Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Zendo of the Mind

As a student of Buddhism, I have found myself drawn to the traditions and styles usually associated with Zen. As I look deeper into these traditions, I also find myself drawn to Zen’s origins, rather than modern Japanese Zen, where practicing the Four Dignities of Man (Sitting Zen, Standing Zen, Walking Zen, and Lying Zen) are almost conducted with more focus than the object of Zen itself, which is to simply be. As a practice, Zen is most often found in groups, and Zazen (Sitting Zen) is perhaps the most popular form in the United States today. I find this to be, largely because it feels a lot like church, and many seekers of Zen today come from other religious traditions, and joining a group, going to a special place, and working through the motions of Zen meditation has a certain comfort in it, a familiarity that makes being there easier than the true roots of Zen, which are entirely experiential, and most often celebrated in solitary demonstrations.

This line of thought brought me to consider the Zendo, the place in which modern Zen is practiced. It has a certain sacred atmosphere about it, in that it is removed from the every-day world, is designed around a certain romantic idea of Japanese architecture, using simplicity as a powerful motif. It is kept clean, and is used only for the purpose of meditation, and is otherwise left alone. Many of the Zendo’s I’ve researched come with baggage, though. One must belong to the group who built it, or is responsible for its maintenance. There is usually an expectation of an offering, to keep up with the mortgage and furnishings of the place. There are etiquettes and permissions involved in the use of the Zendo, all with healthy origins no doubt, but the net effect of these restrictions is an increased difficulty in “letting go” while there.

When I found my Zen teacher, it was through the discovery of a blog titled “The One-Mat Zendo” in which he celebrated the revival of the tradition of solitary meditation. While performing Zazen in a group can be useful to many people exploring Zen as a path to walk, I suppose I had a different set of needs born by my natural introverted character, my busy schedule, and my long-honed love of solitude in nature, something my teacher’s blog endorsed. This got me to thinking recently about the place of the Zendo in Buddhist practice, in both its benefits, and its limits to aiding the one who walks the path.

I was listening to a lecture recorded before I was born, which suggested that during meditation, people tend to get anxious, and are afraid to shift their weight or cough, or make any noise that might distract others. The speaker declared that real meditation, the only useful kind, was the sort that could withstand even the most disruptive riot of sound and noise. It was this lecture that helped me realize that some of my calmest moments are in the middle of sensory overload, the likes of which would completely unnerve other people. Feeling absolutely calm during a heavy metal concert, in the middle of Washington DC traffic that enrages most people, or even during time spent in overseas war zones where nerves are usually on edge, I have found a certain peace and calm in the storms of noise and stress, and onslaught of the senses.

Conversely, it is during quiet times of my life that I tend to lose my balance more easily. A misunderstanding with one of my children will set me low for days. A rash word, an excess of time to dwell on the little things, these sorts of moments are what challenge me, and fall between my raging music or my quiet solitude by the river, or in my workshop. This all has prompted me to consider how my mind works in various settings, hence the title, the Zendo of my mind.

To be able to be at peace, to sit unattached, comes naturally under the ideal circumstances, but with great difficulty in what I used to consider “the normal day.” It seems as if all the things I spent 40 years setting up as “normal” in my life are the very distractions from my yoga I seek to enjoy now. This creates a natural tension, of course, and has led me to work on my state of mindfulness in the ordinary every-day moments. I cannot retreat to a Zendo, I cannot always have my gong and my incense, I cannot always ponder my Mandala for peace. So I have to create a mental space for these things, evoke the memory of them under the most irritating and pedestrian settings, in order to preserve my balance.

My Zen teacher recommended a book to me, “Meditation without Guru’s” by Clark Strand. In it, he spends quite a bit of time describing his own attempts to realize the purpose of meditation. By the end of his description, he’s left with the simple truth that I have also discovered: that meditation is meant to simply help us get through the day without hang-ups. Alan Watts described it as “Medicine, not diet,” as a reminder that the modern Japanese fetish with constant and painful and un-ending sitting is not the way, either. To this end, I’ve tried to manage my frustrations by seeking refuge in my mental Zendo – a place of balance, evoked in memory, to help me maintain my peace when the usual props aren’t around. What I’ve learned is, the greatest Zen masters have figured out how to do this, and their mastery comes by being able to live every moment as if they were in their Zendo, without having to think about it.

So many of the phrases used in Zen come to bear here, the Gateless Gate, the Middle Way, all synonyms for the same experience – to exist without the need for things to help us live in the truth that Buddhism offers us. The real Nirvana is not confined to a Zendo, or a special place in the woods, or dependent on the props of Zen meditation or the traditions and exercises of a Sangha. And so, the only refuge for the Zen practitioner is the Zendo within, the state of mind one prepares for one’s self through external disciplines when possible, as a means of achieving peace when under duress.

Christopher Price
Alexandria, VA