Monday, April 2, 2012
Just Sitting @ Both Sides No Sides (April 2012)
For a while now I’ve been tinkering with this blognote. I want to give persons interested in Zen practice in El Paso a taste of what we do here at the Both Sides / No Sides Zen Community.
I’m the leader of our community—Bobby Byrd, and my Dharma name is Kankin, which means Sutra Reader. Like so many dharma names, it comes from one of the chapters in Dogen’s Shobengenzo. Our practice is rooted in the lineage of Matsuoka Roshi, and it came to me through Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi, the founder of the Order of Clear Mind Zen in Las Cruces, and from whom I received my dharma name. I hang a brown rakusu around my neck, which means I am a novice priest. Two years ago, April 3 2010, I received the rakusu during the Shukke Tokudo Ceremony. But I don’t like the word “priest”—it resonates with too many confusing memories of my growing up—so I don’t use it unless I have to. Like here. Also, I’m leery of the word “Zen” these days. It’s become a commercial word. All sorts of things are “Zen.” Like tea. Restaurants. Ice cream. I like better the phrase “dharma practice” which Stephen Batchelor uses in his writing. But we’d not get many google hits if we inserted Dharma Practice instead of Zen. In my life I am a poet (my blog is here), and my wife Lee and I are co-publishers of Cinco Puntos Press here in El Paso. We’ve lived here in the same house since 1978, and this year soon I will be 70 years old. As we said growing up in Memphis: “Holy shit!”
As of now, April 2012, the No Sides / Both Sides Zen Community conducts two services during the week—one, the Sunday services 10am; two, 7pm Tuesday night. Both are at 2709 Louisville in the Five Points Central area of El Paso. This is Lee’s and my home, the place where we’ve lived for 34 years. It’s just simpler to use our home. Other places didn’t work out. It’s free here, and we are not disrupting anybody else’s life. So we thank Lee for the opportunity to sit here. It’s a nice place. It’s homey but it opens up like one of those robo-toys into a nice place to practice together. Perhaps in the future we’ll find more formal digs. But for now we’re home.
The services usually take one hour and 30 minutes, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. Each is rooted in 40 to 50 minutes zazen practice, but we do chanting of sutras before and after zazen. I consider our sutras as tools for our practice (or as sangha member Susan Feeney called them, “instructions”). They are not religious doctrine, and you can pick and choose what, if any of the ritual, you want to participate in. Anthropologists are welcome. But we do ask that you practice zazen with us. That’s what we’re there for. And if you want instruction on how to sit, we have folks who can help.
Tuesday nights we sit in the office that sits behind the house. To get to our Tuesday zendo, you go through the gate on the left of the house and follow the driveway back. It’s one of those old detached garages, 1923, river stone walls, rickety roof. Lee and I had it remodeled in the 1980s for my office. Our neighbor Arturo Alemán (now deceased) plastered the wall and lay in the red Mexican clay tile floor. Chuck Telehany framed the ceiling and windows. A fragile place really but it doesn’t feel fragile. It’s quiet. Like a cave almost. A comforting place with special ambiance. It has a special feeling for me, full with memoires, because this has been where I write and think and daydream and sit zazen for the last 30 years. Now it’s a pleasure to sit shikantaza there with my friends. We have a small altar built by Ken Hogaku Roshi, the teacher of Daiho Hilbert, with a beautiful brass Buddha in a teaching pose (also a gift from Ken Roshi and his wife Fern Roshi). Our Tuesday zendo is a quiet place in the evening, the bell resounding on the stone walls.
Tuesdays we are usually not too populated. Three or four of us. Sometimes five. We are always welcoming newcomers, but Tuesdays nights are a difficult time for some. Unless there are newcomers, we have one forty minute sit so we can really settle into zazen. If newcomers do show up, we go back to the normal schedule: two 20 or 25 minute sits with a kinhin. We have our regular services—sutra chanting before and after our zazen, a tea service and I talk a little bit during tea. People ask questions. We talk about practice. When we’re done, we collect the cups, chant the Four Great Vows and blow out the candles. Recently we’ve been going down to Kiki’s for a late dinner. The vegetarian black bean burritos are a favorite. Maybe we share a pitcher of beer.
