Sunday, March 23, 2008

A couple of new things

I think I already mentioned that I'm now considered a tenzo-in-training (Tenzo is the word we use for the head cook). I think it will take some years before I'm confident in that role, but for the time being a practical result is that I'm spending more time in the kitchen on the cooking end, not just on the cleaning end. I'm assisting with dinner at least a couple of times a week. Often it just means chopping these vegetables or making that salad or stirring that sauce, but that's okay with me. I'm paying attention to my own reactions to things, what I like and what I don't like, and going ahead and doing what I'm told anyway. It's interesting.

The other thing has just come out of the blue. Kyogen (my teacher) called me into his office to talk for a few minutes. This doesn't happen often, but I wasn't worried about it. What he told me was that the people who are working in the prisons are looking for another woman and they had asked whether I could be considered to do that work with them. He had thought about it a lot, because he feels that the monks already have a lot on our plates and are being asked to do a lot. But he decided to ask whether I was interested in the work. I said, of course I am. He said he thought it could be good -- it will give me a chance to get some pastoral experience, some experience in counseling and teaching.

So I haven't yet started, but here's what I know so far. They want me for Coffee Creek (a women's prison near Wilsonville) minimum security on Saturday mornings. I have four more seminary classes on Saturday mornings left, but I am not worried about them. It means that I have to make sure I do the reading ahead and then listen to the recordings of the class afterwards, but it's quite possible to do the class without attending these last four sessions. And I'm not sure that the prison thing will be every Saturday morning anyway. I will go three times as a guest before I get my security clearance, and then I will get a badge and be able to go as a (what is the official title, I wonder???), anyway, someone who regularly works with inmates.

I'm kind of jazzed by this. For several reasons. I've had an interest in prison work (of course, I have an interest in all sorts of work, so that's not unusual) for quite some time. I know the need is huge. It will give me a place to do some actual teaching, which I can't really do here at the moment given my status as a novice monk. It tells me that my teacher thinks I may be ready for something like this. It also means I will be working closely with the folks who are already working in the prison from Dharma Rain, and I like and respect all of those folks a lot. And, of course, it means that I may be able to be part of making a positive difference in someone's life, as well as my own. I'm always up for that.

It's been a busy week here at Dharma Rain Zen Center, my home temple (not quite Garrison Keillor, but oh well). There have been at least a couple of days where I came in thinking I was going to do this or that on my list, and didn't even get to the list until 4pm. It took a couple of days to get to helping my younger sister postulant get measured for her koromo. She's sewing, which will take her some months yet before she can ordain. So Friday morning we finally got to spend time looking over our inadequate instructions and diagrams, and Kyogen was kind enough to bring his and Gyokuko's koromos in for comparison. They both have koromos that were made in Japan, and are quite nice. It was helpful to have a real live example to compare these diagrams to, in several cases.

In the process, I discovered several places in Kyogen's koromo that were coming apart, so I spent a few hours repairing it for him. That was satisfying, and also then gave me the impetus to do the same to my own kimono the next day. I keep thinking I will get to the sewing room to get these things done, but decided just to take the kimono to seminary class yesterday morning with needle and thread, and got it all mended nicely in order to wear today.

In any case, I finally did get to almost everything on my list, and several other things besides, of course. Quite satisfying. I'm tired, as always on a Sunday afternoon, and ready for a little break. My house-mates are all gone at the moment, and I'm taking care of the resident cat. So far, that's only consisted of giving him a scoop of food twice a day -- I haven't seen him around at all, though the food disappeared overnight. He has a cat door, and is probably more outdoors than inside since his people are both gone. All of them are at different places. The one next door to me is in Hawaii for 10 days. MrK is out at the monastery on an 8-day retreat. And his wife took the opportunity to go visit her mom. So I can maybe get a jump start on my laundry, unimpeded by anyone else. And maybe a trip to the library ... possibilities are endless.

