Ode to empty space

30
Jan
2011

I had a friend over last night who had never been to my place before, and he remarked (as several have before him) on the lack of art (or anything) on the walls. I moved into my apartment about 9 months ago, and I plan on being here a very long time. As such, I am in no particular hurry to “finish” the space (a strange idea anyway, as when is anything ever finished?). I have happily taken my time picking out the right table, sofa, etc, only getting them when I feel right about it. It would also be true to say that with limited funds I rather need to be slow and methodical about purchasing things anyway. I don’t have thousands of extra dollars sitting around waiting to be spent on various furniture and nicknacks to fill my apartment, and even if I did I would be extremely cautious about any new thing I acquired. While I admit that my tastes are not in the norm, I am always a little perplexed as to why people find this unnerving. The thing they seem to have a hard time grappling with is how emptiness and simplicity are calming to me. To me, most people are rather like hoarders, and I get the sense that they are unconvinced of their own existence in the absence of a wide variety of things to reflect and prove it. When I left on my world trip a few years back, I quite literally got rid of everything I owned. My friend from last night seemed incredulous, expecting that I would have put a bunch of things in storage for later.

“To what end?”, I asked.

For me, it seems clear that being so tied to so much stuff is poison to the soul. The more we own (and the more we fetishize those things), the more we are bound to them, and to taking care of them, and to our craving for them. Our stuff owns us as much as we own it. To me, an empty space is calming, tranquil, full of possibility, yet already complete. There is no place to get to, we are already there. Being attached to the archiving of my past in the form of (seemingly) solid things, and putting it on display (with some ostentation) is simply not my cup of tea.

Z Notes

12
Jul
2008

SATURDAY

– All settled in my room. I have 2 roommates, Jordan and Dustin. My orientation will be at 6:30 with Iva in the main area of “Cloud Hall” where I am staying. It is 4pm right now. I walk around the grounds a bit and all seems quite peaceful. I snap a few photos.

– Out of my window, I see a guy go into a room that I suppose contains the showers, but before entering removes his shoes and lights a candle and then incense from the candle at an alter just outside the room. He then bows three times and enters the room. I later notice that the alter has an image of a bunch of bathing Buddhas on it.

– Dinner, as at all such places (ashrams and the like) has a rather strict protocol to follow with some serial bowing and silence while eating. But after the first ten minutes, there is a clacking sound, a bowing to each other at the tables and friendly chatter.

– So far the place seems a bit of a hybrid of East and West, at least compared to my experiences in Asia.

– There seem to be a plethora of bells and gongs going off at all times and one assumes each has its own meaning.

– After a tour of the place, I am surprised by all the comforts and amenities. Internet, wireless network, nationwide phone calling for free, library, workout area, sauna, nice showers with fancy shampoos and soaps, dining hall, snack area – these things seem downright luxurious compared to my time in various ashrams in India.

SUNDAY

– First Zazen this morning. Unsure of what I should look at, how to turn, bow, which way to go, how to chant, what page we are on, what to do with my stool, where to find the cleaning supplies or mop while doing Soji (ritual meditative cleaning period after Zazen and service), and more.

– At breakfast I met two professional women from LA here for a short break and practice to integrate Zen training with their work lives, as well as a young woman from China that likes her job in finance and sees it as Zen practice.

– Met a kid today named “Star Bear”, and because we were on kitchen duty washing plates in the same room, overheard him relay his lengthy “spiritual story” to Mike, our dishmate. Star Bear seems to be practicing a form of what I will call “competitive Zen”, with a dismissive attitude towards others he sees as spiritually not on par with him. This guys seems to want the world to see him as a spiritual sprinter of sorts that has seen and done it all and tried on every tradition imaginable before coming here to grace us with his wisdom as the ripe old age of…21? I think I got off on the wrong foot with him by daring to ask how he came to get his name. I later learn that he comes from a Jewish family in Kentucky, and that he seems not to be very close to them.

