By Michael Isshin Spiller
NUMBER 10: It’s so time-consuming. For a lot of people this is an obstacle to establishing a practice. We have so many conflicting commitments: partner, family, career, interests. I too used to have lots of people and ideas and projects competing for my attention – I was quite frenetic and scattered. But one day a big challenge came my way – what is sometimes called “hard karma” in the Zen tradition. This was a major game-changer, one that forced me to slow down and address my situation directly, and in the process my many plans and schemes fell to the wayside. As I was adjusting to this new landscape, I looked up at one point and realized that I, who had always been fairly moderate in the pursuit of my vices, had acquired a serious case of late-onset Party Guy. This was a lot of fun at first, and certainly offered distraction from my problems. But anyone who has gone this route knows that the path of hedonism is an arduous one: it requires vast amounts of energy, and is not an effective long-term strategy for dealing with life. In my good fortune I managed to stumble upon Zen practice, and came to see eventually that this new time-consuming activity provided me with a way to wean myself off my wicked ways. So for me the Zen Buddhist Training Program has served – and in a way continues to serve – the same function that after-school programs serve for troubled teenagers: these programs help us to channel our tendency toward dissolution and mischief into harmless and wholesome activities. So I appreciate that it requires an investment of time.
NUMBER 9: You don’t have to talk to anyone. You can socialize if you want to, and here at the Hazy Moon there any number of very pleasant people to do that with. But if you are like me – if you lean toward the ungregarious end of the intro-extroversion spectrum — you might find that you can practice Zen with other members of your species and still maintain a comfortable distance. Once you learn the rules of the zendo you can come in – and be in a perfectly wretched mood, for that matter – and no one will force you to make nice with them. You can do your thing and leave, hopefully in a better mood than when you came in. For a long time I was haunted by the idea that I had to present myself as a sort of open, beautiful, spiritual-type person – which is a bit of a stretch for me, to put it mildly. Finally it occurred to me that maybe it would be okay to just send in my dues once a month, try to behave myself when I’m here, and come and go as I wish.
NUMBER 8: You can learn how to behave yourself properly in polite company, if you never knew how before. Practice at the Hazy Moon occurs in two places: the zendo, with its discipline and rules, and the sangha house, which follows a flow closer to that of normal life. However, there is an unspoken template of behavior – we could call it the Precepts – that governs life there. (These people after all are not one’s drinking buddies.) Having become accustomed to the life-long luxury of avoiding people I didn’t choose to be with, this presented a challenge. At the Hazy Moon there is a warm, longstanding tradition of communal lunch after the Saturday morning program of service, zazen and Dharma talk – an informal, companionable ritual that I made a point of avoiding like the plague for years. But the Zen teacher’s gentle yet persistent prodding in my direction made me think that perhaps he was offering me a Zen teaching. So I applied the same discipline I had used in the zendo to entry into the sangha house. This was not a particularly pleasant experience for me — or for anyone else, I might add (sorry about that) — but over time things have improved. More than one notable person in the Buddhist tradition has observed that a sangha functions like a rock tumbler, whereby rough specimens can be turned into smooth stones.
NUMBER 7: You get to learn stuff about yourself that you never wanted to know. I imagine this to be a never-ending process: does the ego ever really disappear? I don’t think so. We will always have unpleasant, aggressive qualities that are going to surface from time to time. We can get used to that happening, so that it doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. The presence of basic awareness simplifies life so much: if I can see the same things about myself that other people are forced to see, I don’t have to waste my energy defending myself. Then I can take responsibility and apologize, if an apology is appropriate. Often I feel that the person I’ve offended doesn’t really want an apology; they just want to get away from me, which is a service I can easily provide. In the aftermath of one of these incidents the thought occurs: wouldn’t it be great if I could just stop doing that? Somehow this undramatic process appears to make a difference – a tiny bit of self-mastery emerges from each painful step forward. Could this be an example of “getting sick of your sickness”?
NUMBER 6: There is nothing that you want to do, but you do it anyway. The activities of Zen practice are challenging. Who really wants to sit on a cushion without moving for an hour and a half? Oh I forgot, you can get up every now and then and walk around in a circle. You’re right, that is fun. Service? Ceremony? Chanting? I will be silent on this matter. Of all the practice issues that I struggled with, one stands head and shoulders above the rest. This task I grappled with so hard, so long, so painfully, meanwhile watching everyone else sail through it, that I began to wonder if I wasn’t afflicted with a diagnosis missing from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. We could call this oriyokiphobia. I will spare the details; suffice it to say that it required three-and-a-half years to break through my psychosis, and when I did, it felt like the achievement of my life. The way I did it? Overexposure. After four continuous weeks of retreat during a summer training period, one day I realized that I had gotten through an entire meal without bitching, or even thinking, about it. Had I finally bored myself into silence? I was so stunned that I thought: Am I enlightened now? Is this enlightenment? In the weeks that followed, in my day-to-day life I experienced a degree of freedom from certain habitual problems, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was related to my oriyoki release. Imagine telling your therapist that you had suddenly stopped bickering with your neighbors and co-workers about petty things, that traffic jams didn’t seem to bother you anymore, and that even talking to your mother had become a breeze. Your shrink was all ears: yes, yes, I’m listening. And all you could think to say was: well, there’s really weird ancient Japanese eating style called oriyoki, that has these odd-shaped strips of cloth you have to fold just so, and these nested plastic imitation-lacquer bowls, and this teeny-tiny little rubber spatula you have to clean everything with, and – oh, never mind, let’s talk about something else. I will say that this completely unexpected development left me intrigued about the further possibilities of the practice.
