Thursday, 23 July 2009

The ego mirror.

I spent the day with a colleague who did me a major service. He is very egotistical. Everyone around him is at fault in one way or another. Nothing that anyone has ever done comes up to his standards. He spent today selecting various other colleagues (none of whom were there) and subjecting them to vitriol and character assassination, and when he wasn't doing that he was telling me about his many achievements, ten books, an almost complete PhD, fluency in Japanese and many more besides.

So what service did he do for me, you maybe asking? How can a man so selfish do anything of anything of any value for anyone? Well, he was a mirror in which I saw myself. So many times I have tried to build myself up by knocking others down. Singing my own praises is the same thing. By boasting about my achievements, I'm knocking them down and the usual result of this is that another ego gets its back up and defends itself. Then a fight ensues, usually low level and enduring, a relationship all but destroyed. So in all his ranting and raving today, my colleague showed myself to me and helped remotivate my practice. I'm grateful to him.

Weeding the garden.

Today I need to weed my moss garden. In summer new weeds appear daily it seems. At times I feel that I'm wasting my time as no sooner do I weed, new weeds start growing again. One time this thought came to me, but I remembered Dogen's advice about just doing something and finding the universe in it.

Weeding seems like such a boring job, but when I am in practice, rather than utter delusion, being down amongst the bushes, moss and lichens, paying full attention to the musty smells of damp foliage and a mosquito coil, just weeding, nipping the tiny shoots of wayward grasses and creepers with the tips of my finger nails, life becomes uncomplicated, easy and full. When I rise from weeding, I go back into my house, back into my family, a better man.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Sex and Zen.

Sooooo, I'm trying to sedate my sex drive. Or just ignore it. For years I have known it to be a cross between a tickle and an annoyance. Certainly, whilst I've had a lot of fun with sex, a fair amount of the wreckage surrounding me has been generated by inappropriate sex. I haven't taken the precepts, but I can see the inherent value of the one covering the dirty deed.

I'm not going to be celebate. I'm married after all. And my wife wants another child, so there'll be plenty of bonking going on at regular intervals over this next while. Jeese, last month I got a bit fed up with bonking to be honest (there was a bonking schedule designed to hit the most fertile time of the month. For a week before until a week after the time of the right temperature, it was every other night. And still, The Wee Fella wanted to go wandering. You can't underestimate the power of The Wee Fella.) But that's not what I'm on about. It's a fundamental truth that a great deal of the tension and uneasiness in my life is to do with The Wee Fella wanting to get it on when it's just not appropriate to do so.

For example, I work in an education environment with lots of young adults. i.e. lots of young women, and I live in Japan, which means in summer the classrooms and hallways are full of hot pants, mini skirts and low tops. I know that there are some who would blame the women who dress like that for my predictament, but I can recall Gandhi writing somewhere that the bodhisattva would not allow his sexuality to dominate his mind, even if a naked woman were to be sitting on his lap. Personally, I think you'd have to be dead to manage that feat of endurance, but, hey, I ain't no Gandhi. Still, I know what he was getting at.

So what I am doing to sedate my sex drive. I'm doing the very same thing I do when I find myself getting caught up any unnecessary thoughts, putting my awareness on my breathing or whatever task I'm performing at that present moment. I simply ignore it. Often it has been a helluva struggle, but I've managed on enough occasions to prove to myself that it can be done without needing a monumental amount of effort. I'm just not following through on the thoughts as often. I'm doing exactly what I do on the zafu, only it's not on the zafu. My time and efforts on the zafu is strengthening my ability to remain present as I go about my daily business.

I've often enjoyed following through on the thoughts, but I have to admit that moreoften it leads to anger and frustration when there's no avenue of release for the resulting physical energies that accrue. And when there is, maybe it has come about as a result of a sense of duty on my wife's behalf, rather than a shared desire for sexual gratification. Then the exquisite line from the poem Deceptions, by Philip Larkin comes to mind, when he describes sex as:

"stumbling up the breathless stairs
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic."

But that's the negative side of bonking. The positive side remains exquisite in itself. And I can attest with total conviction that there is no better sex than when it is with someone you love and you are both trying to make a baby.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

I got sick of listening to myself.

By far the most important thing that has happened to me since I started sitting and trying to live life mindfully, is that I don't have to listen to my nonsense as much. Of course, I lapse into the old ways of thinking, the sham fights with people in work and elsewhere, the grandiose imaginings, and the lamenting and cursing of my past. But not as much as before, when almost all of my thinking was dominated by such thoughts.

Today I went out to buy a new samue (traditional monks work clothes worn by many men in Japan as casual summer wear) and I wasn't with my wife, who usually translates when I get out of my depth with the language. There was a woman and a man tending the shop, a traditional kimono shop. Chances are they are husband and wife. When I bought my first samue there the man was there alone and he dealt with my wife. The samue then was ¥3,000 (around $30) and today the same price was on the label. However, the woman served me and she asked for an extra ¥150 over the marked price. Immediately I felt awkward, wondering why she was bunging on an extra 75 cents and I immediately reckoned she was taking the foreigner for a ride. Not confident in my Japanese language ability and with a two-year-old son in tow, I just paid the price, took the samue and left.

Then the nonsense began. The whole way home in the car and back in the house I replayed the experience in my mind, new scenarios with me challenging her and making a fuss, standing up for myself and striking a blow for foreigners in Japan, etc, etc, etc. However, it was much more muted than before. I tried very hard to let it go, not whipping myself for thinking that way, concentrating on my breath and bringing mindfulness to the fore. Soon, it subsided and I went about my business until my wife came home. I tried to resist telling her, but I gave in, the old thinking was back, stirring the pot again. I told her about being charged the extra and she told me that I'd just been charged the tax, like she was when we bought the first samue.