– One of my first work assignments here is to take the dishes out of the dryer/sanitizer, stack them neatly and return them to their places on the shelves. This must be done with some speed as there is a constant stream of dishes coming from the people washing them (Mike and Star Bear). However, the dishes are scalding hot as they come out of the dryer and at first I try to pretend that this is one of those walk on hot coals tests of one’s control / strength of will/ what have you. After about six loads of dishes, I feel certain my fingertips will slough off at any moment. It is at this point that Mike (who I am really starting to appreciate) points out to me that there are rubber gloves I can use. (He himself had tried to be macho for a couple of days but then figured it just wasn’t worth it.)

– Everyone more or less wants to know how you came to be at this place, what your story is, your path, your Buddhist/Zen street “cred” as it were.

– I took a walk down through the flower garden, past the fields of chard and other lettuce, past wildflowers, past composting heaps, past fallow ground, through a gate, past horses in a field, around the bend, more wildflowers, past young lovers stealing kisses in the bushes and finally (track getting sandier and squishier) to the beach and the Pacific Ocean. There, were crowds of suburbanites making fires and generally trashing the beach. They were most of them in bathing suits as they are wont to do in Northern California, despite the fog and 63 degree weather. “Damn it”, they seem to be saying, “We have a beach close to where we live and damn it, we intend to use it!”

– Can it only have been 24 hours since I got here? Why am I jonesing so much for internet and phone? Is it because I know they are here at my fingertips? Just seconds away in the basement of this very building? I must resist the urge to get on the web, check my email, surf and what have you. This must be part of my practice this week.

– Why is it that American practitioners of Zen seem so…American? So not other worldly? I wouldn’t exactly call them not at peace, but there is a familiarity to them that takes me a little by surprise. And there is one guy I meet who starts talking after a few minutes about trying to meditate while revving motorcycles were nearby, and how he wanted to take a gun and “blow their fucking brains out” to make them stop. He has been living at the center for more than four years, so he must know better than I, but I have a vague suspicion that this is not, in fact, very zen of him.

– Just spent a lovely hour outside on a bench, in the cool sun. tick. tock.

– A new friend, Antoine invited me to go to the Pelican Inn (a pub that is walking distance from the farm) with he and a few friends for a few beers. A little voice deep within me screamed “Yes!! Get me out of here! Of COURSE I will go drinking with you!! …but then I thought better of it and told him no thanks. Why, after all, am I here? To be mindful and have my Zen experience. I need to sit with myself and push away diversions. And there are diversions a plenty in this place, should I want any. I think I will head to the Zendo (meditation hall) to sit Zazen a bit before bedtime.

– So many diversions. Are some better than others? Newspapers over internet? Books over papers? How about working out with weights? Is it better to take a meditative walk? Beers or phone calls? Smalltalk or silence?

– Just had an incredible Zazen, my eyes not focused on anything and focused on everything. And then a bell rang.

MONDAY

– I notice that mealtime can be quite cliquey, and a sort of popularity contest with who sits with whom. Add to this the fact that the first 10 minutes of every meal is silent, and there is an invisible thumbs up / thumbs down taking place that somehow, in the silence, seems more powerful.

– Just met a really nice retired guy who just arrived from Berkeley. His name is Nobi and I asked him (as we do) how he came to be at Green Gulch. He said, “Do you want the real story or the one I tell other people?”. Unable to resist the truth (or illusion of truth) I of course opt for the former. He told me that last Wednesday he was kicked out of his house by his wife. He had been living in a motel since then but remembered hearing about the Zen Center and thought it would be nicer than the motel. He is staying for a week. I asked him if he will return to Berkeley and he asked nervously, ” To my house or the city?” “Either one,” I responded and he said “To Berkeley yes…” and then his voice trailed off.

– The food here is (of course) all vegetarian, and fairly simple, but very good.

– What a day. We worked in the fields (composting) and then later on the grounds where I trimmed a few hedges. Other than the fact that my back hurts from the work and my head hurts (from the lack of caffeine or some other essential nutrient) I can totally see the work as a kind of meditation. I forgot to mention that we do the dishes every day at lunchtime for the whole damn place and I actually like it.

