After bowing

Yesterday morning when I saw this week’s Photo Friday topic, I actually groaned. “Oh no…not a self-portrait!”

Yep. Like a dropped gauntlet, there it was staring me right in the face. “Take and post a picture of yourself. I dare you!” And since there are two primary ways to get me to do something I don’t want to do (the first being a dare and the second being the statement, “You can’t!), I knew my die had been cast…

This is what I look like first thing in the morning after bowing. When we lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we did bows at 5:15 am, in knee-length gray robes; during retreat, we’d bow at 4:45 in the same gray robes. Now that we live in Keene, far from any Zen Center, I do bows whenever I get up and in whatever I darn well please. Bowing is a great way to wake up, get the blood moving, and clear the mind of any thought more complicated than up and down, huff and puff, 100, 101, 102…

If you’ve ever practiced with me, you know this is my “at ease” pose, a posture for unwinding after practice is done. If you know anything about traditional Buddhist iconography, you know that this posture resembles the royal ease pose of the Bodhisattva of compassion. This Bodhisattva goes by many names: in Sanskrit, Avalokitesvara; in Japanese, Kannon; in Chinese, Kwan-Yin or Guanyin; and in Korean, Kwan Seum Bosal. From culture to culture, this character takes on different forms and even different genders: the original Avalokitesvara was a princely disciple of the historical Buddha whereas Chinese and Korean depictions of this same Bodhisattva are decidedly feminine.

Some years ago a dear friend of mine started a Buddhist sangha at a prestigious women’s college. One of the necessary steps to starting any meditation group is acquiring the necessary “stuff”: mats and cushions, candles and incense, meditation bell, chanting books, etc. When it came to gathering altar accoutrements, Ji Hyang acted with her usual clear-eyed direction, buying the most beautiful bronze royal-ease Kwan Seum Bosal she could find. It’s important for women, she remarked, to have female role models: a Buddha statue, after all, is supposed to be a visual representation of one’s True Self. So why should women practice to uncover a True Self that is male?

“Damn, that’s one sexy statue!” I remarked when KSB came out of her box. Ji Hyang agreed. “Yeah, it would be, well, distracting for guys, I’m sure. But women will find it empowering!”

And I think she’s right. Kwan Seum Bosal in her “royal ease” pose suggests that women and their True Selves can be simultaneously strong and sexy, embodied and ethereal. Kwan Seum Bosal can kick back and relax because she’s at the top of her game; her eyes are open and her mind is wide. She can bring home the tofu and fry it up in the pan. Saving all beings? No problem. KSB will do that any day of the week, and like Ginger Rogers she’ll do it backwards and in high heels. The earth-watching Bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan Seum Bosal has moved beyond mere Zen Mama status: she’s the cosmic Dharma Queen.

At the same time, though, “royal ease” shows only one side of the equation. Last night Chris and I went to see Uma Thurman in the delightfully warped second installment of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. During most of the film, luscious Uma is covered with blood (her own and others), sweat, and lots and lots of dirt after attending what is euphemistically termed a “Texas funeral.” During a flashback which explains how “the Bride” acquired her kick-ass martial arts abilities, we see a sweat-grimed Uma lugging back-breaking bucket after back-breaking bucket of water up steep monastery steps to a humorously hirsute Chinese master. Hard practice is empowering, but it ain’t pretty. Sometimes even KSB needs to get off her bowing-toned ass and get down to business.

People who are new to Zen or other meditation forms usual come to practice through the sedentary and intellectual way of books. Although there’s nothing wrong with reading (or writing) books, words give only a partial picture of life and of practice. Believe me, every book-gleaned notion what Zen is or isn’t “really” about goes out the window on your first retreat when that wake-up bell rings at 4:30 am and you find yourself 15 minutes later huffing and puffing your way down to the mat and back up again, 1, 2, 3, 4… It’s monotonous, maddening, and sweat-inducing: at some point during the 11 minutes it takes to crank out 108 bows at a moderate clip, you’re going to want to collapse, run out of the room, or head back to bed. And at some point during that same 11 minutes, you’ll find a second or two (maybe even more) when you find your own blissful stride, your body flowing down and up like an inundulating stream.

If you’ve never done 108 prostrations before, you will hurt (unbelievably so) the morning after your first full set. And even if you’ve done 108 bows–or more!–every day for weeks, months, or years on end, you will find yourself panting and sweating every single morning: that fact of biology never changes. Our True Selves, you see, aren’t ethereal spirits who float up in the stratosphere, far from the travails of blood, sweat, and tears; instead, our True Selves are down here in it, bleeding, sweating, and crying with the rest of us.

So this is me at approximately 6:11 this morning, panting and sweaty, taking a self-portrait before letting the dog out. No, it ain’t pretty, this mundane gritty life, but it’s oh-so-real. If you practice long and hard enough starting right now, your True Self is guaranteed to agree.