Saturday, March 4, 2017
Zen For A Day
The last time I went on a retreat was I think in 2013, when Brother ChiSing was still alive and we all went to Praxis in far North Texas, just south of the Red River. That was awesome. It was three days of meditation, walking, quiet and general restfulness. I had a close encounter with a grasshopper, which is sort of a long story but you can read about it here. And there were stars. Lots of stars. Zillions and zillions of stars. And grasshoppers. Anyway, a great time was had. And now it's been a couple of years and I really want to do this again and I keep running into the same two barriers: One, there just ain't a lot of Buddhist meditation retreats happening in Texas. This here's the Bible belt, in case you didn't know. And two, the ones there are, are either A. prohibitively expensive or B. far away or often C. both.
There was this one in Austin, for example, last weekend. It was for women only, and it was hosted by the Plum Blossom Sangha, which is kind of a sister group to the Dallas Meditation Center, where I hang out. Same school of Buddhism, same guys in charge. So it would have made a lot of sense to go, except the cheapest accommodations they had available were still too expensive for our budget. I jist ain't got that kind of money for a weekend. (And if I did, I'd be saving it up for a new mattress, which I desperately need.) There's another one in April, which is cheaper, but still too expensive. Life is expensive, you know.
So, last Saturday I hauled myself over to the local Zen center, another Buddhist group in the Dallas environs, for a daylong retreat. It was better than nothing. (It was also cheaper. A mere $35, and for that you get tea and crackers, too.) Now, there's meditation in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition, which is what I do, and then there's Zen, which is a whole nother thing. A Zen retreat basically involves a whole lot of sitting, not a whole lot of anything else, and it's all very formal. No stars. No grasshoppers. You sit facing the wall instead of facing other people; people bow at you; you do certain stuff when the bell rings, etc. Which, again, is great, unless you're like me and you have A. very little patience for formality and B. no clue what to do when the bell rings about half the time. Or maybe more than half the time.
Now, I knew what I was getting into. I've been there before. But, that was an hour and a half long regular session, not a daylong retreat. I also knew what I was bringing with me, which is, a right hip that gets very cranky sometimes, especially when you want to sit on it for what seems like an inordinate length of time. So, being a smart person, I asked for a chair. Yes, you can meditate in a chair. It means you're not touching the Earth like all the cool kids, but you can do it. The trick is not to rest on the back of the chair, and just kind of sit forward with your spine straight but not rigid and incline yourself not exactly forward but not exactly backward, either, while avoiding being straight up and down. Yeah, it's kind of like flying a helicopter. Not that I've ever flown a helicopter, but I don't imagine you just sort of wing over to where you want to be and press the "hover" button.
So anyway. I was in this chair, and I was meditating, and everything was going more or less well, and then the teacher showed up. The teacher is a pretty cool dude. I think he's a comparative religion professor someplace besides being a Zen master, and professors of comparative religion (and Zen masters) tend to be rather even tempered and sanguine about this whole what's-my-place-in-the-universe thing. I've only met him like once three years ago, but he remembered meeting me and I, remarkably, remembered what he'd said to me last time, which made him very happy. (I imagine most professors of comparative religion would be overjoyed if they ran into a student who still remembered the basic plot of the Bhagavad Gita.) So that went well, and we broke for lunch, and that went well, and honestly, I was doing fine until time for the tea ceremony.
I hope y'all have actually been to a Japanese tea ceremony, because I don't know if I can possibly describe what it's like. Let's just say, like all things Japanese, that the presentation of the thing matters as much or more as the actual substance. You know how when you go to a Japanese restaurant, the food is very artfully designed and served on attractive little plates with contrasting colors and stuff? Yeah, well, they do that with everything. Not to mention tea. Well, especially tea. Tea is very important. How important is it? Well, it's important enough that I scooted out of my chair and got down on the floor, with the cool kids, so that we'd all be sitting at the same height and the tea servers wouldn't have to bend at a different angle to offer me a cup. Because that wouldn't look right.
Unfortunately, scooting down onto the floor was a mistake. My cranky hip was already cranky, in spite of the chair, and being on the floor did not make it any happier. There's something about leaning outward at that angle that it just really doesn't like after a while. So we meditated for half an hour, and then the teacher said a few words, and then the tea ceremony started, and by this point my cranky hip is making it really obvious that I'd better do something, like immediately, if I want to be able to limp down the stairs to go home. So what did I do? I straightened my right leg. Rolled my toes to the inside. Rolled my toes to the outside. Then tucked the leg back in, figuring it would be good for another ten minutes. Maybe. Possibly.
And the second I saw the expressions on the faces of the people across from me, I could just tell I'd committed some kind of horrible faux pas. Which, in a Japanese setting, is ridiculously easy to do. And it had to be during the tea ceremony. Of course.
So, being the brave person that I am, I snuck out the back door an hour and a half early, which was the second I had a chance and before anybody could talk to me. Eesh. Maybe if I don't show up back there for like thirty days or something, everyone will have forgotten all about it. Or maybe it'll become one of those apocryphal fairy tales people use to scare hell out of children; "And that, young grasshopper, is why we don't straighten our right legs during the tea ceremony."
(Like how I came full circle on the grasshopper thing?)
Well, anyway, how embarrassing. But I got my retreat, sort of. Somebody just please remind me that the next time I go back there, I'm not to get out of the chair for anything. Yea verily, even tea. Unless, of course, that would be another horrible faux pas. Which is possible.