– Karl, (one of my new friends here) I discover lived in France for a number of years and we practice our French in the field. There are many opportunities to speak foreign languages here, which is a lot of fun. There are nice people from everywhere.

– One of the little things that is very nice here (as is is anywhere btw) is the fact that people are always saying “Thank you” in a heartfelt way for any work we are doing.

– There is this little locked hand gesture that we are supposed to make here in moments of still reverence (but not so reverent as to make the prayer hands gesture). The left hand makes a kind of fist with the thumb tucked into it and the right hand wraps around and places the thumb on top. The whole ensemble sits mid level roughly at the sternum. It was eerie to me how familiar this gesture seemed to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Then it hit me, and it was pretty recent. I saw this exact hand gesture made by characters in the animated movie “Kung-Fu Panda“.

TUESDAY

– During Zazen this morning all I could think about were my aches and pains from all the work yesterday and how I couldn’t get into a meditative “zone”

– And what is with all the fake and useless ritual in the “service” part of the morning Zazen? (This is the last 30 minutes before Soji, which if you ask me, is like prayers). It seems a parody of ritual actually with a priest holding a special stick and waving it around like a magician, solemnly pacing around the alter.

– Today Mike and Samuel and I were pulled away by Arlene (the current director of Green Gulch) from regular duty to reorganize the downstairs dorm to accommodate more people. The place was pretty disgusting and it took us several hours to clean and rearrange it all.

– Arlene makes snap judgments about people and can be a little impatient, but other than that seems rather nice most of the time. Her cleaning style reminds me of my mother.

– Star Bear, we discover, has a dirty secret. (Not so secret when I think about it, we could have guessed by looking at his fingernails). But his dorm cubicle (in the room we are reorganizing) is absolutely filthy. He lives like a slightly schizo homeless person, squirreling away all manner of small food item, dirty clothes strewn everywhere, weeds, a “dream catcher”, and plastic tubs filled with nuts and berries and something unidentifiable. As far as I can tell, there is no Soji happening here. Ever.

– Mike, who has a very pleasant manner and is a nice guy to talk to, keeps disappearing for 10-15 minutes at various intervals during our re-org of the dorm, for reasons I can’t figure out. Smoking habit? When he returns he is barefoot and I notice with a slight discomfort that his toenails are very, very long.

– After the dorm re-org, Arlene drafted me to do some..drafting. I feel certain I never should have let on about my past life as an architect and techie. I can totally appreciate that the farm has skill needs ( and I have them aplenty) but is this type of work really “zen” for me?

– My old roommates moved out today (down to the newly re-orged dorm I worked on). One of the other guys I met here, Esteban from Columbia (who goes by Steven, and is Samuel’s brother) moved in. I can tell it is gonna be a little bit of a challenge keeping away from the things I have been trying to leave behind (computer, music, etc) as he is an avid consumer of these things and seems to always be on his laptop in the room. I will consider it another Zen challenge for me.

WEDNESDAY

– Zazen this morning was (as per tradition) cut by half so that the entire community could do some meditative work on the farm together. I really enjoyed it, it was great working side by side with everyone in silence, feeling very much a part of the community and getting into the work in meditative fashion. Our particular job was to cut tall grasses with scythes. It was interesting. And back breaking.

– Sigh. On Architecture duty again. Spent a good part of the day doing work I feel complex things about. I was drafted (pun intended) to do some draft/design work. While all the other kids were out doing menial labor, I was dusting off old skills to help space plan. I feel more “connected” to the community while doing the same work as others and doing it with them. The manual labor that we all do, ok, but what is skilled work worth? Should I be getting paid or getting a discount for this? Is this even a proper question to be asking myself in this context? If I were to stay for a longer period, how much of this type of work should I put up with? Isn’t any “work”, “work”, no matter the type? Shouldn’t all work be a meditation? What is the value of work? Add to this a vague feeling of being used and there we are.

– I feel like I repeat my story a lot to people here. They seem to really want to know what my last two years have been like.

