[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]
I wrote most of my last letter after being here about three weeks. I imagine that this letter will be sent out sometime after eight weeks here. Time is clearly passing. The hours of sunlight of each day are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer. Sometimes. during the day, I am even hot, which would have been shocking during the frozen month of January. My first week here dragged forever, but now it is another day before I know it (similarly to how, in running, the first time I run a new route it seems to last for weeks, but after running the route fifty times, it goes from starting out to finishing up without much in between).
Tonight we have a special event: a skit/poetry night. I am jumping in and doing a short skit dramatizing the Buddha as a customer service representative responding to a complaint about a credit card overcharge by saying things like, “the cause of your suffering is your clinging to the illusion of separate selfhood”, and the like. I’ll see how much mirth and merriment arises. Despite continued efforts to focus on my own inner work and to not prioritize making friendships, the fact is that I am here for a quarter of a year, and I do seem to keep trying to figure out the social thing here ( … as if I ever have figured it out anywhere else). The social thing here, for me, is sometimes satisfying, but rarely satisfying with much stability or depth. Many people are weird here, compared with what I’m used to … or maybe I’m weird here … or maybe socializing is weird here. On that note, we are under such pressure and in such tight proximity all day every day, that, even despite the Buddha-style chilling out, many people seem to report some community-living-themed irritation is present for them. I, for example, have had several rootin’ tootin’ showdowns with people, but, pleasantly, the episodes seem to have mostly resolved themselves with some good old-fashioned “sharing.”
I didn’t come here to make friends, however, I feel like I already have plenty (and you just may be one of them) — for example, when I hear about events back home, I usually have a feeling of missing out. What I did come here for, it seems clear to me, is meditation, learning from the teacher Tenshin Reb Anderson, and studying/reading.
Meditation continues to be excellent. I often feel high during and after it – feeling like I am just being myself, with notably more integration and feeling of unconstricted freedom than normal life seems to bring. Our first month had ten days of sitting on a cushion and facing a wall all day, but this second month has had none, instead having a bunch of days where we worked all day. The last month here, however, will have both a four-day and a seven-day Sesshin (Japanese for “cultivating the heart/mind” — which means a day of all-day meditation) scheduled. So, soon, we look to be getting down with the hard-core get down once again.
In the teacher partition of the monastery hard drive, six days ago, Tenshin Roshi left for two weeks to run a retreat in Vancouver. I feel the absence – his teachings give a large part of the value and meaning to my being here. For a while, I was thinking to myself, “y’know, after five years of studying with him, I don’t believe in the myth of Reb the Great Master anymore.” I think that I was feeling this way because he seems generally relatively impersonal and unemotional in his dealings with me and other students. But, having a long talk with him where I asked how I could best learn from him and after continuing to go to his lectures, I have come to the opinion that he is a deeply realized (ie: enlightened, mentally and spiritually healthy, not-fucked-up) being.
He continues to kick down powerhouse teachings. For example, one day he said that whatever a person says to you — “I love you” or “I hate you” or anything in between — none of it matters, what’s important is to see that, on the most fundamental level, nothing but love arises from all beings to all other beings constantly (this is a difficult one to get, I think, but satisfying when gotten – it means dealing with people on the level of their souls, not their personalities). He also recommends having a “mind like a wall”, which means letting what is seen just be what is seen without manipulation by the mind, merely saying, “oh” and “is that so?” to things as the arise internally and externally, rather than having a mind like a cocktail party (ie: anxiously trying to figure out who is the best person to talk to, how long to talk with them before moving on, what people are saying about me, etc.). He also suggested giving ourselves the space to be ourselves fully, and to give other people the space to be themselves fully, and that if other people do not give us the space to be ourselves fully … to give them the space to not give us the space to be ourselves fully, and then to give ourselves the space to be ourselves fully. These are teachings that … well … I just plain like. Is that so wrong?
