At today's sangha meeting, we discussed the dangers of judging our meditation, of thinking of it as something to fail at. How some people say, “I can't meditate,” when what they mean is that their meditation isn't what they think it should be.
It never is. And that's okay.
The only way you can do it wrong is by thinking you're doing it wrong. If you're meditating, then whatever your mind is doing — being focused, being distracted, happy, sad, angry, bored — is what it should be doing.
Today is publication day for the French translation of my book on Zen practice, Kill Your Self, published by Pocket as La Vie Apres L'Ego. A deep bow of thanks to Mikael Demets, Charlotte Lefevre, Elise Boulay and Ghizlaine Guevel.
I wonder if what those who make Zen our lifelong practice have in common is that when we're young we experience what John Tarrant Roshi describes in his book Bring Me the Rhinoceros: “None of the usual solutions to life that were on offer meant much to me.”
Even before I'd heard of Zen, the things that were supposed to be important seemed trivial, and based on a crazy assumption of permanence. I annoyed my first girlfriend by saying life was only varying degrees of suffering. So, when I heard about the First Noble Truth, it was a relief.
I suspect that's the difference between lifers and those who come to it for comfort or support during a period of crisis (not that the one is better than the other, just different).
Some people in the Buddhist world like to talk of “noble silence,” or, even, “Noble Silence.” Silence is neither noble nor ignoble; it's silence. If we try to make it more than it is, we make it less than it is, by imposing our small story on it, so that we experience not the silence, but our ideas about the silence.
Our weekly online sangha meetings have been going very well, with — thus far — people in Scotland, Cornwall, Italy, Croatia, France, and various American states doing zazen together. Our little group ranges from newcomers to people who're in their second decade of practicing together. It's been going so well, I think this ought to be the future, or at least a large part of the future, of Zen practice.
Of course, it's good for people who live near one another to practice together in the same physical space. But so much of Buddhist practice in the west has involved flying hundreds, or thousands, of miles to sit together in meditation or visit teachers. I knew an American monk who made an annual flight from the American Southwest to the Netherlands... to sit in a zendo for a week. Not only is this the practice of the affluent (what some of us call The Upper Middle Way), its contribution to global heating is unconscionable.
Some of the ways we've been living during lockdown should be continued when the pandemic is over. Frivolous air travel should not resume. Buddhist practitioners who don't have a local sangha can practice together virtually, and local sanghas can also be part of the international sangha. Jikan, daishin and I plan to open a zendo near Garelochhead in Scotland, where we'll hold sesshin (meditation retreats), and we plan to stream those online. Dokusan can be done by a video phone call.
Yesterday's online sangha meeting went well. People in various time zones sat zazen together, then I gave a Dharma talk. I was impressed by the video and sound quality of Jitsi (it works better in the app than a browser). So we'll continue to meet on Sundays at 6 pm Scottish (UK) time. If you want to join us, let me know and I'll send you the link and the password.
Note to lurkers: there was at least one person yesterday who left their camera and microphone off. We're a sangha, not a sideshow, so that's unacceptable. From now on, anyone who's not visible will be bumped from the meeting.
Enough people have expressed interest in online Zen practice that I've decided to have a weekly sangha meeting by video. Our sangha has students in the US, the UK and Europe, so the meeting will start at 6 pm UK time, which is late morning or early afternoon US time, depending on which state you live in.
We'll begin and end with some chanting. We'll do 25 minutes of zazen (meditation), then I'll give a short Dharma talk and take questions. The whole meeting will last an hour. Please be online and on your cushion ten minutes before the starting time.
Most sanghas have been using Zoom, but it has poor security and it tracks you. So we'll use Jitsi. If you want to join us, let me know and I’ll send you a video link and a password, and a copy of the liturgy.
If you want dokusan, we can also do that by video, using either FaceTime (if you have an Apple device) or Signal. I won’t use Skype, for the same reason I won’t use Zoom.
Most (or, I hope, all) Buddhist sanghas have moved their practice online because of the coronavirus pandemic. This has me thinking about doing interactive online Zen teaching, perhaps having dokusan by video. I'm still pondering, so if that's something you would be interested in, please let me know.
In his great book of calligraphy and commentaries, Moon by the Window, Shodo Harada Roshi writes, “We cannot throw our ego away completely, but we can decline ownership of it. To awaken to our origin prior to ego is the subtle flavour of zazen.”
We have feet, but we're not our feet. We have personality traits, but we're not our personality traits. The transformation that Zen practice brings isn't a tweaking of our quirks, an attempt to change — improve! — our personality. It's no longer identifying with that personality. We don't have to identify with our own personality traits any more than we identify with someone else's.