(Note: If you’re not interested in Zen Buddhism and its practice in America, then you might as well skip over this entry. I got the title for this post at the Book Soup Bookstore on Sunset Blvd. I was buying a book for my journey home, and a little stack of elegant cards were right next to the cash register. “Stop Talking,” one said simply and plainly. Yeah, I thought, that’s what I want to say.)
This last weekend Johnny Byrd and I were in Los Angeles for the big Book Expo. Saturday Johnny let me have the morning off. I drove to Santa Monica to sit with Brad Warner and his sangha. I love Brad’s books--Hard Core Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up. They’ve both been important to my own practice, and I look forward to his third which he says should be out by Xmas. Brad in his writing and his dharma talks speaks in an young iconoclastic punked-up American lingo that’s refreshing. He received transmission from Gudo Wafu Nishijima, and like his teacher he’s a Dogen scholar. (A nice portrait of Dogen below. I snatched it from wikipedia, but I couldn't find any information about it.) Brad's writing is wise and he writes a fun read. His sangha meets at 627 Hill Street, a few blocks from the beach, in a small green house that they rent from the church next door. It’s rich with zabutons and zafus and empty of furniture and ready for non-action. I was rushing because I didn’t want to be late. Not to worry. Brad’s Sangha is the most laid back of the laid back. I should have expected that, no? Brad and his folks (mostly musicians, it seemed) talked about music and making music while we waited for the last few members to straggle in barefoot for Saturday morning zazen. The gist of the conversation was music, hip and witty and iconoclastic. As the time passed, the chatter got old and I got antsy. I didn’t know or much care what they were talking about. I had come to sit and to listen to a dharma talk.
My limited experience has showed me that Zen meditation groups are all different one from the other. Zensters are always talking about “American Zen”--what is it? Maybe American Zen is about diversity. Like Pentecostal churches. Whoever starts a Sangha, defines a Sangha. Time and our history will certainly show us who we are, so perhaps documenting our experiences is a good thing. Like Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail to come home by.
The nicest thing about the Hill Street Group was I was easily the oldest person there. By 15 years at least (I’m 66). I read somewhere that, in analyzing age demographics of Zen in America, the average practitioner is getting old. So many of us are the children of the 50s and 60s, the generation of reading too much Kerouac and Gary Snyder and D.T. Suzuki and Allen Watts and lusting after enlightenment like it was another drug to be gulped down. But not on Hill Street. The Zensters that morning were mostly in their 20s and 30s, four men in their 40s (including Brad), and Grace a nice take-charge woman maybe a little bit older. A very young sangha it seemed. But I had expected the youngish nature of the sangha. Brad, who is is in his early 40s, is an ex-punk rocker and that experience and Japanese horror movies (that’s how he earned his living in Japan) are the metaphors and language through which he writes his books. Hip and cool. Good for a paragraph or so in Malcolm Gladwell’s next book. Total count was 13 or 14 people including me. Four were women, Grace and three others. That was the Sangha’s demographics--young, 30% women, 85% white, mostly hip and middle-class, electronic-punk-&/or-alternative-rock musically inclined. And, except for the women (thank God for women in a zendo), they talked a lot.
Grace seemed happiest to see me, the old fart with the goofy hat walking through the front door. Maybe it was because I am older, but I think really it was because she is just a very nice person. Zen does that to you somehow. It's not a promise or anything. It just happens. I guess other disciplines can make the same statement. Grace was in charge of the altar--a small wooden table with a tiny Buddha, a bowl with sand for the incense sticks and a beautiful lush pale-purplish orchid. The service was bare-bone too. After the stragglers had all wandered in and the musicspeak evaporated, Brad gave a short introduction of sitting for me and another man who had never sat with them before--a bow to your zafu, a bow to the sangha and then meditation. A 30 minute sit staring at the wall, a 10-minute kinhin (walking meditation) and a 30 minute sit. No sutra sheets, no Heart Sutra in English or Japanese, no Three Treasures, no chanting at all. Brad simply bowed to the altar, lit the incense and rang the smallish and frugal bell--bong, bong, bong.
