Monday, July 30, 2007

Tea and China

Last Thursday (July 26), Kyogen, Gyokuko, and I met with Andy Ferguson. Andy is a person who leads Buddhists on tours to China. ZCO was trying to get DRZC folks to join them for a tour they have planned next year, but Kyogen was kind of backpedaling because he wants to see what he wants to see, not just do whatever ZCO is doing. He looked at their itinerary, and part of the point of meeting with Andy was to see whether we could join ZCO for part of it and then do a leg on our own, or whether we should just plan our own trip, and what that would look like.

I hadn't realized that they wanted to include me in the meeting until it was actually happening. I was happy to sit in, and pretty much just listened. It took a while. Andy described some of the typical tours he does (I think Kyogen had already told him some of what we're interested in) and how they might work for what we are looking for. We talked a lot, and there was at least one lengthy philosophical digression where Andy and Kyogen were talking about emptiness (still in the context of China, how Zen is re-emerging in China and how they understand many Zen terms more deeply than westerners do, etc.) and such other interesting things. I was fascinated by all of it, but Gyokuko brought the discussion back to trip planning, and then Andy stopped a moment and said, you know, because logistics are easier in China than they used to be, maybe we could do this -- and he put together a new itinerary that he's never done before, based on the fact that domestic (that is, within-China) flights are available that weren't available even a few years ago. That one hit the mark, including pretty much everything we are interested in and leaving out things we aren't interested in.

I've always been more interested in China than Japan. When I think of the roots of Zen, I think more about China than Japan, even though our lineage came through Japan, and includes 800 years of Japanese cultural influence. Buddhism, of course, started in India with Shakyamuni Buddha, but was taken from China to Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia. In China, there were several schools of Buddhism, but what survived was Zen (Cha'n in Chinese, transliterated to Zen in Japanese, and now the term widely used worldwide).

Kyogen pointed out that his teacher, Jiyu Kennett Roshi, studied in Malaysia (and was even ordained there, I think) before going to Japan, and so also transmitted a fair amount of Chinese influence along with the Japanese.

I really want to do this trip. It won't be until spring of 2009, and if I don't still have enough money left, I'll have to work to put together the approximately $3000 it will cost. Andy is passionate about China, speaks fluent Chinese and also studies classical texts, lectures in China and the US, has written books about China and Buddhism (we studied one this last year in seminary called Zen's Chinese Heritage), and was really delightful to listen to.

One of the things he's interested in and lectures on is tea. Tea has become a large part of Zen culture, in Japan as in the US. But it came from China originally. One of the two areas we are looking at is where it became a prominent part of practice. Now, I don't drink tea. Occasionally I'll have a mild herbal tea (peppermint, chamomile, barley), but generally I drink water. When Andy started to talk about tea, I thought maybe I'd better start drinking tea. I've never found a compelling reason to drink coffee, but this might be the time to begin exploring tea. Slowly, in small amounts, of course.

So, on Saturday, when I went to the 10th Anniversary celebration of the Zen Center of Portland, and someone offered me some green tea, I at first said no thank you, but she came up after a bit and poured me a cup. I had been having this conversation with another woman about the fact that we both turned down the tea, and I recalled to her the discussion about tea in connection with a China trip and how I had been thinking I should start drinking tea. Then this woman who had offered me tea came back and poured me a cup, and I was pretty surprised. I did tell her that I generally don't drink tea, and would prefer a smaller amount. So she went back and brought me back a mug about 1/3 full of green tea.

I drank it, and it was very nice -- a delicate flavor, as I prefer. I said this to the woman I had been talking with, and pretty soon she got her own cup. So maybe I'll start with mild green tea and work up to other types.

Written July 28, 2007

I didn't do anything all that special for my birthday, and yet I did a lot yesterday (Saturday, July 27), and it was pretty cool.

I started the day preparing for and then participating in a ceremony for Dharma School alums, who had a daylong retreat and then an overnight last night (many still sleeping this morning [it's now 10:45am] probably for a little while longer yet). I was chant leader for the ceremony and Domyo was the celebrant. It went off pretty well. We shortened the sitting meditation periods slightly, and many of them had never done the walking meditation before, so Domyo had to instruct them. The ceremony she chose was all in Sino-Japanese. It's a fairly new ceremony for us, and I haven't done it all that much, and it was the first time I did both drum and chanting at the same time on that one. So it was a little challenging for me in some ways. We carried it off fairly well, in spite of dropping a beat somewhere along the 3rd (fastest) time through the Victor's Dharani.

