
Fifteen other participants are stirring about the building, brushing their teeth, bracing themselves for the day. Dominic practices tai chi on the rear deck, his black sweater and trousers making his movements seem a mysterious dance in the darkness.
Sutra chanting takes us from 5 to 6 a.m., then we're on our way into 36 hours or so of intensive effort. This is the first sesshin for most in attendance, so I am content not to push too hard.
Stick in hand, I walk slowly between the two rows of people sitting with ardent concentration. I strike those who ask to be struck, hard, twice on each shoulder muscle. Sometimes I think I have very few friends. And yet, these are all my friends.
Crack! Crack! When I first started to use the keisaku years ago, I would cry as I hit people with it
The day continues: Zazen, dharma-talk, Zazen, lunch, Zazen, sutra chanting, Zazen, supper, Zazen, Zazen.
When it is all over, a kind of party evolves on the rear deck. Nearly all of us share funny stories about the pain we've experienced off and on throughout the weekend. Now we're feeling relaxed and happy, loving, renewed. No one knows how Zazen works. It just does.
The phone rings. A Japanese gentleman would like me to perform a wedding for him and his wife. Already married in the legal sense, they now wish a Buddhist religious ceremony. I tell him that it will be a great pleasure.