The meditation was great. My small piece of the wall was off-white plaster and decorated with a window. At least a corner of a window. White enamel. A white curtain that fluttered in the little bit of ocean breeze. Outside green shiny leaves of some kind of lush California bush. Nice smells. Car sounds. Every once in a while some chatter from down on the big street. I very much appreciated sitting in that room with those people. It was good and strong. And then I got lost in the sitting. Sweet. I liked the 30 minute sits. At our small El Paso sangha and at the Las Cruces Zen Center the meditation period is somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes. When I’m in charge I worry that longer periods will be too much. People won’t want to come back. But of course very few ever do anyway. I shouldn’t worry. Zen is like that. If you don’t want to sit and be silent, you shouldn’t be coming anyway.
When we were done, Brad, Grace and another man who was wearing a black t-shirt with the ironic statement “Tu Eres un Pendejo /You are a good friend” (not a good t-shirt to wear in El Paso), went off to get us tea and crackers. While we waited, the chatter started up again. Punk music. Electronic music. Alternative music. Hip and cool spiced with a bit of cynicism. Very attached to their non-attachment. Too much. I was startled. Then a bit disgruntled. I enjoy so much the quiet time after sitting. I stretch and look around and feel the room and try to remember what the hell I’m doing sitting on a zafu in the first place. But it seemed that a few of the young men in the the Hill Street Sangha came for the talk and the sitting was a preparation for the talking. I read a book once--SIT DOWN AND SHUT-UP! Who wrote that book? Oh, yeah, Brad did.
Brad, tell them to sit down and shut up.
The tea and cookies were served with little or no ceremony. No bowing, no formalities--take a cracker and hold your cup out for the hot tea. And after a few sips Brad started to talk. He welcomed me and the other newcomer. The conversation wandered to this and that before settling on the question of what Brad was to do about teaching elsewhere. One guy in the corner stretched out on the floor. More tea was poured. Seems another punk guru Noah Levine, the author of Dharma Punx, had asked Brad to speak at his zendo on a regular base. Seems he gets tons of people. Brad not so many. Like today, only 13, counting the migrating old fart. We all commiserated that people won’t go out of their way to be Buddhists. The priest needs to be on the doorstep: otherwise, The Eight-fold Noble Path and all the enlightenment candy can wait. Being a loudmouth myself, I tossed in a couple of pennies about my growing up. Brad talks about this question on his own blog in a post called Spiritual Schwag. To be honest, I didn’t care what Brad was deciding. I only get to L.A. once or twice a year. So it's his business. I live in El Paso. I listened for a while but my work was calling. I said thank you, bowed and slipped out the front door. The ocean coolness felt so good on my skin, and the greenery is so beautiful. I missed El Paso, the few people I sit with.
So, was my trip to the Hill Street Sangha worth it? Very much so. The sitting was great. It’s hard to sit anywhere for an hour on a business trip. And I got to think about my own practice. I can do without the robes and Japanese names (mine is Hen shin) and much of the ritual. I like the silence, the sitting and being silent with others. It's very special. And I very much missed the chanting that we do in our small sangha (the Heart Sutra, the Three Refuges, the Four Great Vows). The repetition of those words is a meditation. Yes, many times I am asleep to their meaning, but other times, unexpectedly, they can reverberate deep inside me. Maybe I’m a Zen prude, but I don’t think I’m a Zen prude. Maybe being raised up in Memphis on Little Richard and James Brown made me different from these guys being raised up on punk rock in California or Cleveland. I don’t know. But I do take seriously the silence of a zendo. It’s certainly more important than taking off your shoes and socks and bowing back and forth like a bird on a wire.
I enjoy all of it. The laid back dharma, the formal dharma. It’s a good exercise. But if you want to talk, fine. Go outside and talk. Just let me sit down. I promise you--I’ll shut up.
My friend JB Bryan’s poem “PRACTICE” is appropriate here. His publishing company, La Alameda Press, did a wonderful broadside of the poem which hangs over my desk, thanks to my wife and Luis Villegas, the fine arts handyman who is our friend.
a body such as this body
tosses back its antlers &
spins them like a propeller
skull finally work
iris, planet, sun
I won’t spend a dime
O the universe has a wit
easily tasted in green leaves
boiled with water
what’s the bloodstream?
but a river of huge loves &
thunderous flowers of combustion!
be sure to practice everyday