Pretty pout

Last week I taught the Thursday night Introduction to Zen Meditation class at the Cambridge Zen Center. Afterward, I found myself wondering how many times have I taught this class over the years. How many people have walked through the Zen Center doors, had a half hour of meditation instruction from a Dharma teacher like me, and then never darkened the door of a Zen Center ever again?

Pink blob

Zen Master Dae Kwang once said that Dharma teachers should teach the Zen intro class knowing that students might never come back: the goal, he said, is to give people a practice they can take with them and employ in their daily life, regardless of whether they return to a Zen Center. The Zen intro class, in other words, isn’t a recruitment tool; it’s the handing out of fishing rods. I’m not giving you a fish, nor am I insisting that you fish next to me. Instead, I’m giving you the tools you’ll need to plumb the depths of your very own stream, regardless of where the river of your life carries you.

Tom

The most important Zen Center isn’t the one you can walk in and out of; it’s the one you carry within you. When I sit to meditate, the first thing I feel is a flash of welcome recognition: the relief of coming home. Ahhh, my soul sighs. At long last you’ve quit your rush and bustle–at long last you’ve reunited with your true self in the Here and Now. This sense of quiet calm–this sense of settling one’s soul beside still waters–arises whether I am meditating at the Zen Center, in my car, or at my desk at home. It is a deep, settled feeling that isn’t a place but a connection with This Present Moment.

Jerry

This is why I don’t say much about the bells and whistles of Zen Center-style practice when I teach the intro class. Instead, I focus on the three things you need to practice anywhere, regardless of setting or ideology. These three things things–attention to body, attention to breath, and attention to mind–are always with you, regardless of your external circumstance or trappings. If you are alive, you have a body, a breath, and mind, and you will continue to have each of them in one shape or another until you die.

Both your body and your breath are limited by space and time. However much the mind might wander, the body and breath can exist only Right Here, Right Now. If you stop reading these words to pay attention to the slouch or straightness of your back, the precise position of each of your hands, and the actual angle of your skull upon your spine, you will for that moment be present Here, because that is always where your body is.

Bugs

Similarly, if you take a moment to observe your breath as it flows in and out, you will be present Here and Now because that is the only place where breathing happens. Try as you might, you can’t make up for yesterday’s lost breath, nor can you store up breath for tomorrow. Both the body and breath are perishable–they are rooted in the present moment and are destined to pass–but the mind deludes itself by thinking it is immortal and unchanging. This is where the mind (literally) wanders astray, venturing far and wide into the past and future where body and breath cannot follow, the self divided against (and thus in conflict with) itself.

The Wall at Central Square

This is why meditation feels like coming home, regardless of where you do it. The moment your mind realizes it is wandering and comes back to where your body and your breath are, you are instantaneously and temporarily whole. This magical moment of reunion is something some people never experience, but it is perpetually at hand, right under your proverbial nose.

Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.

We out here though

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always there was a pot of hot tea waiting for me when I went into the interview room to begin. Sunday mornings when I give interviews are hectic: I have to get up early enough to do my morning chores before I leave, so by the time I arrive at the Zen Center, I’ve already taken the beagle out and in, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the kitchen litter box, and fed the cats. It feels good, in other words, to sit down to a hot pot of tea someone else prepared: a chance to play guest.

After the laughter

I usually take about three sips of tea before I ring the bell for the first interview. While everyone gets settled on their cushions in the main meditation room, I get settled on my cushion in the interview room, making sure I have everything I need close at hand: a clock so I can keep an eye on the time, and a box of tissues I can offer to anyone who comes in with a heavy heart. (Sometimes I think the most important job a senior Dharma teacher can do in consulting interviews is listen without judgement while calmly doling out tissues.) Once I’ve determined everything is in place, I pour a cup of tea and take approximately three sips, breathing in the tea’s aroma, feeling the heat of the cup in my hands, and savoring the warm flavor on my tongue. The Zen Center is a ritual-rich place, and these three sips of tea have taken on an almost magical meaning for me. Before I can ring the bell that says “I’m ready to listen to whatever question or issue you want to talk about,” I have to make myself present to a simple cup of tea.

Rest in paint

A lot of profound, powerful, and deeply humorous things happen in the interview room: all that consulting interviews are, after all, is a chance for two practitioners to sit down and talk face-to-face behind a closed door. But sometimes I feel like the most powerful moment for me personally is the moment or two before I ring the bell, when it’s just me holding a cup of tea in my hands, wondering what sort of questions will walk through the door.

Je suis XXVI

Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I spend a moment looking at the drawing of Kwan Seum Bosal, the bodhisattva of compassion, that hangs above the interview room mantel. In the guise of an eleven-headed goddess with a thousand hands and eyes, Kwan Seum Bosal looks like a harried mother with heads instead of eyes in the back of her head: ever watchful, and ever ready to lend a hand (or a tissue) when someone is suffering. Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I silently invoke the spirit of Kwan Seum Bosal, whom I recognize as a representation of the compassion we all possess. Once I ring the bell for the first interview, I have no way of knowing what flavor of suffering will walk through the door. All I can hope for is that like Kwan Seum Bosal, I’ll find a way to be present in the face of whatever arises.

Teddy bears' interview

Last night, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center: a chance for practitioners to have a one-on-one conversation with a senior teacher.

Teddy bears' interview

One of the best bits of advice I ever got about giving consulting interviews came from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton), who sat next to me the first time I gave a round of interviews. Consulting interviews, he explained, aren’t about answering questions; consulting interviews are about sharing an experience with the person sitting across from you.

I think of Zen Master Mark’s advice whenever I ring the interview room bell to signal the next person to come in and sit down. If consulting interviews were about answering questions, I’d have to worry about knowing enough to say the right thing. But since consulting interviews are about sharing an experience, I don’t have to know anything to give a good interview: I just have to show up, sit down, and be present for whatever arises.

Zen Master bear with Zen stick

These three guidelines–show up, sit down, and be present–are the same whether you sit in the teacher’s or the student’s seat: these three guidelines, in fact, apply to pretty much any face-to-face encounter. And as if to underscore that point, last night when I walked into interview room, I found it was already occupied by two plump teddy bears sharing a face-to-face experience that transcended human words.

Buddha and houseplant

Last night I went to evening practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, even though I still haven’t fully recovered my voice from the cold-turned-bronchitis I’ve been fighting all month. My voice is mostly better when I’m simply talking…but chanting was a whole other story, with my voice squeaking, croaking, or falling silence whenever the melody varied from the middle-monotone. It will take a while before my vocal cords are back in shape for either chanting or singing, but in the meantime, it was good to squeak by with roomful of other practitioners who filled in the melodic gaps when my voice wasn’t able to rise to the occasion.

This is my Day Twenty-Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Dharma room

Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.

Dharma room altar

Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?

Stigmata

We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?

Haloed

Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.

Buddha and friends

I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.

The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.

Offerings

Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.

Dipped

As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!