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Pay now, die later

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

I’ve just purchased a cremation policy that guarantees that wherever I die, anywhere on the planet, and whenever that happens, I’ll be picked up, cremated, and the ashes will be scattered at sea, and each of my kids will get two copies of the death certificate (necessary to claim anything left in the bank, if there is anything). This presumes that the insurance company that underwrites the policy will not file bankruptcy in the meanwhile, and that phones and computer systems will still be working at that time and the company will have a record of this purchase, since I will be–ahem–unable to request these services myself. It also presumes that nothing major in the way the world works will change (something it is never safe to assume), and that I will not be pulverized or vaporized by some cataclysmic event…but then, if that happens, no one will have to worry about how to dispose of the body anyway. I’m actually much more worried about the bats and the honeybees. [read on]

S.N. Goenka’s excellent system

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Home from the ten-day vipassana course, I recompose my molecules and begin again.  For ten days I was intimate with fifty strangers, sleeping from 10 p.m. till 4 a.m. in chilly dorms, standing in line to pee, jostling before dawn with toothbrushes in our mouths, staggering back to the meditation hall as if back into the mouth of hell.  Intimate as our circumstances were, each of us was engrossed in our own inner filmscape, what Yeats called the rag and bone shop of the heart. Full of memories and secrets, we sat knee to thigh with each other, absolutely still for thirteen hours a day. Sitting times were punctuated by breaks for breakfast and lunch (no dinner), a little time for walking in a spectacular meadow, a little time for personal hygiene, and by occasional five-minute pee-breaks. We sought equanimity, acknowledged impermanence, and watched our minds do what they do. Wander, obsess, fantasize, remember, hash things over and over. Occasionally we left our inner drama long enough to follow instructions. [read on]

A perfect day at Muir Beach

Friday, August 10th, 2007

Today I have breathed in long, cool draughts of what I want most: time. I walked so slowly through the gardens, so slowly that the local doe and her two fawns didn’t even lift their heads or bat their long lashes as I passed by them, so slowly that the tribe of quail continued pecking at the ground, did not flutter away as I moved among them. There is so much to see, smell, and touch. [read on]

Two options down, one to go.

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

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. [read on]

Everybody is a hoe

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

Up at 4:30 a.m., meditation for forty minutes, and then the whole place–managers, gray heads, newbies, everybody–heads for the fields on Wednesday mornings, to work from 6 a.m till 7 a.m. I guess the idea is to keep everyone connected with the original mission of the place. Today the job was hoeing. Everybody got a hoe, and we chopped the rows, weeding and aerating the soil around the baby lettuces. The chunk! chunk! chunk! of the hoes was rhythmic in the dawn as the birds began to sing and fifty people fanned out in the field. Flaming queens in their hats and scarves; old dykes with faces like leather and painter’s pants with farm implements hanging from the belts; young and buff people, old and stiff people, couples and singles, everyone working in silence. Then breakfast. Then I had dishwashing for two and a half hours, cleaning toilets and guest rooms till lunch, then more dishwashing till nearly 3 p.m. I’m absolutely worn out, but the best part of the day was the hoeing. [read on]

GG Day 4: she loses her faith

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

Buddhism is not, of course, a “faith.” It’s a way of life, a set of principles, ethics, and stars to steer by. I have not lost any of that. But I have definitely lost a dream. For many years, I thought, “If I can just get through this, eventually I’m going to become a Buddhist nun, and then I will be fully who I am.” Hah. It was a romantic fantasy I had, that in my old age I would blossom into a saint, or something like that, in flowing and graceful robes, with a shaved head and a smile of bliss on my face. (I haven’t read Queneau’s La Dimanche de la Vie four times for nothing.) The truth is, I have have spent my life becoming fully who I am. The idea that living in Buddhist community would be a kind of glorious finale for my life is a delusion, like so many that have come before. It is always wonderful to be freed of another delusion. I felt more fully alive and more connected with the universe in Portugal, sitting on the miradouro in Melgaco, than I have felt at either of these Zen centers. That is not to say anything negative about the Zen centers. They are wonderful in their way, and they offer nourishment for many people. But not a way of life for me. [read on]

