[Tassajara monastery has no internet and I had no computer there in 2000. 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 realize that this letter may come right on the heels of my last, but it can’t be helped. When you have a song in your heart, you have to sing out. I don’t really currently have a song in my heart, but I do want to write another letter, so here it is. I think that, perhaps, once I finished writing one letter, I thought of a whole bunch of other topics to address in a second one ….
Today is February Fourteenth. Happy Valentine’s Day, I wish love to everyone. Tomorrow morning, we begin a nine-day sesshin (all-day meditation intensive); I’ve never sat one of that length, and I am a little excited and nervous. We had a five-day sesshin a while back, and, as is usual about Sesshins, given their unusually experiential nature, I find myself unable to come up with a metacomment about how it went (I have the same communication block around Burning Man each year for perhaps the same reason). I do remember having an emotional and seemingly profound experience, something having to do with my life when I was a teenager, over the afternoon of the last day of the five-day. For readers of this letter who have not sat one, I think that the settling and deepening that happens during sesshins, even more than during our normal daily sitting here, brings up all the stress points (places of unresolved past experiences, locations of tightness and resistance) in one’s body and psyche. The surfacing is, I think, mostly experienced as painful or challengingly raw until it is worked through, and then comes greater peace, energy and clarity. It can be a difficult process. I try to respect sesshins and approach them with intentionality; today I am trying to generate that.
Many of my friends and family have told me that they don’t think they could do what I am doing here now at Tassajara, and I disagree; all that is fundamentally needed to do this practice is a willingness, which we all potentially have, to meet the resistance involved in the transformation into a bigger, deeper, more open life. All the other details – I can’t sit in the lotus position, I couldn’t stand the cold – are negotiable. I have a negative reaction, however, when people here sometimes say that this life is easy. Sometimes, being here feels easy to me (and that happens more frequently the longer I’m here), but some things about being here, most especially the sleeping schedule, feel anything but easy. I think that I would find life here grounds for lots of complaining if I was in a normal life-mind, if I wasn’t in a meditative state, with an intention to open to and work with pain and resistance.
At the very least, I am incredulous that, apparently, there has been talk for years of establishing a fourth SF Zen Center campus (besides this place, Green Gulch in Marin and City Center in SF) that would be even more rigorous than here. For example, I have heard that the proposed rules would be, no social talking ever, and a sesshin-like sitting schedule year-round. That seems nuts to me. But I also know that many old-country Asian monasteries are set up like that or even more difficult. I also know that I was almost unbelieving when someone first told me about the Tassajara set-up years ago, it seemed so crazy difficult, and it has turned out OK.
My job as the assistant for the head of the kitchen involves disposal of large amounts of mice shit, dead mice, and also mice that still have some hop to them. The live ones (caught in Buddha-approved non-lethal traps or found in food boxes) I take across the river to the old abandoned bathhouse and send off into the woods, hoping they can’t swim far and that they won’t follow me across the bridge back to the food.
There are lots of international students here: two French, two German, an English, an Irish, a Norwegian, a Bulgarian, a Columbian, and probably some Canadians. The Americans are from all over the USA. The age range is wide also, with Kendra being the youngest young’n here.
About half the people here are women. Sometimes, I think all of our spiritual advancement would be best served by separate male and female monasteries – I think that that would be easier and simpler for everyone, for many reasons. That being said, I’ve noticed that, for me, one little austerity about being here is that most of the women are bald or buzz-cutted, and that what they wear are monk’s robes or work clothes. I’ve noticed the pleasure that I take from days off when one or two women wear simple long skirts, from the few painted nails or heads of long hair here, and from Kendra at our home. I am clearly seeing, by contrast, the pleasure I take in the outside world when I see women dressed femininely — skirts, dresses, stockings, makeup, etc.
The roshi (Tenshin Reb Anderson) had a heart attack last autumn. Because of this, he has not been running up the mountain on his day off, like he did last time I was here. Because of this, the temple does not send a vehicle up to the crest to bring runners who ran up back down. Because of this, any days I run up instead of getting a ride down, I end up running or walking down. This seems to be hurting my meditation-posture-sensitive knees and seems to be making my joints tighter the next time I sit. Because of this, I have not run as often as last year. I have instead been swimming laps in the pool here, splashing around, armed with goggles and flippers.