My ego is more than ever subject to my awareness and it is losing its grip on me. I am so glad that I have got sick of listening to it. Where did I put that zafu?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Sitting zazen at a Soto Zen university.

As I wrote in a previous post I found a zendo at a Soto Zen university which is 30 minutes by car from my house. I've only lived in this town for a couple of years, so I'm still getting to know the area. The university was established by Soto Zen practitioners and has a Faculty of Zen Studies. Here's a link to their website, which has an excellent instruction on how to do zazen.

Yesterday was my second visit, the first being very clumsy, not knowing what the hell I was doing and not having enough confidence in Japanese to ask anyone. I was just watching and following.

The zendo is a magnificent building tucked away in the trees at the back of a pretty big campus. I could go into detail describing the building and how beautiful it is, but that's not what's important. The local temple I go to each week has a very relaxed attitude to the formalities of sitting. Their is no kyosaku or monk in attendance. The monk who runs the temple (with his family) strikes a very large bell housed in a ground level belfry outside the zendo, then joins us in sitting.

In the university zendo there are at least two monks in attendance. Yesterday there were two in robes and two younger ones in western clothes, but wearing rakusu, the flat, square bag worn around the neck. I assume they're students at the Zen institute, and probably novice monks. One of the monks wears dharma robes and is the chief Zen master. I just saw him on the website as being the director of the Zen institute.

The zendo is a large rectagular room with seating for well over 100 people sitting two deep on tatami, just like other major zendos, for example Eiheiji monastery. Yesterday only one zafu on the second row was being used. Sitting is preceded by the Zen master walking swiftly around the Zendo, passing each sitter who is sitting on a zafu, but facing outwards into the middle of the room. This 'inspection' is called 'Kentan' and when the master passes each sitter must do gassho. When he finishes, a bell is struck three times and we turn around on the zafu to face the wall to begin 20 minutes of sitting, then a short session of 'Kinhin', which is walking meditation, then another 20 minutes on the zafu. The session ends with the unpan and mopan being struck.

My first sitting in this place was not good as I was overly conscious about being there and following procedure, as well as being a few feet away from a wall and staring at a zafu, rather than the wall. It was simply too strange. However, yesterday, the quality of my sitting rose significantly. For some reason, staring in the direction of a black zafu, rather than a wall, allowed my eyes to settle, glaze over and my concentration to properly rest on my breath. Usually I find myself struggling with jittery eyes. I thought about this on the way home in the car. It was truly a step forward for me. As I sat with my mind on my breath, I was looking with my mind's eye into a void and my thoughts were nil. There was perfect quiet except for my breath and I was utterly aware. I could hold this for a only a few short periods before being disturbed by something external, but it was the most wonderful experience. Last night at home, after the kids went to bed, I went into the room I sit zazen in, a tradition Japanese room with tatami mat flooring and green, sand-gritted plastered walls, and turned the lights down much lower to what they normally are. It was not totally dark, but dark enough for my eyes not to be strained as I tried to settle them. Once again I was able to gain a better level of concentration on my breath.

The zazenkai (zen sitting sessions) at the university are opened to the public only once a month, but next month there is a break for the holiday. So, the next zazenkai is in September. I'm looking forward to it. I sincerely hope that I can build a relationship with the people there and learn from them. I'll be sending an application to their English department for a part-time teaching, which is what I do, only at other universities. They have student zazenkai each Wednesday which I have been invited to attend. From September I may well be able to go every Wednesday. Fingers crosses then.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Zen, the movie.

Last night I watched Zen, the new Japanese movie about Dogen Zenji's life and work.

It has recently been released on DVD with English subtitles. The movie itself is quite good, despite some pretty ham acting and woeful special effects, especially the depiction of Dogen's enlightment when he shoots straight into the heavens on a computer generated lotus flower. But all this can be forgiven as it's still a good movie. It charts Dogen's life from the death of his mother to his death sitting in a zendo in his most famous temple in Japan, Eiheiji, which still exists today.

The movie selects a series of famous quotes and events which build a picture of the teachings of the man. This is what makes the movie so good. It's not all about the man, to the detriment of his teachings. The core teachings are laid out and are even more inspirational in the context of the movie. I'm not sure if this is available on Amazon outside of Japan, but it's available from Amazon Japan. It's region 2 so if you want to watch it in the US or other places, you'll need to watch it on your PC.

Good luck.

Friday, 3 July 2009

I fell off the dharma wagon, but it keeps pulling me back on.

I've spent the last week and a half slacking big time on sitting and generally staying present. I've not touched this blog despite spending dozens of hours in front of the computer, choosing instead to aimlessly browse and squander time playing on-line games, an escape route from reality on which I have spent far too many hours. I've been drowning in my past and fantasising about a glorious future and being thoroughly disenchanted with the present moment.

This said however, once we hear the truth of Buddhism, we are never truly the same. The truth, once experienced, changes us forever and we cannot return to our old, ignorant ways for very long, without realising what we have done. One time I heard a recovering alcoholic say that once alcoholics know the truth of themselves their drinking is spoiled forever. I think it is the same for we ego-addicts, for that is what we surely are, and that is the self which the Buddha exhorted people to leave behind. I may have identified with thoughts over this last couple of weeks, the 'stinking thinking' that some recovering alcoholics call it, but the light of truth keeps illuminating my folly.

I never really fell of the dharma wagon at all. I'm tied to it through realisation.