A couple of weeks ago, I attended a one-day sitting at the San Francisco Zen Center. It always feels good to return to the “Mother Ship” for a mind/body cleansing.One-day sittings at the Zen Center are a bit more than just sitting all day.
I think when most people hear the word Zen they think of some old white man just sitting on a cushion all day; and then when those mysterious old white men talk, they say ambiguous poetic stuff like “walk like an elephant on a cloud” or something “profound” like that. The truth is, zen life in the monastery is quite busy, and there is a strong practical mindset to the daily practice. For example, a one-day sitting lasts for 13-16 hours. (In this case, it lasted 13 hours). Of those thirteen hours, you only “sit” for about nine hours, which includes the meals (oryoki), which I’ll expand on in a moment. In addition to the sitting, there are afternoon chores, which are after lunch, and done in silence. I remember the first time I did soji, which is Japanese for “chores”, a woman said to me, “When the bell rings, stop what you are doing, even if you aren’t done. Because it’s not about the work, it’s about the working”, emphasizing the “ing” part of the word working. That really resonated with me, the progressive present tense idea of the task at hand. It’s about staying in the present, and not being concerned with results of the future.
Other jobs at a one-day sitting are serving the meals in the zendo, washing the dishes in the kitchen, and prepping the tea and snacks in the afternoon. So, when you show up at 5 in the morning to start your one-day sitting, you not only read the daily schedule, which is posted in the front foyer and on the bulletin board near the zendo, but you also read the list of jobs, scrolling down the list until you find your name. In my case, I was assigned the task of serving lunch in the zendo. I smiled to myself, thinking back to five years ago, when I had my first oryoki meal in that very same zendo. It was a somewhat harrowing experience for a plethora of reasons, including some childhood trauma that unsheathed itself on me that day. It felt nice to just sort of smile at the idea of serving lunch, rather than being anxious about it, which is how I felt for my first three months while living at the Zen Center. I always joke that trying to figure out all of the forms, the services, and everything else at the Zen Center reminded me of marching band in high school. All of that pressure to perform in front of an audience, learning as you go along. It is no coincidence that the words angst and anxiety share the same suffix. Anxiety is derived from the Latin root metus, which means fear or dread, while “angst” came later from the Germans, Danish, and Norwegians. (Keirkegard and Freud turned the word “angst” into a common term at dinner parties).
Many zen students have this feeling of angst when they first enter their zen practice, and all of the forms that come with the Zen Center seem to be this perverse litmus test to the zen student’s angst threshold. In my case, it was the oryoki, particularly serving the meal in the zendo that practically sent me over the edge. Now, I can look back, and be way more chill about it. But I was reminded of the anxiety that comes with it when I was sitting down in the student lounge with the lunch serving crew at the recent one-day sitting. The soku (head of serving crew) busted out the diagram of the zendo’s seating chart, which basically looks like a complex matrix of patterns. It’s a bird’s eye view of the zendo seating chart, basically a “who’s who” of temple positions: abbot, central abbot, tanto, ino, jiko, jisha, director, president, vice president, etc. But the key players are the abbots, tantos, and inos (the ancient roles). And that is where each server begins serving their dishes. Then, of course, there is a particular way to serve the dish, keeping your barefeet pointed away from the altar, serving the Buddha bowl first, and so one.
So, on this day, while the soku was going through the diagram with us, there was a new guy in our crew asking a ton of questions. I felt the guy’s struggle. I mean, he knew what he had signed up for when he signed up for a one-day sitting. He was very open to the whole experience, but he was also pretty anxious about serving the meal. He reminded me of myself five years ago, asking tons of questions, with this low-grade anxiety just percolating beneath the surface. As he was talking, I felt myself starting to become anxious about serving, second-guessing, and doubting myself, but then I caught myself, and joked with myself that this is marching band all over again, but that I’m 47, and quite frankly, I really don’t care about what other people think of me. I’ll do my best while serving, and leave it at that. After all, it is that very anxiety that hinders us, and serving lunch in the zendo provides yet one more opportunity to address that nasty anxiety. Furthermore, all of the forms in zen provide an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
As it turns out, we made some mistakes while serving. I’m not even going to bore you with the details. Because they’re just mistakes. And it’s not the end of the world. Everyone was served their food, everyone ate, all was good. The growth for me was when I was making my mistakes (notice I didn’t make just one mistake), and it was being pointed out to me, I quietly smiled, and just kept doing the best I could, trying to correct my mistakes. Nobody can hurt me any more than I can hurt myself with negative self-talk. And on that day, five years later, I was quicker to catch the self-talk, and to smile rather than scowl.
We’re all doing the best we can, even those old white guys talking about elephants on clouds.