End of Retreat (written March 16)

Okay, I think I'm finally free to go up to my place and crash. I had a busy week (okay, lots of sitting around too, but ...). For this retreat my job was assistant tenzo. The Tenzo is the head cook, and an important position in Zen Buddhism, and of course on any retreat. What it meant being the assistant was that every work period (2 each day) was in the kitchen, and some other times as well. So, I put together the water and oats for breakfast the night before and when we came in to sit in the morning (5:30-ish am), I turned on the burners on the water on low so they would be ready when it was time to cook. I cooked oats and tea for breakfast. I feel confident about my ability there, and I did just fine. However, that was the limit of my confidence and competence.

One thing I learned this week is that I really don't know how to cook. At least, I don't know how to cook the way they cook here, and for the quantities of people we often serve. I don't really know how to do menus and plan ahead and make sure there's plenty of variety, and enough protein, and accommodate everyone's allergies and food sensitivities, not to mention tastes. So I spent a couple of days with a lot of anxiety, bringing up all my old fears of not being good enough, until I finally just accepted that I don't know how to do this, and then I could relax and start asking a lot of clarifying questions and just make it clear that I don't know how to do this stuff. I think the Tenzo figured out after a while that she had to make things simple for me. I'm moving into a Tenzo-in-training role, and I can tell it's going to take a while.

And I was right about the effect of low-flow water and not very hot water on the ability to cook for a lot of people for a retreat. We were quite literally heating water on the stove, and in fact hauling boiling water from across the street in order to have 2 sets of three tubs for people to wash their dishes. Maybe I should explain that. For our in-town retreats, we do setups for everyone to have a plate, bowl, knife, fork, soup spoon, mug, and cloth napkin. Each person serves themselves on a tray which we then take upstairs to the zendo (meditation hall). We chant and eat in silence there. When we're done with the meal, everyone comes back downstairs, cleans off their tray and wipes it down, and stands in line to wash their dishes in hot soapy water, hot rinse water, and cool bleach water (the approved 3-sink system generally used). Then they dry it, stack everything back together and put it back into its place on the table until the next meal. (Most of the time I just used a bowl and spoon, maybe a mug for water, and my napkin.)

Breakfast was oats, fruit, and tea, every morning (I cooked oats and tea, and Tenzo and other temporarily assigned people dealt with fruit and setting up the table). The noon meal was the big meal, and usually required all the dishes (plate, bowl, and cutlery). Supper was usually some variation on soup and bread. The fewest people we served was 15, and the most was 32. We actually did run out of food for one meal -- the one with mashed potatoes a tofu loaf and green beans (good down-home cooking, right? Very popular.). Tenzo and I made do with leftover pasta and vegies for that meal. And this morning I skimped the oats a tad, and Tenzo made do with banana bread (which she pronounced right tasty). Tenzo and assistant go last in the line, so if there are shortages we get to know that, and take the consequences. We also had a lot of leftover curry rice one day, because I made about twice as much as I needed to. Seems I really didn't understand the measurements of rice cookers. Now I know that one better. It was all fine -- the Sunday noon meal is traditionally mostly leftovers from the week, so we had a good place to start. Still, this tenzo is very good at estimating quantities, and there weren't all that many leftovers. So she made a big batch of fried rice, and pulled out the rest of the leftovers, and made garlic bread, put out the rest of the banana bread, and we had a feast.

The other thing on my mind this last week was getting the grant in. We're applying for a grant to do repairs on our main building, now that we have a new roof and water has stopped leaking in. We decided to do the grant 3 weeks ago, so we had to pull it together very quickly. I was hoping to have it done before the retreat, but that didn't happen. I got extensive revisions in on Monday. This meant that instead of resting or studying after dinner each night, I was here in front of the computer pulling everything together. The deadline was yesterday, and I made it in just under the wire. Last night in meditation I had noodles and numbers dancing in my head!

Today, after everyone else left, after doing cleanup, I did the post-cleanup cleanup. I went into the kitchen, and found a lot of things out of place, a lot of things that needed to be brought back across the street to the Dharma House, and a mountain of dishes that still needed to be run through the dishwasher. So I just started in on those, and gradually got things put away, finally mopping the kitchen floor, which never was able to get done during the week as people were always in there when there were people available to do the mopping. That felt good.

I took a break, finally, and then went back across the street for a meeting with ZCO Sangha Council. We decided to go down to a nearby Thai restaurant for the meeting, and had a good dinner and a good time, and even got some business done.

