Zazen & Happiness

Buddhists sometimes bristle at the idea of meditation as therapy, though at the same time there is a thriving Buddhist therapy axis in American culture. And while I had been circling Buddhism for much of my adult life, I only came to it as a serious practice through “therapeutic” practice. I had come to a point in my life during my fifties when I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety & I found the guided meditation practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn extremely helpful in getting hold of my self. Kabat-Zinn’s techniques, of course, are basically desacralized Zen & after I had emerged from what was actually, I see now, a deep crisis of faith, I returned to some of my earlier reading about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. That was a couple of years ago & I have been sitting zazen pretty much every day since then with only a couple of short breaks. Over the last six months I have been sitting twice a day.

I had lost my faith, in my mid-fifties, in the only religion I had ever believed in, the religion of poetry. But that’s really another story — I started out to write about happiness. As I began to sit more often & for longer periods, I noticed that I was not just calmer, but happier. A lot happier. And this worried me. As a new student of Zen, I was trying to be Very Serious. After all, the great Zen masters are always talking about “clarifying the essential point” & reminding one that “life and death are of supreme importance” & so on. And what about kensho & enlightenment & realizing one’s true nature? But then it occurred to me that maybe happiness — not frivolity, but happiness — is one’s true nature, or part of it at least. Why deny this aspect of reality?

One of the things I hated as a kid about going to church was the deadly grimness of it all. I didn’t sense any of that at the monastery last month. You can probably find grim zendos, but Zen, I think — much of Buddhism, actually — starts from the idea of an original freedom whereas Christianity starts with Original Sin. I’m not ecumenical about this: I think there is a fundamental difference, but that, too, is another story.

A Poem from The Book I’m Putting Together . . .

. . . has won a prize from the American Literary Review.

Here is what Joanie Mackowski, who judged the poetry contest, thought of the winning poem, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds”:

“Stretching its keen observations and minutely choreographed sentences over the advancing paw prints of its lines, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds” makes language ductile and makes the reader recall the animal and chemical pleasures of reading. This poem finds an atomic pulse: ‘thing & song// in their wild fullness full’.” The poem will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of ALR.

Zen

Because I grew up among Pharisaical Christians (who were never more indignant than when denouncing pharisees), I am chary of discussing much of anything that has to do with religious practice; but I have been a practicing Buddhist for several years — after a lifetime of diffuse agnosticism — though I have not been a member of any group, practicing instead by myself as a kind of Zen hermit by the river. I sit zazen every day, read texts & commentaries, even light incense on a personal alter. (A lot of this emerged from my encounter over the last fifteen years with Vietnamese culture.) But tomorrow I will leave for a weekend retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery, which is run by the Mountains and Rivers Order, founded by John Daido Loori Roshi. Daido Roshi died a couple of years ago and has been succeeded by a new abbot, but the monastery’s practice continues, so far as I can tell, in the traditions he established. I was attracted to MRO partly because of Daido Loori’s interest in and emphasis on the arts as part of Zen practice and also because he clearly wanted to practice a rigorous sort of Zen free from New Age slackness. Now that I’m about to submit myself to some training, I’m a little frightened! Well, “frightened” is probably too strong. Let’s just say that I don’t respond well to authority if it is exercised arbitrarily. The teachers I have admired and learned from in my life have earned respect through their demonstration of power, insight, understanding — whatever the subject of their expertise. So I’m wondering what the weekend will be like — lots of zazen of course, but I’m not sure what else.