Sunday, February 04, 2007

on the practice of building temples

Perhaps I have a different perspective on the practice of Zen because I came to it differently
than many modern western practitioners. I was following a tradition that was exotic and different
so had already worked out my need for something "special" that made me stand out from the crowd....
my teacher died and the ways to connect with that tradition died with him.

So I was casting about for a new way....during the turbulence surrounding my leaving of my old way....I
sat down to figure out how to go took a I sat for quite a while...then eventually
wandered off to a nearby Zen temple to see if what there was to this "just sitting".....what I saw there was
a fairly off putting funereal atmosphere with a bunch of apparently really self righteous explorers off on
some exotic trip that just did not seem to be very ....well........appealing to me. I felt like there was something
to the teachings of the Buddha, but had a real hard time connecting the uptight even anal atmosphere where you
had to practice for a year before they let you light a candle to what I had been reading.

Then I met this guy who was building a temple. I asked If I could go help him........he said of the first
projects we worked on was a set of stone steps at retreat center. We went and hauled the stone from the quarry, pulled
the huge slabs into place and fit them together...then we refit them...and refit them again..and again...and a project I thought
would take an afternoon took a week....all the while me complaining to my wife (who labored on the steps with me along with
me) that this crazy old bald guy never seemed to be satisfied until everything was perfect. I even wrote my first Zen poem about
the project....

At Hokyoji
the stone steps
are never finished.

I took a while to understand ...I did not understand at the time....or even for a few years later.....we worked on projects together because I thought
there was something important happening, and I wanted to be part of was something that I could relate to that in my innocence I thought was
wholly good. I could sense there was something big and good here...I just wanted to be a part of it.

Eventually like all innocents, I became a bit disillusioned about some of the things I had worked on...politics and egos seemed ever present..and what to an innocent
seemed wholly good, was in fact just as riddled with corruption and greed as any other human institution.

I kept showing it seemed eventually that I should join I asked my teacher to ordain me.. He refused. I asked again.....he refused again....we did lay ordination ...then he
made some vague remarks about maybe someday...we continued to work together on another temple....He said he wanted me to go to Japan....I did not really want to go......but
I made a deal with the devil...I would go...but only as an ordained monk. I could not afford to pay the fees for lay practice, and did not want to be on the outside looking in...If I went ..It
was going to be all or nothing. He agreed. ...and paid for the trip because I worked for three months full time with him to finish his new Zen Center.

One of the most memorable experiences I had while practicing in the 750 year old temple was raking leaves off of the graves of some of the first monks at the temple. ...they were probably the ones who built it. There was a shift in perspective...and I realized that as a part of this tradition, some new monk might be raking leaves off of my grave 750 years from now. As I walked up the stone path to the temple gate ...I realized that even though no one remembered their name, nor what they thought about...nor what ever we think is important about us today, we still walked on the paths they built...we sheltered under the roof they built.....we sat on the floor they assembled...our practice stood on their bones.

I remember my teacher's smile when I put it together for him some years later when we were in a group debating about where to build the Buddha hall on our newly donated monastery land.
All the builders, the donors, the business men said to build on the hill above the old farm house...because the well was nearby and it would be cheaper and more practical. My teacher wanted to build it upon another hill ...a way across the lane on a beautiful site where the view would be timeless, but the cost more expensive and the logistics a bunch more difficult. Thinking back to the stone steps, and the beautiful temples on the Japanese hills, when he asked for my opinion....I said,"Well if we were building for the next 20 years...I would build it above the farmhouse...but if we are building it for the next 300 years ...I would put it on the hill across the lane." The beautiful Buddha Hall (and the shell of the kitchen and residence building) now stand on the hill across the lane....because I understood that we were not building the stone steps for the next 20 years.....we were building the stone steps to last forever.

Often in these days where everything we think is important...and the next fad is more important than the last....where short term profit is all there is and we all want enlightenment now...or better yet yesterday, and we all want everyone else to be enlightened right now as is easy to lose some perspective. All I have to do when I get to caught up in the right now, and the desire to get the damn job finished so I can get on with the to look at the temple on the hill.........where the new steps were just as carefully placed as the first set I worked on. .....and think about who might be walking on them 750 years from now.....and what I think loses its importance. No one will remember my name (even though it is inscribed on the temple rolls) no one will care what I thought. No one will have any idea why I took the time to build the steps........but maybe someday...some monk will be sweeping my grave.....and wake up just a little bit.

So now......when the tempest of the moment upsets others, It does not seem to bother me so much. What I think dims in proportion. What others (and even me) think or feel is only a flash of lightening. Which will followed by a peal of thunder, which will drop a little rain that will flow off the solid roof I helped build that shelters generations of monks striving for perfection I will probably never reach, and flows through the gardens I helped plant to lift the spirits of the troubled, and nourishes the trees that shelter the bell tower that we built that will call the devout to practice for centuries to come, then down the well built stone steps, and into the graveyard to soak my dry bones.

I am an American, I felt I did not need to go to Japan and go through all that militant training. I did not want to go...I pretty much hated most of what went on there...I am not fond of getting up early ..or even sitting for hours on end. I hate formality in all its forms. What most people love about Zen, I do not much care for. Fortunately we do not all have to be alike. The tradition of Zen has so much more than sitting meditation involved in it...and there are many ways to practice. I did not need to go to Japan, I pretty much did not like being there........but I am ever so glad I went.

People often say I am a poor excuse for a monk. I do not really understand the teachings of the Buddha......and certainly I am not the least bit enlightened. I would have to agree... I am not neat and tidy, I do not always pick up after myself or sit longer and straighter than anyone else. I avoid much more than a period or so of Zazen a day with an effort that would put an Olympic athlete to shame. I sneak satisfying food at every opportunity because rice and veggies just do not float my boat. I laugh when I should be serious, and am serious when I should laugh...all in all...a pretty much disreputable monk. There is no hope here for the enlightenment so many striving on the hill might someday have. I spent some time in Samadhi...I find it boring....... a couple of months and even a mental orgasm fades in its attraction. I have nothing against those who strive for is a noble chase. It is just not for me.....and since I can no longer tolerate the diet nor the endless sitting physically....I will never really practice in the temple on the hill.

I am not really all that concerned. I just look at those stone steps.......and figure it is enough.

Be Well