Love Letter To The Sangha

Reprinted from my post on The Tattooed Buddha 

So I have been meditating almost daily for 7 years. But I have a dirty little secret. Ok, I have several dirty little secrets, but only one that I am prepared to share with you readers. I don’t like to meditate. Yes, you read that right. I really don’t like to.  I have to talk myself into it most days and when I do finally force myself on the pillow I am ready to get up almost immediately.

This wasn’t always the case.  When I first started 7 years ago by going to a beginners’ Zen retreat I was a little scared, but excited. I had been an intellectual Zen student for over 15 years. I had read many wonderful books about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. I knew it was right for me. But I only read and rarely sat my ass on a cushion. So I was excited to find out that there was a Zen group in my area. I couldn’t wait to do the actual practice. I learned very little at the retreat (by design—those damn enigmatic Zen teachers ya know). But they did put me on a zafu and zabuton and force me to sit still for 15-30 minutes at a time for half a day. It flew by. I’m an introvert, so what better way to spend time with people than having them sit next to me and not be allowed to say anything to me? Plus, it was startling to see the tangled mess that was my mind. I was hooked.

After fast and furious 6 months of meditating once or twice daily I started to notice results. Now in Zen, we aren’t supposed to have a goal with meditation and any benefits you see because of meditation shouldn’t be discussed. They are purely incidental to the BIG AWAKENING. And we definitely can’t talk about that! But dammit, I did have results. I actually noticed things going on around me. I was actually listening to people instead of just hearing them. I was able to see that I was causing suffering in others and was able to at least cut that down some.

All great right? Other things happened too over the first couple of years. And I enjoyed being on the cushion. But sometime, somehow, it started to change. After a few years it wasn’t so fun anymore. I started making excuses about why I couldn’t sit that day. All of the sudden I was too busy. Or didn’t feel good. Or my knee hurt too bad from trying to twist myself into the pretzel full lotus position. I had any number of excuses to not sit and my practice went first to almost daily to a couple of times a week to whenever I felt like it. And I didn’t feel like it most of the time.

But throughout this time I kept going to my weekly Sangha meetings. I started enjoying those more and more. I began to interact with the other members even though, for me, it was painful to do. If it hadn’t been for my Sangha, I am pretty sure I would have given up meditation. But being around other dedicated practitioners, my compassionate teacher, and new people who were just beginning on the path, got me back on the cushion “full time”. I am thankful for them.

Now back to my dirty little secret. Even though I’m meditating once or twice a day almost daily, I don’t enjoy it. It’s still a burden for me most days. But when I have those days where I really, really, REALLY don’t want to do it, I think about how I’m not as big an asshole because of it and how much better I can be if I continue to do it. And I think of my Sangha.  The great group of people that come help me sit on Sundays. Some I’ve known for years. Some I see one time and they never come back. But they all have courage and it forces me to be courageous each time I stare down at the cushion before I sit. My Sangha is my motivation. So if you see any of my Sangha members, thank them for helping me to not be as big an asshole as I used to be.

No Saints, Only Sinners

Each week after zazen has concluded we go around the group and say our names and are asked to share a high and low point of the week if we are so inclined. This was instituted a couple of years ago because one of the complaints we heard from newbies that came to our group was that it was a “cold atmosphere” and not very inviting. Well, I think that pretty much sums up Zen, but I digress. 

This week during the high/low point discussion, several people brought up that they came to Zen to escape from a strict Christian upbringing. This is a thread that comes up in our group fairly frequently, and it happened to me to a lesser extent. I was sent to a Southern Baptist Sunday school because they were the only church that sent a bus by our farmhouse. Our mother shipped my brother and me there every Sunday and I’m convinced she only used the church as an unpaid babysitter for a couple of hours.  She grew up Catholic and never went to church as an adult. She abruptly stopped sending us when I came home one day and told her that she was going to Hell because she smoked cigarettes. 

But it seems like many of the people that visit our Sangha have had a much more traumatic experience with The Church. During these stories you can feel the pain and anguish in their voices as they share this with complete or almost complete strangers. On the flip side we have two members that are still active in their respective churches and seem very content and ok with their Christian Sanghas. 

I often wonder if in China there are people that go to Christian churches and tell how they were scarred in childhood by their experiences at the local Buddhist temple. They think Christianity is the salve that will heal them like a lot of American converts believe Zen will do for them. I think a lot of the newbies that come to our Sangha are unaware that there are plenty of Americans across the country that have been emotionally scarred by Zen in general and some of the teachers of Zen in particular. Are there Imams, Rabbis, and Pujaris that have been embroiled in controversies that have hurt their congregants? Should we expect more from our religious leaders than we expect out of ourselves? After all, they are supposed to be closer to God(s). 

I got into Zen because I read about the saintly Zen patriarchs that were serene, emotionless bastions of limitless wisdom.  I wanted to be one of those. Luckily I met a teacher that was 100% human and my idea of infallibility was quickly dispelled. Those saintly beings don’t exist in any religion. Some are going to help us. Some are going to hurt us. Some are going to do a good deal of both.

Not Just Another Zen Blog

Welcome! This won’t be your run-of-the mill Zen blog. Ok, maybe it will. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be as good as some that are already out there. My personal favorites are Hardcore Zen, Monkey Mind and No Zen In The West. The problem with those blogs is that I don’t agree with a lot of what they say.

See, I think there’s a big problem with “American Zen”: Its loudest and most pervasive voices are always liberals. In my opinion, the San Francisco Zen types have taken over the whole movement. If your thoughts and politics don’t lean to the left, you get looked at kinda funny. Personally, I don’t think politics and Zen should mix, although I do realize I’m in the minority here.

So I created Don’t Know Zen. This will be a place where we can have civil discussions about Zen, and even politics if we have to. Also, civil discussions about whatever else pops up in my not-so-calm mind. But you, dear reader, will have to bear with me because I’m not a lot of things. And two of those things are Zen teacher and professional writer. I try to meditate every day and go on day-long retreats every now and then. I also try to avoid grammar and spelling mistakes and form cohesive sentences. But sometimes I fail at all that. So have compassion. Please. But most of all, comment, discuss, and be civil.