We have the option of having dokusan (practice interviews) with the teacher. I have found that these interviews are sometimes like the classic Zen conversations of a thousand years ago (where the teachers used to ask questions like, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”), sometimes they are like therapy, and sometimes like a conversation with a coach where they want you to commit to an action (the action being Zen Buddhist practice). Since I got here I’ve done one dokusan with long-time priest Gaelyn Godwin, that was challenging and seemed valuable, and one with the head Monk Charlie Luminous Owl Henkle (who is about my age but who has been ordained now for six years). I am pleased that I have a third interview scheduled with the temple director Leslie James (who I am beginning to see as my third Zen Center teacher). I’ve only had one with Reb, and for now I am choosing not to do more because I find them unproductive in a hard to define way. My first few weeks here, I was wishing for the ability to have practice discussion with my other SF Zen Center teacher, Paul Haller, who is in the City, and who I was in to classes with this fall – I had some questions that I wanted to discuss with specifically him, and not anyone here.
At Zen Center, we vow to “refrain from all intoxicants”. In my experience, there are some mind-altering drugs that, if used properly, I think can help people to be more profoundly alive (LSD and mushrooms), some that can do this if used in moderation but that also often seem to exact a physical and mental cost for it (MDMA and alcohol), and some that I feel are just rushes, escapes, intoxicants, and crutches (speed, cocaine, cigarettes, sugar and caffeine). So, I make a distinction in the spiritual value of various “intoxicants”. I particularly have a negative assessment of caffeine, however. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen various people who seem addicted and unable to function without it. I have also, at times, been unhappy with my own relationship to caffeine (for example, drinking a gallon of Diet Coke a day when I was eighteen– rushing up and crashing down). So, two years ago, I made a decision to stop using caffeine. I think that it is bad, I do not think it’s good.
However, I’m also tired of spending most of my first two sitting periods here asleep, feeling by the end of it that I’ve been wasting my time. And many or most of the people here drink caffeine to get through the early mornings and long days (for example, the ino (director of meditation hall discipline) seems to constantly be sipping, drink ten to fifteen cups of coffee a day. So, I’ve started drinking a cup of green tea some days when I wake up. It’s great, now I’m alert, and, instead of nodding off I can actually steadily and precisely watch and be aware of the sensations in my body and the plans, memories and analysis going through my head – y’know, “meditate”. I feel anger at the institution, however, because I see that my choices are to follow the schedule and sleep through half of it, or to sneak around skipping events so as to try to take a few partially satisfying naps, or to use this drug I don’t ultimately like.
For all the difficulties and challenges of being here, though, I have been feeling an appreciation for the opportunity that being here provides to drop defenses and complications, to simply be more and more aware, and to feel more deeply, more alive, clearer, and more satisfied. I believe that both the schedule and the social and physical environment support that, they provide a container to relax into, and I value them for that.
One of my deep interest in life seems to be how people communicate, especially about conflict. Many places that I go, I watch how people communicate there. What I observe here at this monastery is that many people seem to me to have damaged or otherwise partial social skills. Some people here I would even describe as difficult — angry, dead inside, mopey, out-of-it, or, worst of all, possessing banal senses of humor. I think of them as like physically sick people are in a hospital, seeking a cure, even though Zen practice is not directly and obviously about developing the social and emotional skills they lack. I wonder sometimes, then, why I feel such a sense of trust and relaxation about people here, a belief that problems and differences can be worked through fine if they arise. To be fair, I think that many people came here with strong communication and people skills, I am often inspired, and most people had some. But I also have another theory.
At Zen Center, we study the Buddhist notion of “emptiness”, a concept that I find complex but that seems to have many practical implications. One of these is that anything a person says, thinks or believes is held as just an utterance, a thought or a belief, and not as solid, unchanging “capital T” Truth. I appreciate that people here, practicing in this way, are more willing to be aware of their subjectivity, to not necessarily hold on tight to the first belief that pops into their head, and to be willing to understand a different point of view.
Another factor that helps communication here to be positive is the perception of ourselves as students, as people who are not finished products – the founder of the SF Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, once famously said, “you are perfect just the way you are, and you could use a lot of improvement”. I also believe that the practice here is to think in terms of service, service both to the sangha (the Buddhist community) and to “the welfare of all beings”. This, I think, makes people more willing to do the work of really meeting another person, even when it’s difficult, and to genuinely focus on mutually agreeable solutions rather than narrowly-defined, immediate self-interest. In the monastery, we set our intention on being present to ourselves and honest with ourselves, which I think helps us to listen to and be honest with others. Finally, the vibe here is that we are practicing, working on and challenging ourselves, and I think that translates into a willingness to stretch our smallness.
I have certainly found positive communications skills in people all over, many of my friends for example (i.e. many of the people reading this letter), and certainly not everyone here practices them all the time. However, my observation is, again, that the Zen Buddhist practice here indirectly develops communication skills relative to life at large. I appreciate that.
Peace, over and out
“We are all afraid of three things: other people, death, and our own minds.”
— R.D. Liang