NUMBER 5: Zen language is simple, direct, unambiguous, and doesn’t get bogged down in subtlety or nuance. This used to bother me in the early days. I would think, does everything always have to be so simple-minded and flat-footed? But I came to appreciate that not only was this a good thing, it was probably necessary, to keep things simple for us modern, educated, hyper-analytical folks. Of the three basic teachings of Maezumi Roshi–do not deceive yourself, do not make excuses for yourself, and take responsibility–the one that I found particularly irritating was the second one. I heard this in my mind voiced by an old, Midwestern grandfather: “Don’t make excuses for yourself, young man.” These very simple, unsubtle, un-nuanced statements have a curiously penetrating quality. In spite of my resistance to them over the years, I recently had a vivid experience with this teaching. A friend from my past – a difficult friend — had called and left repeated messages (on a voicemail number I rarely use) to please call her, it was very urgent. I had no intention of calling her, and put the matter aside. However, within a few moments these simple words appeared spontaneously, relentlessly, in my head: Don’t make excuses for yourself! What, what, what excuses? Don’t make excuses for yourself! Well — why’d she call me at that number? Everyone knows you can’t reach me there. Don’t make excuses for yourself! But – what if she wants to borrow money from me again? Don’t make excuses for yourself! But – what if she needs to stay with me the next time she’s in L.A., God forbid? Don’t make excuses for yourself! Mentally I could not make a single move without offering some justification for my behavior. After a prolonged period of confusion it became clear that the problem was one of self-image: I don’t like to see myself as a person who doesn’t help someone when they need it; neither do I like to see myself as a chump, so I was stuck. What a valuable lesson this was. Who needs subtlety or nuance?
NUMBER 4: You get to feel less like an alien, trapped in a hostile universe. It was at some point during my adolescence that I started feeling literally like an alien, as in: where is MY planet? This is obviously not MY planet. This sense of isolation increased in intensity over the years until I limited my contact with the outside world to a bare minimum. It seemed so scary and icky OUT THERE. A few years into my involvement with this practice I looked up one day and realized that this feeling was gone, that I was able to accept my connection with the rest of life. Research on the brains of practitioners in states of deep meditation or prayer has shown that the organs responsible for orienting us in space – the bits of gray matter that tell me where I end and the outside world begins — can go completely inactive. We could call this the neurological basis of no separation, or at least reduced separation. One of the pleasant mysteries of zazen.
NUMBER 3: It appears to be about nothing. This strikes me as a very compassionate aspect of the practice. From where I sit I can see old age right there on the horizon. What is it? Well, for one thing, it looks like a very minimalist existence. If you have watched an elderly parent go through this process, you have probably seen that it is about losing everything you valued: physical mobility, mental agility, even interests. How do you live when almost everything has been taken away? From this vantage point, Zen practice seems like it might be a very shrewd investment of time and energy. I already know quite a bit about the minimalist life: in a certain sense all I need is a little black cushion on which to sit alone, or in the company of others. Sometimes I wonder if I need even that. But these are just words; I’ll find out what the reality of old age is when it arrives. Having said that, from here Zen practice looks like a merciful way to close out one’s life.
NUMBER 2: You have to sit still. This is a deceptively simple skill, one that leaves most of us in the West wondering, why would I want to do that? Unoriginal thought: is it possible that it shows us the way to physical and mental patience? There is a situation that I experience regularly, and that is particularly challenging for me: I go once or twice a year and spend time with my family. Even though these are very civilized people, I tend to become restless and distracted when I am in an environment I don’t have complete control over. It feels like lockdown, that I am waiting for the warden to open the door and say, your cab is here, you can go to the airport and back to L.A. At a certain point, a few years into Zen practice, it struck me that I seemed to be handling this situation much more calmly and gracefully than I had in the past. What was I doing differently while trapped in the family home? Maybe I was sitting still.
NUMBER 1: It’s disappointing. Which is not to say that it’s unrewarding, but rather that I experience it as failure. This shouldn’t surprise me, because everything is a setback to me – all day long, one letdown after another. This is the first noble truth, is it not? That life lived as an ego inevitably leads to unfulfillment, washout. Why would the practice be any different? From my experience, it’s not. When I sit, I want something impressive to happen, and usually it doesn’t: bummer. Except for the times when it turns out to be pleasant, interesting, even exciting. And then I look forward to the next sitting, when I’m usually brought down again: false alarm. Around and around and around it goes. So why I do continue? It’s a mystery. Usually I abandon post-haste any activity I have no talent for, but this one’s different. I do wonder if this steady diet of unmet expectation in formal practice doesn’t somehow habituate me to the sting of life’s repeated downers so that they become softer, gentler, less bitter than before. Could it be that this explains how I find so many little moments of unexpected appreciation, enjoyment, and yes, fulfillment, often in the most unlikely circumstances? It’s part theory, part hope. And who knows, maybe more is better. If so, bring on the disappointment!