Saturday, December 19, 2009

Keeping My Balance with Unknowing

By nature, I am a person strongly attached to certainties. I want to know what the rules are. I may not always follow them - I'm not afraid to go against the current. But if and when I do decide to set out on my own, I want to break the rules in full consciousness, so I can be ready for any potential consequences.

For all of you with many more years experience as Zen practitioners, I imagine you are already chuckling to yourselves, because you can see where this is going. Certainty? Zen? You're kidding, right?

I have been told that Zen has a long tradition of not providing all the information. When new students came to monasteries, they were not given a list of rules. They simply had to stumble along, being as observant as they could, trying to figure out what to do by watching others. When they blundered, a teacher or more senior student might yell at them to point out their mistake, but may very well not tell them what the correct action was, leaving that for the young student to figure out.

You can probably guess that this is not my most comfortable learning style. I detest being "caught out" wrong, particularly when I had no idea that I was doing anything incorrectly.

The recent sesshin was a great example of this. Though we had an extensive orientation before starting, it was impossible to cover all of the bases. And even with what we did cover, much of it was forgotten due to information overload. So throughout the five days, we were continually figuring out what was proper form, when to bow, how to acknowledge each other, etc.

As kokyo (chant leader), I was very focused on my role, and of course, aimed for a perfect performance of all aspects of the job. Shortly after the first time I used the clappers for afternoon tea, Joan Amaral (our doan) told me that I should strike them much more softly, like a kiss. She felt that by the end of a five day sesshin, the vigorous thwack I was giving would split everyone's head open. I practiced the new, quiet sound, and vowed to be perfect again. At our next meal, I used the clappers - this time, with a whispered kiss. After we were back in the zendo, Tony Patchell, the acting priest, came up to me and said, "Michelle, when you use the clappers, give them a great big resounding Japanese whack!"

Shortly thereafter, one of our dinners was late in the kitchen, so that all of us were milling about waiting to be served. I was standing near the front of the room (by the kitchen) and Tony and Darlene were in the back. The kitchen staff motioned that all was now ready; I turned and motioned to Tony. (We were in silence, remember.) He smiled, and waved me ahead, and I got into the food line. Afterward, one of the attending priests came up to me and said gently that no one should ever serve themselves or eat before the teachers. I felt completely chagrined. I honestly had only done it because Tony waved me ahead, but I didn't realize there was an absolute rule about "teachers first." Even worse, not knowing that, I suspected there might be a bunch of other things I didn't know, rules that I was about to break at any moment.

Later, after some stillness in zazen, I was able to find a sense of humor around the whole issue, which is always the first step towards change for me. I know (almost) nothing - and that's pretty funny, if I can just manage to steer myself away from over-zealous seriousness.

And maybe, just maybe, it will help me keep my balance.

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