When I finished the dishwashing for today, at about 3 p.m., I staggered to my room and had a good cry. All I could do was huddle down in my sleeping bag (it’s freezing cold again) and sob. This was my summer vacation? No. It was my research project: I wanted to see what these Zen centers were like. Now I know. I wonder if Zen is like water–if it takes the shape of its container–and if these Zen centers in the USA have absorbed the puritan work ethic and the headlong drive toward productivity that is the USA. At its worst.
What did you think it would be like? one might ask. Well, I thought there would be time to stand and watch the wind in the trees, between tasks. I thought there would be a kind of meditative ease to the shape of the day. I dreamed there would be time to walk slowly (meditatively) and smell the flowers. I thought maybe it would have something of the slow flavor of zen poems written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I expected to do a fair share of work, but I didn’t think I would find myself in a headlong dash to finish the toilets, make the beds, and sanitize the dishes to meet hygiene standards and deadlines that are a painfully tight stretch for the number of workers available.
At both Upaya and Green Gulch, there are elaborate computer networks in the offices and a couple of slightly funky, outdated computers for “guest” use; there are kitchens with dish sanitizers (to be used after the human workers wash and rinse the dishes); there are beautifully designed and laid-out multicolor brochures advertising courses and teachers and a rich panoply of “guest options”; there are small fleets of vehicles; there are lushly designed and landscaped guest rooms as fine as those in expensive hotels. There are, in other words, modern conveniences (and money-making schemes) that ancient Zen masters never dreamed of. Thanks to the vise-grip of capitalism, Zen centers in the USA are businesses. They pay inflated prices for their “organic” food, much of which they cannot possibly grow for themselves. Their electric bills, insurance, tax accountants, marketing experts, graphic designers, and bookkeepers cost the same as those of other businesses; they have to find ways to draw in enough funding to run the same way posh private schools do.
In both centers, the long-term residents live and work in close quarters, doing more than a full day’s work every day to make this highly complex system run. They abide in constant “stress” (I am using their word for it); they feel pushed beyond their limits and are a little irritable all the time (my observation); meditation enables them to return to work and continue abusing themselves and those around them by doing more work than is ever reasonable. They depend on the influx of (my word) dogsbodies, or (their word) “students” to do the grunt work, the heavy lifting, and many mindless tasks. I’m not sure about the people at the top: the abbots and dharma stars. But I am now very certain that all the residents from the middle to the bottom run as fast as they can, drink coffee or green tea, and take anti-acids or anti-depressants or mega-vitamins so that they can function on less sleep and less time off than they need. They need to meditate or they would surely melt down and have mass nervous breakdowns. This is all so familiar to me…it is so “American,” so hyperkinetic, so insane. It is exactly the style of life that I have lived all these years and dreamed of getting away from.
So now I have seen what it’s like. It cost me a couple of weeks of sustained physical effort, about a thousand bucks in air fares and miscellaneous expenses, and the loss of a dream that was out of line with reality. I have learned what I needed to know, and I still want what I wanted in the beginning: time. I want a life with time in it. I want time to stand still and watch the wind move through the trees. I want time to listen, to be in this moment, to be quiet and meditative and easy in my bones. I want to sit on a park bench sometimes. I want to read, listen to music, dance when I feel dance-y. I want to be able to write sometimes, to meet interesting people and hear their stories, and to do what I can to listen to people who don’t usually get listened to. I want to continue working with prisoners and to be present for other people who inhabit the margins of US society. I want to be a stand for peace–in the world and in my personal life. I can’t do any of that at a Zen center. That’s helpful information.
Tomorrow, Friday, is everybody’s day off at Green Gulch. I’m glad I get a day off. Tomorrow is my summer vacation, then. I look forward to it. Then on Saturday I fly to Portland. And what will that bring?
Tags: Buddhism, California, Green Gulch, Where to plant myself