On New Year’s morning I attended a zen buddhist sit and service at Kojin An Temple in Oakland – a natural draw towards the spiritual practice that has held my tender heart for over 15 years. I walked through the lush rain-soaked garden and tucked my keys into one shoe on the wooden shelf outside the temple. Sliding the door open, my feet tiptoed to an open zafu perched on a square zabuton three feet off the ground on a smooth wooden platform. I bowed to my ‘home’ and the man already seated bowed to welcome me. Together with eight others, I sat for 40 minutes, still as a hawk on a lamp post. While the hawk’s eyes scanned the terrain in search of food, mine looked ahead and slightly down, a sweet spot I found again and again in my ‘no search’ – that moment when my mind stops grasping or avoiding for a precious nano-second.
For years I thought my first experience of sitting occurred in the bowels of the San Francisco Zen Center with a small group of people of color. I sat on the zafu and slowly became uncomfortable and ached physically and mentally, wishing for the bell to let me move. I did not return for quite some time as the experience was awkward and unpleasant. I settled again on a cushion a few years later at a time when I was bereft and empty amid the loss of my father, my relationship, and my mother’s presence due to her depression.
After a few sits I remembered the very first time I sat on a cushion – in my twenties I visited Whitethorne monastery in Northern California. The catholic nuns integrated buddhist sitting into their spiritual lives – I rose early one morning and sat in the chapel, the semi-darkness enfolding us in a shroud of utter silence. I had a runny nose and no tissue so my wish then was also for the bell to signal an end to my discomfort.
At Kojin An I sat calmly with that wish for the sit to end – my habitual desire to fidget is a good friend now. I noted my hand wanting to scratch my nose or my leg wanting to stretch out when it fell asleep. I gathered courage from those around me who were observing their own inner dramas and drawing courage from my efforts.
After we heard the bell telling us to rise and join together in Japanese chants for morning service, I saw how much this practice mirrors my writing life. Staying through the sometimes uncomfortable groundless repetition of sitting and writing is the core of heart-centered living. So is bowing down in homage to pure truth no matter how much ego tempts you to compare your practice to that of others. Sitting still on my cushion or when I write requires me to simply be one with truth, bravery, authenticity, and terror. I draw courage from other writers sitting with a blank page, willing to wait for the words to emerge.
I am encouraged in both ‘homes’ by others around the world, being with what is and not judging our efforts or requiring acknowledgment. I may feel alone with my computer screen or on my cushion, but blessed others are with me in spirit, creating form from emptiness and finding emptiness in form. The delusion of separation melts when I accept my suffering as yours and your achievements as mine. Forest trees grow together invisibly as we do, the branches overlapping and nestling close with no sense of attack or ownership of the earth and its abundant supply of patience and perseverance.
People see Soto Zen Buddhism as a hardcore practice with rigorous forms, dark colors, and lots of silence. I see my writing life reflected in these aspects. It is not enough to write or sit zazen. I tell people new writing is about 30% of most writers’ lives and 70% is the massaging of the bare words into form, going to the dark corners and finding the love hidden in the folds of shadows. I embrace the terrifying silence because that is where lies the essence of why I write. Beauty is always there to be found, redemption is 3 breaths away, counting to 10 again and again is the most profound experience of my day. It allows me to ‘stay’ with my words when I want to check my email or watch my telenovela.
As I chanted the Maka Hannya Haramitta Shin Gyo and the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, I appreciated that the pronunciation is similar to Spanish – I taste home with words I do not know intellectually but feel vibrating throughout mi alma. My meditation and writing practice nurture each and are my two ‘homes’ – non-negotiable blank slates that reveal life’s intimacy one breath at a time. The bells in temples tell me when to rise and when to bow, when to chant and when to leave. My stories tell me what to say, my teachers show me how to hone, and all writers show me how to dare. As the Buddha said: No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.
That does not mean we are alone, it merely means the sitting and stories require our steadfast commitment and we must plant the semillas daily so they grow fuertes and touch the sky. #52essays2017