In early March only Loretta Lopez and I were sitting staring at the wall in silence. Like birds on a wire. During tea, Loretta and I talked about our own home practice. It was nice. Loretta is a double-dipper—Sundays she goes to St. Albans Episcopal down the street. She likes the music and the ritual there. And the Lenten Season—it was that time of year—is important to her. It was good to hear her talk about it. But Tuesdays she saves for zazen with us. Then the next Tuesday only Rob and Polly showed up. It was a beautiful spring night. After chanting the Heart Sutra we paraded outside in kinhin (walking meditation) and did our zazen on the wood deck. A few early spring bugs, but it was nice to be in the breeze and the neighborhood sounds (cars, dogs, kids, the grackles and mockingbirds—everybody getting reading for sleep) as the evening light faded into darkness.
Sundays are different but the same. We usually have between six and eight Sangha members, sometimes more. We sit in the dining room of the house where we can easily accommodate up to 12. To enter the Sunday zendo, go through the gate on the left of the house, and enter the house through the kitchen, the first door on the right.
The dining room where we sit is surrounded by big old-fashioned windows, so the room is bright with sunlight. It takes some work to get the room ready. Some folks come early to help. We move the table and chairs; we tote the cushions (aka zafus and zabutons) in from the office; likewise the bells, our Buddha, candle, and other paraphernalia; and we move the big altar (another gift from master Zen carpenter Ken Roshi McGuire) into place. Susan Feeney brings flowers for the altar. People come one by one, say hello and talk some. At 10am the Ino rings the bell and the room goes silent. It’s a magical feeling, that sudden silence in the bright light of day. Sangha members are standing in front of their cushions, their hands in gassho. I light the candle, silently we repeat the Prayer of Atonement, those of us with rakusus hang them round our necks, and we are all ready to practice. We chant the Three Refuges and the Heart Sutra in English.
We sit facing the sangha, not toward the wall. The windows can offer too much distraction. A wandering grandkid, a neighbor in need of sugar, and always the cats. Three of them wander around our house. Usually one or two decides to sit on the window sill and stare through the glass at the crazy humans sitting cross-legged and silent, doing nothing. Perhaps it may seem like home to them, these weird people so close to each other, but not talking. Not even looking at each other. So we settle into our practice—the two 25-minute periods of zazen with a kinhin in-between, the final sutras, the incense ceremony, the tea service and dharma talk. Instead of the solid quiet of the office, the house has creaks and moans, refrigerator sound, the neighborhood waking up to Sunday morning. We don’t notice those sounds until we sit zazen and experience our breath. Oh, the bits and pieces of noise are always a surprise. And then during kinhin, our walking meditation, the old oak floor boards groan and squeak as we slowly circumambulate the zendo (aka dining-room).
After services on Sunday we all pitch in to return the house to normal. The zafus and zabutons must be carted back to the office, the altar moved back into its hiding place, the dining room table returned to its place of honor under the ceiling fan, the chairs and all the other knickknacks put back so that Lee won’t even know, if I didn’t tell her, that we’ve had a huge crowd of peculiar zensters sitting zazen in her living room. Both the preparation for services and the cleaning up afterwards is a form of “samu,” work meditation. We work together, especially afterwards, easily and with a nice energy provided for us by zazen. We can feel the difference in our energy and alertness. It’s a pleasure.
Sitting zazen with Sangha members is very important to Dharma Practice (aka Zen Practice). We are mostly householders, we have jobs and families and responsibilities, and we don’t have many opportunities to experience long periods of intensive practice. It is, as the saying goes, what it is. Thus, our home practice and our practice with Sangha—sitting there and concentrating on our breath—giving to the universe, receiving from the universe, all of our senses present—are nourishment for each other.
Zazen is the study of self, and as we study the self, the self drops away. We come to experience ourselves as expressions of the absolute, and vice versa. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
Oh, that’s what it means!
We are the membrane through which we experience what these words point to. We are the Gateless Gate.
But such useless words. Oh well.
My best to you all.
Bobby Kankin Byrd