Well, anyway, I wanted to write up a little of this before heading home for bed. I suspect that I will crash very soon. Maybe a hot bath ...

Written March 5, 2008

I will be in retreat next week (March 10-16) -- we're doing Daijukai this year (you can read more about it at It starts Monday evening, and goes through Sunday afternoon. During that time I should be able to check e-mail every so often, but will basically be too busy to do much. My job for this retreat is assistant tenzo (the tenzo is the head cook), so I will spend a lot of my time in the kitchen next week (and a lot of time on the cushion sitting meditation, of course). Bukkai is tenzo, and I look forward to working with her. I expect I will learn some things.

This week I'm working on writing a grant to Meyer Memorial Trust. I've assisted in these things before (several years ago) at Head Start, and kind of wondered why Linda D was spending so much time worrying about it. Now I know. I find myself considering and reconsidering how to approach what is after all not all that much writing (with strict word count limits that make it actually more difficult). I'm asking input and advice from lots of people around here, sending lots of e-mails, and such. It's an interesting process. The deadline is officially March 15, but since that is almost to the end of Daijukai, my own deadline for myself is Friday the 7th. Now I see that I'm not going to have everything together by then, but should have most of it done, maybe just some review and tweaking from others during the weekend. At the latest, I should be able to post it on the web (which is the only way to apply) by Sunday.

As for what I'm working on in a training sort of way, maybe I can say a little about that, finally. One thing I'm seeing is that I tend to approach things in an all-or-nothing fashion. That is, I need to be in control, in charge, know as much as possible about things, follow the plans, make sure everything is covered, do everything right, don't make mistakes. When things go badly, I tend to give up, fall into despair, feel inadequate, decide not even to try, not to speak up because nothing I say is worth anything, and in extremis, feel that I deserve to die, maybe even have thoughts of killing myself. I've never gotten past *thoughts*, and there's at least an equally strong sense that I will never and can never actually kill myself. When I reach that point, I realize that I'm in trouble and need to figure out some other way through. I tend to shut down, go to sleep, get sick, or whatever. Eventually those feelings pass, and I go on.

Now this mode of operating has served me fairly well for decades. I've been pretty functional, and have managed to do a lot of good things. Even when I've become aware occasionally that there's this difficult emotional stuff coming up, I try to find some way to deal with it and mostly can't figure out anything, so just shrug and go on with my life. I suspect this is the case for a lot of people -- that "quiet sense of desperation" that some writer (I can't remember who at the moment) said most people live with. There is a form of courage in that just continuing to go on, and I honor that, both in myself and others.

When I started into this practice, though, I became more aware of what was really going on -- something that I basically denied all my life because I prefer to be happy and productive, and would rather not admit to the destructive emotions of despair and anger. And furthermore I began to realize that Buddhism not only addresses just exactly this, but also has tools for slowly (at least in my case, I can't speak for others) unravelling the knots that have kept me bound up to this desperation. I'm becoming aware that these are things in my own mind, that they have a cause and an effect (generally referred to as karma), and that eventually I can find more beneficial ways of living with my own karma, my own conditioning, my own situation and place in the world. My goal and intention here is to be more authentic, more whole, more effective as a force for good in the world.

How I'm doing this is slowly, with lots of mistakes and lots of times when I'm pretty clueless. Lots of patience. Lots of sitting still. Talking with my teachers. Watching what happens when I try this, when I try that. Currently I'm trying to dial back habit energy in three areas: activity, speech, and food. I realize that all three of those areas really exemplify the all-or-nothing pattern of my life to some extent. What happens when I don't just automatically jump in and clean something because I see it's dirty? Or otherwise fix something? What happens if I don't put my own opinion forward in a general conversation? What happens if I don't eat that extra cookie? How does it make me feel? Sometimes any of these can send me into that downward spiral of despair and feeling worthless.

So these days, I'm sitting with all of that and trying to dial back in all three areas in very tiny ways and watching. If I can just sit still and watch, without getting into a whole big emotional deal with it, that's a huge step forward. So that's what I'm trying to do.

Well, this got longer than I intended, not an unusual occurrence. Hope it is of interest to some, at least.