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Buddhadharma : Spring 2016
70 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 1 6 people are heavily entrenched in the everyday world of success and failure, what’s working and what’s not, ignoring their inner life. Or, on the other hand, we can become lost in the inner world of worry and despair and find ourselves unwilling or unable to function out- wardly—it’s all so pointless! (Even the absence of meaning is something we ascribe.) Suzuki Roshi’s teaching was “for- mal practice with informal feeling.” Within the context of the structured life of forms, he encouraged the practice of beginner’s mind, which, Zen Master Dogen says, “is the complete essential realization.” Though I understood this, I was unable to make it work. For a few months it was fine. But then one day in late August, as I was returning to Tassajara after a vacation of a few days, I slowed for someone strolling toward me and rolled down the window. It was my friend, Christine Nielsen. “Hi, Ed! How are you?” In response, I burst into tears, unable to speak. My inner world wasn’t going to stay quietly well behaved after all. Soon I arranged to have dinner with Christine and her husband, J.B. Blunk, whom I had met when I was a waiter (busboy, cashier, beverage barkeep, wine buyer, manager) at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. They would come every few weeks for the five-course set menu dinner. Often, at the end of the evening, they would invite me to share a glass of wine with them before they headed off into the dark. We’d sit at their window table and visit—J.B. quite the storyteller, Christine posing gracious inquiries. I didn’t have those kinds of friends at Zen Center. I was too preoccupied— obsessed, maybe—with “practicing Zen.” When you are obsessed with for- mal practice, you are not spending much time developing relationship skills. At least I wasn’t. I had learned about not moving, and about moving, but not about interacting. At that Tassajara dinner, I started noticing how much I longed for connec- tion. Here it was: friends, dinner, eating together, talking. A seeming revelation. Everything that we weren’t doing at the many silent meals at Zen Center or even in the breaks afterward, when we only had time to go to the bathroom or brush our teeth, tank up on caffeine, or take a short nap. I had no energy for visiting, and largely it seemed to be frowned upon with admonitions like “Stay inward. Avoid idle chatter.” Within two months of that dinner, I was living in a two-room cabin in the woods in the Bishop Pine Preserve on the other side of a dirt road from J.B. and Christine. To make the move, I’d had to extricate myself from my respon- sibilities at the Zen Center, where I had been slated to lead the fall practice period scheduled to begin in three or four weeks. I couldn’t imagine being the teacher and bursting into tears in front of a room full of students. While staying in that cabin in Inverness, I continued sitting zazen each morning and headed out for walks in the woods. Writing emerged—as well as cooking. In the afternoon I could phone my new neighbors, who enthusiastically taste-tested the recipes I was trying out and generously shared beautiful wines to accompany the food. I relished plea- sure, ease, and gratitude. I had found friends—“How are you?” they would inquire, and with their care and empathy they had earned the privilege of a genuine reply. I knew they would honor me and treasure my story: no shame or humiliation, even if my words suggested that I was not conforming to the standard images of a model Zen student. Nineteen years at the Zen Center, then twenty years in the woods. Now another ten years beyond that. No knowing the direction my life would take. Feeling my way along. “Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on,” said the Zen Master Yakusan. Outside the world of formal Buddhist practice, schedules, and accepted group standards and values, I found all man- ner of things were uncalled for. There seemed to be so many conflicting behav- iors, expectations, and assumptions. When I am clear that inside is sacred and warmhearted, I have no compulsion to argue—I am able to say, “That’s not the way I see it” or “Tell me more.” A great deal of patience is required to do the work of sorting out what is me from what is not-me. Still, I go on. I continue to study myself and learn how to express myself clearly and harmoniously. My Buddhist practice did not offer much guidance with these interper- sonal issues. Being told to “sit more,” “accept,” “surrender,” and “be mind- ful” did not seem to help clarify bound- aries, though it has been invaluable in so many other ways. Implicitly, I kept getting the sense that I was being asked to take responsibility for everything and everyone: if only my behavior were more impeccable, others’ behavior would change for the better. My impec- cability would save them from their problems, especially their emotional ones. When I believed this, I was often left feeling ashamed that I was not good enough to do this—never mind that it isn’t possible! I also believed that if my practice was good enough, I would be able to accept the egregious behavior of others and not be bothered by it—that is, without standing up to someone who was cross- ing my boundaries, everything would work out the way it should simply by When we allow thoughts and feelings to arise, we find our voice—we can share what we have to share.