Different subject: every morning, we chant a list of a lineage of about ninety teachers, from mythical pre-historical Buddhas before “The Buddha,” to the Japanese priest Shunryu Suzuki who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. I used to have both respect/awe and pity/contempt for non-priest commoners who chanted the list from memory. Did they really take the time to memorize such an otherwise useless document? But now I can chant about a third of the long list of names before needing to open the chant book. What does this signify?
Same subject: three years ago (or ten years ago, for that matter), I used to understand, believe in, and live the Buddhist religion completely. Today, I understand, believe in, and am living Buddhism ten times as much as I did back then, and it seems to me that I barely understand, believe, or am living Buddhism. I have realized more about the hugeness of the religion, and I am more aware of the shortfall between my practice and my intention/aspiration.
For example: the Buddha is reputed to have determined that human suffering comes from three psychological factors called “kleshas” or “poisons.” The first is attachment/addiction/craving/neediness/greed (examples being a compulsion to get high, drink alcohol, eat, or watch TV, needing love, an irresistible desire to be distracted or entertained, holding on to a soul draining job because of the rewards of money security and comfort). The second is aversion/not dealing/closing up/avoiding/hatred (examples being tightening shoulders around ears when it’s cold, avoiding a friend when there is an issue to work out, staying in a shower for a long time because it’s cold in the house, not having a relationship for five years, going to work late because you hate your job). The third klesha, the one that the Buddha thought was at the root of the other two, is unconsciousness/delusion/not being present/being overly subjective (examples: obsessing on plans or memories rather than “being here now,” mistaking an image of other people for who they really are, not really listening to people or paying attention to what’s happening, thinking that things will always be as they’ve always been so far, not really seeing the consequence of choices, and, most fundamentally, feeling like a separate entity from the rest of the universe). What I find is that the more I clear out the last klesha and get present to what seems to be going on in me, the more clearly I notice all three of them, and the more I get to stop cultivating then and continue to work on being more stable and present.
Despite all that unprecedented and astounding progress, I’m still regularly unhappy to be here and regularly fantasize bolting. A friend of mine decided last week that her life would be better if she returned to Oakland, and so she up and did so. For me today, the main culprits of dissatisfaction today are perceiving myself to be surrounded by relatively disinterested strangers, feeling like I could make better use of my time if I scheduled it myself, and longing for the comforts of normal life. Also, I came here knowing that thirteen weeks was much longer than I wanted to be gone from San Francisco doing Buddhism right now.
I know, however, the value of sticking with the things that I commit myself to, and that’s what I’m going to do. I respect people in my life when y’all step out of what is comfortable, familiar, predictable, supportive and reinforcing and move towards something difficult, unknown and untamed but intriguing; I respect myself right now for the same thing. There have even been times when I have felt all chill, focused, and stabilized and wished that I was committed to be here longer. I also trust the temple director, Leslie James, who said to me, during a teacher interview, that being here works constructively on levels that we are often not aware of and which only become clear later.
* A real live Japanese Zen priest sits in the assigned seat next to mine in the meditation hall. He slipped and hurt his head a few years back, and lost all of his memories, and now he is here in a Zen temple in the USA, having an experience that is unusual for a Japanese priest, as part of his convalescence. He usually seems to get to his seat early, in his crisp, perfectly ironed robes, and he sits statue-like still for the entire period (except when he is “dreaming of boxing” — when we doze off on our meditation cushions, our heads often jerk forward and back like a boxer being punched).
* The air is so clear here, at night the stars and planets are right there.
* I eat one to three peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches a day here. This daily choice arises because of various causes and conditions, among them being that I am usually hungry after the limited portions of the formal meals, and bread, condiments, and fruits are among the foods available in the afternoon for snacking on.
* We have so little time off here, I value the time that I do have and usually put it to good use. As my dad used to say, if you want something done, give it to a busy person to do.
* No one read my first email, and asked me what a washboard is used for besides music. They are used for scrubbing against ornery stains on clothes.
Adios, Amoebas. I wish y’all happiness.