This courtyard, in the Schwab Graduate Residence Courtyard at Stanford, is where I spend a great majority of my lunch hours. The pool has a calming waterfall - and 95% of the time - the space is absolutely silent.
Today I munched on apple slices, and continued reading 'Ambivalent Zen: One man's adventures on the Dharma Path
' by Lawrence Shainberg. He lovingly tells the story of his childhood and of his relationship with the master of the New York Buddhist Zendo he attends.
Human beings are unique as a species in their ability to master their environment. One of our most powerful tools in establishing such mastery is the ability to dichotomize; to take something complex and imagine splitting it up somehow, so as to understand and manipulate the parts (and thus gain power over the whole). We are able to do this for very simple things like walnuts, and for very complex phenomenon like ... well, like Zen. Regarding Zen as an American social institution, one could split it up between those who read, write and talk about Zen, and those who actually do it.
Lawrence Shainberg's book is the story of his own progression from a Zen reader to a Zen doer. The book is well written and entertaining, and yet is a deep personal reflection on Shainberg's Zen journey in search of himself. He started sitting in the 1970s, when Zen was still new to America, and he was not content to simply show up for an hour or two of weekly sitting at the nearest zendo (like me).
No, Shainberg was searching full throttle, and thus tried to swallow Zen whole. Shainberg is very generous in describing his thoughts and feelings as he progressed along his Zen journey, frequently describing his conversations with his teachers as he tried to grasp the "meaning" of Buddhism and Zen in the context of his own life. He is often merciless with himself, building up a delusional concept with great enthusiasm only to let the roshi deflate his balloon, sometimes with the ring of a bell. In other words, sorry, you haven't figured it out, discussion session over for today.
So, going back to my original dichotomy, if you are one of those Zen reading people and you believe that Thich and Pema and D.T. and Charlotte Joko have given you all you need for a life of Zen wisdom, then read this book too. You will at least be a step closer to the heart of Zen, you might at least recognize the gap between Zen literature and Zen practice. If there is but a hairsbreath of a difference, it is the distance between heaven and earth.
But then again, a Zen teacher would slap me at this point; no gap, no distance. Bell rings, get out of here. Just read when you read. Just practice when you practice. Just live. As Mr. Shainberg appeared to learn.
My favorite passage in the book so far - is talking with his roshi:
Dust is his word for all that's emphemeral, all that, if one becomes attached to it, gets one into trouble. The logic is always the same: the source of fear is attachments to the impermanent. Conversely, if you befriend impermanence instead of denying it, you won't be afraid of anything. What complicates the issue is that ideas like this are dust as well. Since Buddhist become attached to Buddhist theory more than anything else, there is no greater source of dust, as he's just pointed out to me, than Buddhism itself. Once I asked him if monks "improved" as a result of their training which is to say the training he had himself received, and he said, "No. Usually become worse. Develop fixed ideas. Develop pride." It isn't Zen practice or meditation he questions. It is Zen concepts, Zen excitement. Zen ego. He views the mind in general as a dust factory and meditation as a means of wiping dust away. he likens our formal meditation - zazen - to taking a shower, advises us to think of our breath as a windshield wiper which, sweeping back and forth with inhalations and exhalations, cleans dust from the mind as wipers clean a windshield.
Since I came to Stanford in the fall - I have gotten back in touch with a silence break in the middle of my day. No cellphone. No laptop. Just a quiet hour in the courtyard listening to the waterfall and reading - and basking in the silence. In the busy, multi-tasking lives we lead these days - - taking time to stop and allow things to settle is important.
It helps me reach back to the way I start my mornings every day - with a meditation. My quiet lunches away from it all - help keep the dust to a minimum. I know this is true. :)