I have continued my practice of sitting zazen while here in Vietnam, though I only seem to be able to sit once a day, in the evening, rather than my usual twice a day, morning & evening practice. And I’ve been listening to dharma talks by MRO teachers. When I return to the US, just before the semester begins, I will spend a week at the monastery for the August sesshin*. Lat night I dreamed I had arrived for sesshin, which for some reason was beginning with a large public gathering in a tall building quite unlike the monastery. “Well, I’m new at this,” I told myself, “just go with the flow.” But there wasn’t much flow & people did not seem to know what was going on. I decided to just go to the zendo & wait, but I couldn’t find it. I knew it was on the ground floor, but all the elevators were behaving strangely & the staircases seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Classic anxiety dream, of course, though with an unusual object.
I never did find the zendo & woke up feeling frustrated, but also with the notion in my head that “just sitting” is much harder than one might suppose. Just getting to the place where one can sit is no simple matter!
*Characterized by silence and deep introspection, sesshin is recommended to anyone who is sincerely interested in experiencing intensive Zen training. We wake up each day before dawn to begin a schedule that includes 7 to 10 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent meals in the zendo (oryoki), work practice. . .
. . . has been drawing my attention lately. Beginning with Hesse’s Steppenwolf, I’ve made a chain of association: Sartre’s Nausea, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, Woolf’s Orlando, and finally, Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Call them novels of the self in history. I hadn’t read Steppenwolf since I was eighteen, when I remember absolutely and distinctly not getting it, except that it ends with a drug trip. Reading Hesse’s novel again now, about a man trying to survive turning fifty, rang true in every sense for me — philosophically and psychologically — as I try to survive turning sixty in a few months. (Sixty is the new fifty — perhaps literally, given extended life expectancies.) Like poor Harry Haller, I seem to be going through a process of reevaluating everything — imaginatively reliving parts of my past in order to make them come out right, recasting my own fiction. I dreamed a couple of weeks ago that I had decided to give up my teaching job in order to “do my MFA over again” because “I didn’t get it right the first time.” And last night I had a dream — satire, I hope! — in which I gave my my university professorship in order to go to work in industry selling frozen food, with Dana Gioia as my boss! Well, he did and does sell frozen food, first literally and now figuratively. There is that wonderful scene near the end of Steppenwolf in which Pablo shows Harry how to rearrange the pieces of his personality on a chessboard, playing with alternatives that nevertheless remain thematically related. That’s what the last couple of years of my life feel like. A lot like Harry Haller.
So now I have begun the Rilke novel, which I started years ago but never finished — I know this because I can see my marks in the margins — but not much of it registered with me. “The main thing is to live,” writes Brigge near the beginning. Yes.
We knew a little in advance — a comet was going to slam into the earth, or come so close it would suck the atmosphere away. C. & I decided to spend our remaining time with a friend & begin walking to her house. During our walk — through a neighborhood that, in retrospect, reminds me of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a freezing chemical rain began to fall, coating everything with rime. We kept walking but thought this might be the end of things, but the rain slows & then stops & we keep walking. I see a child, almost an infant, standing alone on a street corner. There was a moment of looking around and wondering what we should do, but then I went over and picked the baby up and began carrying him with us to our friend’s house. “At least he won’t die alone,” C. said. We shared (silently) a sense of doing the right thing even when it made no difference. When we arrived at our friend’s house she was pregnant and bleeding from the nose. Her abusive boyfriend had hit her in the face, but he was still outside. The chemical rain began to fall again & we discovered that the infant we had rescued was dead. We sat in our friend’s living room, on the floor, a candle in front of us, waiting.