[Tassajara monastery has no internet and I had no computer there in 1999. I completed writing this letter by hand and then sent the pages through the US postal service to my housemate and friend Rich, who typed it in, and emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
Starting now, emailing me is the best way to write to me, please don’t write me any more snail mail down here (and, for those of you who never got off your lazy ass to contact me to begin with and didn’t plan on doing so now, please ignore this directive).
So…the diagnostic apparatus available appear to indicate that I will be home soon (April Eighth — also, by “home”, I mean “San Francisco,” not “Nirvana with no bodily remnant“). As these last days go by, not much has been changing that could be seen from the outside, except that the days are longer. Inside, they continue to get more predictable and comfortable. Also, something deep has been transforming for me here, I am unsure how to describe it. As I’ve said in past emails, I sometimes feel a sense of peace, energy, insight, and clarity here that normal life, with its nearly constant striving and its numerous minute dissipations of focus, often lacks for me. Examples include: feeling chill while doing complex activities like the food serving procedure, reading books or listening to people and feeling like I’m really getting what is being said, and noticing and correcting (where appropriate) mistakes or problems with minimal internal “brouhaha” over the process. I’ve noticed that little meditation seems to open me up in ways that I can easily see, a medium amount doesn’t seem to do a lot more, but a whole lot seems to open the phone line to the groove of the universal soul.
I further think that, at this point, I may have “figured out the social thing” here. All at once, a couple days after I sent out my last email lamenting my people-themed misadventures, it seemed clear to me that everyone here loves me (and sometimes tells me so in those words). I sometimes still have interactions that are tense or otherwise unpleasant (especially with my serving crew head), but mostly I share many moments each day of jovial merriment and honest conversation with my fellow sangha (Buddhist community) members. These days, most of them seem less like annoying/intimidating strangers, and more like good people and friends.
Most days, I wear a big, heavy, traditionally East Asian black robe outside of my other clothes for most of the day. Like guinea pigs do, this robe has made it clear to me that it does not enjoy being washed, so most days, I wear a slightly rank, big, heavy, traditionally East Asian black robe outside of my other clothes for most of the day.
I suppose that it goes without saying that I haven’t eaten meat or drunk alcohol or had much physical contact with other people since I got here. I also, with a few small exceptions, have not listened to any music while here. Accordingly, my first two weeks back in the City will be filled with loud rock music, hamburgers, drinking, gambling, freebasing cocaine, misusing sexuality, lying and slandering, and harboring ill-will. More realistically, I actually imagine that my first week back will involve camping out in my room, unpacking, doing laundry, sleeping, doing my taxes, and seeing friends.
As I’ve said, we sit meditation two to eight hours a day. Sometimes, during this time, I sit in the half-lotus position (Indian style, with left foot on right thigh), and other times I sit on a little bench. Sometimes, I watch my breath go in and out of my belly and I take note of things that go through my awareness that are anything besides my breath, and then I return my awareness to my breath. Sometimes, I do something similar, but with body sensations instead of the breath. Sometimes, on the rare occasions when doing either of those leaves my body feeling less free and more like a stinging chunk of concrete, I sit there and say to myself, “open to it, allow it, be with it” or “I am a fragment of the infinite” over and over for forty minutes.
We have an hour study time most mornings, and I also often read during what free time I have, and I’ve read some powerhaus books while here. I should say that I’ve gotten twenty to seventy pages into seven or eight books and stopped reading them because I found them boring, dogmatic, depressing, not relevant to my life here, too spicy for my monastery life, or otherwise uncaptivating. I’ve also completed reading a few books (“Shambala” by Chogyam Trungpa, “Breath Sweeps Mind: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation” by the Editors of Tricycle Magazine, “Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels and Reformers” by Besserman and Steger) that left me minimally impressed. “The Zen of Recovery” that I recommended in an earlier email, however, I ummm …. recommend. I also greatly dug a book called “The Eye That Never Sleeps” by Dennis Genpo Merzel (a dharma heir of Maezumi Roshi, LA Zen Center). It’s a good roundup of the basics of Buddhist and Zen ideas, cogently and enthusiastically presented. I also loved “Despite What You Have Been Led to Believe, There’s Nothing Wrong With You” by Cheri Huber, a book on people’s perfectionist attempts to get a handle on and improve themselves. It brought me insight, for example, to consider that when people are unkind it is often more about their self-hate than anything else.
Finally, I am about two hundred pages into a five hundred page book called “I Am That“, by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. This book is trans-cosmic Advaita Hinduism presented in laser-focused, concentrated, super-undiluted, ass-kicking manner, transcripts of talks given by a twentieth-century enlightened teacher who lived in Mumbai. It is interesting to me to see, while reading the book, connections between two Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as read the words of one who as fully accomplished the goal that spiritual seekers aim towards. To anyone who has made a study of Asian religion for a while, and gotten through the beginner and intermediate levels and feels ready for something advanced, I recommend this book, it’s the straight dope.
We really are in the middle of a vast wilderness here. I realized that more fully the other day while running on a trail through the hills: running uphill with bushes and leafy plants tangling against our legs as we raced past, large vistas of many tree- and grass-covered hills rolling off into the distance, going downhill with sunlit trees overhead, edging along a rocky cliff, fording a river so cold it made our ears hurt, picking ticks off our legs and necks back at the temple.
A majority of people here have gotten sick at some point since the start of this thing. And, even though hygiene is unmistakably a low priority here, I have stayed healthy. Maybe it’s the “spiritual vibe” that I’m on, maybe I have superior genes, maybe I am the coming of the übermench (Nietzsche’s “overman,” the next stage of human evolution). I wonder if I still qualify as the übermench despite an ingrown hair, poison oak, and a cracked heel (from fungus).
* My roommate and I agreed, past a certain point, not to talk during no-talking hours (seven-thirty each night to twelve-thirty PM the next day). We still say, “excuse me” to each other, though, when we jostle for the sink in the morning.
* There are two dogs here. They get a lot of attention.
* There is a heated pool here, with lanes for swimming in. I guess people use it a lot during the summer, when Tassajara is a resort. Some of the monks swim in it now, to keep in shape. I’ve scrubbed it and siphoned leaves off the bottom, but, having not brought “trunks”, I have never swum in it.
These emails go out to about thirty or forty people, some of whom are my best friends, some of whom I don’t know that well, some of whom are ordained Zen Buddhist priests with dharma transmission, some of whom have a stated minimal interest in Buddhism, some of whom are in their early twenties, some of whom are in their late fifties, some of whom are “macho” and businesslike, some of whom are flowy and cosmic, some of whom are ex-girlfriends, some of whom are my parents. So, if the tone or level of self-disclosure or level of detail that I take in them inappropriate for the relationship between you the reader and me … uhh … tough shit (sorry for being so brusque. As soon as I finish writing this email, I will start my new plan to be kind and courteous to all people at all times).
May the force be with you. I am pleased with the thought of seeing many of you soon.
Without love all is evil. Life itself without love is evil. What can “make you” love? You are love itself – when you are not afraid.
— Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj