Retreat at the zen center yesterday. We started in at 5:30 AM. Though somewhat light outside, it was quite dark in the zendo. Thirteen women. We started off with a silent tea, and then chanting. For some reason, the chanting in the dark stuff at the beginning of retreats always makes me feel just awful. I get too deeply inside myself and then feel kind of existential and bereft. No idea why.

Delightfully, it always disappears as the dawn breaks and the light creeps into the zendo. Then I feel crazy manic happy. Is it biorythms, I wonder. Ah, no matter.

So we sat and sat and sat, and as it turns out, Ashtanga practice makes sitting painless. I have to temper that statement, I guess. I felt no pain whatsoever for the entire day, but it was, after all, just a one day retreat. Usually the real pain kicks in late on the afternoon of the second day.

There are zafus at the zendo, but I dispensed with mine and just sat on the zabuton. Plain old siddhasana for the vast majority of the time, but towards the end, I threw in a few sets of half lotus. I considered trying padmasana for one round (25 minutes), but decided against it. In the zendo, there is utter silence. If I tried padmasana and then had to give it up in the midst of a sitting session, moving out of the position would have been a dramatic disruption. So I gave that little ambition a pass.

So the results of the experiment are in: Does practicing Ashtanga make sitting zazen more comfortable? Yes.

Did Ashtanga practice advance the way my mind feels in zazen? Oh, now there’s a whole ‘nother question…

Answer is: I don’t really know. Quite possibly so. Though not in the way I might have expected.

Whereas the asana practice made a direct and kind of linear improvement on my physical sitting, I can’t say it made my mind go deeper in the direction it seemed to be taking with just a zazen practice. Hmmmm. This is hard to explain.

In the old days, when I sat zazen, my body might be quite uncomfortable, but there would be moments where my mind was unbelievably quiet, just remarkably still. Of course, when you then notice the stillness, the whole deal is over, but that’s another story.

I did not, yesterday, find that I got to that stillpoint more quickly as a result of Ashtanga practice. If anything it was more elusive than ever. Interestingly, though, I was MUCH more accepting of the elusiveness, much less inclined to “chase” it. I had the sense that I just needed to keep sitting. Very much a sense of…well, practice and all is coming. I had MUCH more strength and elasticity of mind, if not quite as much (or so it seemed) sensitivity of mind.

Obviously, attaching words to all of this kind of turns it into something other than just the raw experience, and certainly here’s a good example of what Huang Po meant when he said: There is just a mysterious tacit understanding and no more.

Here’s the other thing that came up: At the end of the retreat, everyone had tea and coffee and sat around for a bit of a chat. There was a lot of talking about Roshi, and anecdotes about different teachers, etc. Just like you find when a bunch of yogi/nis get together.

I didn’t feel a part of the discussion, nor did I feel apart from it. More, I felt like it was lovely to experience the sangha feeling. But it didn’t feel like my sangha. Interesting. In terms of an actual community of people who I am affiliated with, I thought of the Mysorians.

And that’s when I realized I do not have a guru. And then I wondered if I’m really supposed to. I practiced with the Kwan Um school originally, and I did a retreat with the founder of the school, Seung Sahn, who was just a lovely man. But I always felt (and still do) more of an affinity for one of the zen masters in the school, who is now head teacher in Korea. Now I practice at the zendo in Tempe, which is affiliated with Joshu Sasaki Roshi. I did a retreat with Roshi, and he is just terrific. Again, though, I never felt that sense that I’d found a guru.

I suspect that if I ever met Guruji, I’d have the same experience: I imagine I’d think he was a remarkable man, and very dear, but I don’t think the guru thing would kick in.

Maybe that’s why Volleyball Guy is my teacher. He has that very American “no guru” thing going on. It kind of cracks me up, because Buddha told his followers: Be a light unto yourself; betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.

Which of course, can only remind me of Brian in “Life of Brian,” when he says: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!

The guru question remains open for consideration. It was weird, though, truth be told, to be around a group of people who consider someone their guru.

Me? I’m gonna turn to my buddy, Huang Po, who surely woulda been my guru, if I’d lived around 800 AD:

As to performing the six paramitas* and vast numbers of similar practices, or gaining merits as countless as the sands of the Ganges, since you are fundamentally complete in every respect, you should not try to supplement that perfection by such meaningless practices. When there is occasion for them, perform them; and, when the occasion is passed, remain quiescent. If you are not absolutely convinced that the Mind is the Buddha, if you are attached to forms, practices and meritorious performances, your way of thinking is false and quite incompatible with the Way. The Mind IS the Buddha, nor are there any other Buddhas or any other mind.

*Charity, morality, patience under affliction, zealous application, right control of mind and the application of the highest wisdom.


4 Responses

  1. yoga and buddhism are about freedom and seeing the real nature of reality.
    you don’t need a guru. and after ahwile you don’t need a teacher. the practice is what matters.
    buddha and jesus both said “be a light unto your selves.”

    ashtanga is a prime example. you don’t need a teacher once you learn the basics. once you learn the breath and bandhas and the have the sequences. you don’t need a teacher.

  2. I am so intrigued by the idea of a sitting meditation practice. It’s one thing I’d love to learn more about someday. Right now whenever I try it, my mind will NOT shut up for even one second. It’s comical, actually.

    Can you recommend any good books or other resources? I don’t know that I have time to seek out a teacher right now.

  3. Seung Sahn was my first Teacher, at Esalen in the mid 1970’s.


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