– Today is the first day that I knew all the names of everyone at my table.

– I find out that I can get cell phone reception if I take the 20 minute walk to the beach, and this seems like a good compromise to make. I will walk 20 minutes each time I wish to make a call or check my email, which isn’t much. The only thing of importance is waiting to hear about possible contract work in LA.

– I am bothered by the prayer service in the morning and have a few other questions, so I make an appointment to talk to Daigon, one of the elders (for want of a better title) here. I discuss this with several people and find varying opinions on the service, some in total agreement and some in total disagreement.

– Hey! Isn’t an all vegetarian diet supposed to be a good way to lose weight? I am definitely developing a belly here, and a quick survey of others confirms the trend. WTF?

– As you might imagine, people are pretty touchy about killing things here, anything, and so during the week I have watched a spider weave a web at the top of my window, wondering if I should remove (ie kill) it. Just moments ago I watched this spider attack another insect, carefully rotating it for a good few minutes while wrapping it up in webbing to prevent escape or survival. It then carefully placed it in its web for a future feast. Oops! Scratch that. Current feast.

– Had a very interesting talk with my roommates Steven (Esteban) and John this evening about Buddhist practice and ritual and ornament. They seem in agreement about the use of icons (we are against them) in the Zendo and the strangeness of the prayer service. They are curious to know how Daigon will respond to my questioning tomorrow.

THURSDAY

– Had a long talk with Daigon this morning regarding the practice and service. He is a very intelligent and funny guy, and very easy to talk to. After starting to go into great detail about the prominent historical lineage of the prayer service, he basically agrees with me that it is bullshit, but says some people like it. He points out that my aversion to it may be reason enough to sit with it, but I tell him I also have an aversion to slavery and the like and see no reason to sit with those. That said, how awful is it really? I resolve to sit through it and try to see it as nothing but form, devoid of its content and hierarchy.

– I think I have been (like a dog with a bone) hapring on this prayer and religion thing a bit to much. People are starting to glaze over, and they are right. I should just shut the hell up already, the subject has been investigated. Case closed. I do realize that my focus on it is because all other parts of the practice seem so self evidently positive and helpful on the path.

– Today is my last day, I will leave around noon tomorrow. I have been saying my goodbyes to some of the lovely people I have met here. Vicky from Houston who is one of the most genuinely nice and selfless people I have met, always quick to volunteer to help out. Marcy from DC, who knows a lot about Chocolate (has written a book on it) and gives us a fascinating presentation (with tasting) on it. Nobi, John, Samuel, Steven, Jordan, Dustin, Mike, Iva, Karl, Sabine, Jeanette, and others from around the world. All of them have some to this place to be a part of this practice and community, and I feel lucky to have spent time with each of them.

– Green Gulch has been pretty crowded the whole time I have been here, partly because on of the sister sites, Tassajara has been mostly evacuated because of fires raging in the area. We find out that they had been asked to evacuate completely, but some of the senior members decided to stay to “fight the fire”. This seems incredibly stupid and ego centric to me. Property and things matter not at all when compared with life, and yet people here seem to have a vague hero worship for these actions. Not very Zen if you ask me.

– While doing one of our last dish washing services, we are being too much the chatty Cathys and are told to shush.

FRIDAY

– Friday is a day off for the majority of people.

– A very sweet last morning of exchanging emails and heartfelt gratitude for meeting and sharing talk, meals, work and experience. I am surprised by how peaceful I feel and how connected I feel to this community and way of life. I resolve to come back for another guest period in the future, to explore this life a little more. If not here, to something similar.

Now Zen, where was I?

12
Jul
2008

Just got back from a week at Green Gulch Zen Farm, which is part of a larger Zen community that includes a center in SF and one in Tassajara. I decided before going not to take my laptop, or music, or books, but I did take a blank journal and have a lot of notes from the experience that I will post above. I also took a few photos and will post those. After that, some other analysis. Overall, the experience was wonderful and surprising in a number of ways, and the people were genuine and welcoming. I can highly recommend the experience.