Came home, checked e-mail, and then Gyokuko asked whether I'd like to accompany her and Kyogen to the gym. They have a membership that allows them to bring a guest, and I've gone along several times with them when I can. I sometimes bicycle and then go swim in the pool, sauna, etc. This time I managed to forget my gym shoes so didn't do the bike. Instead just swam for a while, sauna for a while, shower, and then, as prearranged, went off by myself on public transportation (the 24-Hr Fitness place is right next to the Hollywood Transit Center).

I stopped at Lloyd Center and ate a somewhat leisurely sit-down lunch at a restaurant, a rare treat that I seldom indulge. Then on to my eye appointment at Kaiser. The last several years I've been going to a place on Broadway near where I used to live, where I really liked the optometrist, and spent somewhat extravagantly on glasses. Now that I have no income but do have vision coverage, I decided it was time to go back to Kaiser and just do it that way. I really liked the doctor I saw yesterday. She was friendly, capable, quick (but didn't feel rushed), and it was all fine. She found that my eyes are a little different. They look fine, she said, but she wants to check with the doctor I've been seeing for several years to make sure that the asymmetry is stable, and not a new development, which could indicate some risk of eye disease. I'm pretty sure that is the case, but the previous doctor didn't mention asymmetry to me, so I don't know for sure. I'm glad she's being careful. I ordered new glasses, mostly because I didn't want to be without these for two weeks. They will still cost me a lot of money, but maybe a couple hundred dollars cheaper overall than what I would have paid going back to Broadway. So I guess it's worth it. We'll see how I like the glasses.

Went back home on the lightrail and bus with eyes dilated, and was pretty tired when I got home. A brief rest, then made dinner for myself and my friend Jyoshin, who then went out with me.

We went to OMSI to see Bodyworlds3. This is an exhibit of plastinated dead bodies, and it's pretty fascinating. It makes the results of dissection accessible to the masses. It's very popular. Tickets aren't all that cheap, and you have to sign up for a specific time to go in so it doesn't get overwhelmed. Jyoshin and I went through on our own, each at our own pace. I found myself particularly interested in internal organs, though there was a lot more emphasis given to muscles and bones. They really did cover all the body systems, though. The arteries were died a very bright red, and some of the exhibits were strikingly beautiful and artistic. I still found some confusion with organs, where they all are and how they are situated relative to each other. It's hard to see that clearly, because they are all kind of packed in there and not always clearly labeled. So I went back and looked again and found an exhibit that I had overlooked, with the stomach, small intestine (9 meters of them! all laid out in a way that you could see how much there is) and colon. I can't remember at this moment what all else was included in that, liver I think.

I have at least a better idea of all those organs and their relative size. Some hazy idea of how they all fit in there, though not entirely clear or solid. Pancreas, spleen, gall bladder, and kidneys -- other than the kidneys, of which there are two, those are the ones I get a little bit mixed up with. They are similar in size, and all seem to have something to do with digestion (pancreas also with the blood -- it sounded like even though you could argue that it's all about digestion, there were two separate functions, one directly on food going through the digestive tract and the other with the blood itself). The size of the liver surprised me -- it's big! It looks very different from those others. And the diaphragm and lungs are higher than I usually think of them. You could really see how the diaphragm divides the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm is also maybe bigger and thicker and tougher than I usually picture it.

We walked home, as getting a bus to there was easy, but getting back was more difficult. By the time you walked to a bus stop coming back (it goes over a different bridge, on a different route going back) you might as well walk home. So we did. Stopped on the way at Burgerville and got a small chocolate shake -- that was my birthday dessert, I suppose. It was a lovely evening for walking, so even though I was tired of being on my feet, it was okay. We talked about our reactions to the exhibit. She had more trouble with the fact that they were actual dead bodies than I did. She felt like they were missing something. Of course, they were dead. And just the physical aspect was all that was being explored. She felt that not everyone looking at them was exhibiting proper respect. She could see, though, how I found it fascinating, because of my interest in systems and how they work. I've always looked at bodies, even my own, that way. What an interesting thing, how does it work, how is it changing with the years, what does it mean that at some point it will cease to function and I will no longer have use of it? Anyway, talk like that.