Green Gulch Day 3: Dishes, garden, sitting

Monday, August 6th, 2007

The first gong rings at 4:25 a.m., and we are to be in the large, silent, unheated Zendo by 4:52 a.m. We sit for forty minutes, walk for ten minutes, sit for forty minutes again. During the first forty-minute sit, there are frequent bells and gongs, no doubt to help us stay awake, and then after the second forty-minute sit, we have a “service” of chanting, gongs, drums, bowing, incense, bells. I am surrounded by people who may be very interesting, but I don’t get to know them. We work in silence, and the only time we can engage in social talk is at meals. People tend to sit with their own groups at meal times. There are about 50 residents. I would guess two-thirds are men, most of them under 35 or around 60. The women seem older on average: mostly 40 or over, with a sprinkle of strong young things. Of the 50 or so residents, nearly half are in robes, suggesting they’ve made strong commitments. According to the literature, this place was established in 1972, but I know I heard of it in 1969. I think at that time a group of Buddhists from San Francisco were going “back to the land” and starting a farm. Maybe it only became an actual institution in 1972. [read on]

Arriving at Green Gulch

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

I’m just back from a walk to the Pacific, and I have been filling up with tears at just about every turn in the path. I first heard of Green Gulch in 1969, and I have wanted to reach here ever since; so it’s now a place out of legend for me. I dreamed of coming here when, after my marriage to Christopher’s father ended, the two of them disappeared; but I had no money. I dreamed of coming here with Seth, but you can’t raise a child here. I dreamed of coming here when I decided to leave Smith, but I wanted to go to Africa first. So here I am. Here are the gardens, laid out in the sun; here is the trail to the beach; here are California dreamers in a cool wind, next to an icy Pacific. Some are in bikinis; some are in heavy fleece jackets and long pants. I rolled my pants up and stepped into the water and looked around me. I’m here. In California. That place of dream. Today I have free time till 6 p.m., and there are two computers available for residents who are not working. I don’t know how easy it will be to get to a computer as the week goes on and I begin my labor. But here’s where I am now. [read on]

Leaving Upaya

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

Three things. Joan Halifax, Roshi for this center, gave a dharma talk last night, so I have a better sense of who she is as a teacher. Second, I had a formal interview with her this morning (Dokusan). She made a couple of helpful suggestions for my practice, and she reminded me that I don’t have much time left. I’m in my last years. It’s time. Choose well. Third, there was a meeting this morning for all residents and staff, and while the meeting was confidential, the theme as I understood it is that the real nature of this place is evolving. The system is finding its way. Some residents question whether it is primarily a retreat center for guests, which is how it makes its money, perpetuates itself, and offers service (to people who can afford the retreats); or is it a retreat center for residents, more like a monastery. Right now it is straddling both streams, and that is important for me to consider. If I come back, I will be in the company of some great spirits who are doing their utmost to create a mindful, conscious community. A few times a year, something like ten days will be set aside for deep practice. But I will be, for most of the first year I am here, and perhaps for more than that, a hotel housekeeper or restaurant worker. I take all of this in. [read on]

Upaya Day 7: Kendall in Love

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Voila! I finally sorted out the visitors from the residents. The rich people’s retreat left, and with it all the people whose toilets I hadn’t wanted to clean. I’m sure I’m being horribly unfair and critical, so here’s a blanket apology–but let me say that my honest observation is that all the mindless ass-wipers are gone now. Today we actually had a “service” in the morning, and the place transformed from a summer camp for New Agers to a spiritual center of palpable power. I sat opposite the row of robed (and serious, highly trained, deeply committed) practitioners, and I felt a tsunami of love for them. [read on]