This morning was another treat, unexpected. After I got home last night, Kyogen and Gyokuko noted that they would be going to a 10th anniversary celebration of another local Zen Center, and would I like to come along. So this morning, we went. The ceremony started at 8am. It's a Center that follows Charlotte Joko Beck, and generally doesn't do much in the way of ceremonies or robes, so we went in samue rather than robes. And then the teacher there was all dressed up to the nines in koromo, kesa, even tabe (the white ceremonial socks that are sometimes worn the zendo on high occasions).

Kyogen and Gyokuko were given seats of honor, and I was seated next to them. I found the ceremony surprisingly moving. At the end of the ceremony everyone was invited to offer incense. I was beckoned to follow Kyogen and Gyokuko, some of the first. I was being honored as a priest, and did my best to act as one. It was almost overwhelming to me. Here I was being honored when I had done nothing for this sangha, even though most of them don't know me. It became clear that it's not about me, not even about the work I do, but simply a role that I'm filling, something I'm embodying. Well, those aren't good words for it, but I'm still sorting it out, I suppose.

Then the teacher spoke, and then others in the sangha spoke, and I found myself responding to their words and to the spirit of love and appreciation in the room. Yes, I understand that. I could feel how we are all connected.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

July 5, 2007 -- about July 4

I got back from Clatskanie yesterday evening, and it was still pretty warm. I had gone out a day early (that is, Tuesday early morning) to the monastery to try to join their marimba float, and got instruction and picked it up fast enough to do so! If that wasn't going to work, I would have joined the scratch band float (a first attempt this year) doing various sorts of percussion.

So yesterday I got instruction in the morning, and basically joined the monastic day, two work periods, meals, zazen in the evening, etc. I set up my tent out there for overnight, and then this morning had fun getting ready to go on the float. Played marimba like crazy in the parade, did a lot of walking trying to find everyone, got to see a lot of the entries in the parade -- it's a huge parade, who'd a thunk it, but evidently people come from all over to do this. Behind us were some ATVs, very loud, but they were courteous and backed off a bit to give us some space. And behind them was a log truck that occasionally blew its air horn, but usually between our numbers. It was lovely.

[This is a picture of the scratch band float.]

It was HOT. I had my SPF shirt on, and someone loaned me an SPF hat, which helped. I can't really do sunscreen because it messes with my eyes, even if I don't put it on my face. So I try to stay out of the sun and if I have to be out for a while like today, I cover up. Only problem is that it is just that much hotter. And doing music always makes me warmer anyway. By the time the parade ended and we got to the park, I was just really feeling overheated. So I went and got a bottle of ice water and found a nice quiet place by the river under the trees and lay down for a bit. It was nice.

Went back to the monastery for the annual pan-Buddhist picnic in the afternoon, and had a potluck dinner that couldn't be beat -- I wasn't be hungry again until tnis morning. They grilled tofu dogs and burgers, buns, had all the traditional potato, pasta, three-bean, tabouli salads, yummy desserts (I sampled four of them). When I was quite full, I simply lay down on a couch in the midst of everything and took a nap. Come to think of it, that's where I napped Tuesday afternoon too (my tent wasn't up yet).

After I woke up I found myself unenthusiastic about joining in any further outdoor games or frivolity, so hung out for a little while indoors, and finally took my leave. Came home, walked down to the Dharma House where it's cooler to check e-mail and such, and finally went home to bed, with fans, wet washcloth, all my coping mechanisms, and it all worked fine. Got a good night's sleep. Yes, the fireworks were loud, but they really didn't bother me. I could definitely tell the difference between those bought locally and set off in the neighborhood and the "real" ones down at the waterfront. I could almost imagine that I heard some from Sellwood to the south and maybe Vancouver to the north. There is definitely a deeper tone to those. Anyway, just drifted off to sleep with no worries.

I have the house to myself again. MrK and his wife Yoan who live in the basement have gone out to stay at the monastery for the month of July. Their animals have been farmed out to various people (Yoan asked whether I'd like to watch their cat here, but I decided I wasn't sure enough of whether I might take off during this month and wanted to keep that option open). It's a big house for one person, but there are some nice things about being the only one living there. I began reclaiming the kitchen this morning, doing a fair bit of cleaning. It's not all done, and I'll do more tomorrow morning when it's cool. But it all helps.

June 28, 2007 -- California visit

Wanted to write a little bit about my visit with Amber and Shawn and kiddos (5, 2, and 6 months) in California (Amber is Pam's daughter [known as Plow to dharma folks]). It was a delightful time. All of them are so welcoming, I felt at home almost immediately. Of course, the kids had a little trouble adjusting to me the first night, but by the next day we were all pals, and by the time I left, they were completely comfortable with me.

There were aspects of it that reminded me a lot of practice and what I'm learning. For example, the baby, Piper, 6 months old. She isn't quite sitting up yet, not crawling, not even (quite) turning over. She's a bit chunky, and having trouble figuring out how to move this body of hers. She kicks and kicks and struggles and tries, rolling from side to side, and sometimes scooching along on her back a little bit. Can't quite get the hang of it. When she's on her tummy, she struggles to hold her head up and tries to move everything she can. But it's not comfortable for her, so after a while she fusses and we relent and pick her up or move her to a different position. She's getting lots of floor time and eventually she will figure it all out.

What applies for me is that this is something (a) she doesn't quite know how to do and (b) her body isn't quite ready for. The effort she is expending is important in terms of continuing to strengthen her muscles and help her body get ready for all of this. Also as a way of expressing her intention to move that body. But it doesn't, in itself, get her anywhere. Her body needs to grow a bit more, and she needs to figure out what works and what doesn't. All of this takes time and patience, not generally qualities ascribed to 6-month-old babies. But think about it. Babies have to have incredible patience and determination to overcome these difficulties, to learn to walk, to learn language, all the things they have to learn. It's quite amazing when you think about it.

And so, my teacher tells me to keep working, to be patient. He agrees that I don't know how to do what I'm trying to do. He agrees that the effort I'm making is not in itself going to get me what I want. And yet it is important. Everything is perfect just as it is, and yet there is something that needs to be done. Sometimes I get tired of hearing that. But when I see this baby working so hard to figure out how to move her body, I see the truth of it.

The same thing is true for the other children at their own stages of development. There are things they are trying to do, wanting to do, not knowing how to do, and they get frustrated. The best thing to do for them is to keep encouraging them, supporting them in the efforts they are making, give them whatever tips one can, and love, love, love them. What I have been learning about my own struggle, which sometimes frustrates me a lot, is that I need to be patient, need to give myself lots of compassion, and ask for and accept help and encouragement from others.

The other thing I noticed about being in California with Amber and the children was how mothering can be relaxing. Yes, it's a lot of work, and yes, it's often frustrating. But there is a simplicity to it that can be sweet. Mind you, I did this for three days, which is relatively easy, and I was not in charge, leaving the hard stuff to Amber (overnight feedings of the baby, decision-making, driving kids here and there, shopping, cooking -- you know, minor stuff like that [grin]). Shawn was gone on a business trip (he's a pilot with Southwest Airlines, and flew to Alaska) for much of the time I was there, so I pitched in and became a second parent for a while. The tasks were pretty basic -- see to it that the children got food, clothing, cleaned up, sleep, social time, physical exercise, mental and emotional stimulation, and such. With three of them, there was almost always something more or less pressing to do, and what needed to be done was pretty obvious. Not all the needs got met all the time, as you might imagine with three children and only two adults. But most of them got met, and mostly it was very clear what needed to be done.

Sometimes in Zen we deliberately put ourselves into situations where we have no choices about what to do -- on silent retreats everything is scheduled pretty tightly, and what you do next and how you do it is scripted. There's a freedom and simplicity to that, and sometimes it's quite relaxing and refreshing. I found on the last retreat I did that it allowed me to go deeply into my own karmic issues because I didn't have to think, didn't have to talk or interact with anyone, just follow the forms, which are now pretty easy for me. I found this few days of parenting to be somewhat similar. Once you get the basic tasks figured out, you just do those, and it's easy.