I started sitting zazen last month. Two or three times a week, I go to the San Francisco Zen Center and practice 30 minutes of “sitting absorption.” And practice is the right word because I have yet to feel that I am doing it right. Still, it’s refreshing and I keep coming back.
About ten minutes before the meditation period begins, a monk taps out a series of rhythms, hitting a hanging wooden board (han) with a mallet. The process is repeated several times until the soft gong peal is sounded that signals the beginning of the zazen. Then for 30 minutes I sit quietly on a cushion, facing the wall, trying not to think. Thoughts come and thoughts go but mostly I notice the sounds. Traffic passing – the sounds of the building creaking or footsteps on a stairway or plumbing sounds – and the coughing of others sitting in the Zendo (it seems for some a half hour of zazen is like the first ten minutes at the symphony: a time to fidget and clear your throat). My fidgeting is all internal. It only stops when I begin to focus in on the sounds. When I began sitting, I was convinced that if I listened closely enough, a pattern would emerge and I’d hear the music of everyday life. Then I realized that listening to the ambient sounds that come and go around me during a sitting is engrossing and worth the time but it isn’t music. There is no intentionality present, no one is organizing the sounds and silences into meaningful patterns (or subverting those patterns) to transform them into music. When the gong sounds signaling the end of zazen, the sounds go on but I shift my attention back to the everyday and, listening in a different way, I hear them differently. I’m not disappointed I didn’t find a hidden layer of music underlying everything. What I did find is that listening deeply is deeply rewarding regardless of what you find.
Buddhist monks make the best nightclub doormen.
You’ve seen him outside the door of the club, checking the list for your name. You ask him to check even if you’re not on the list, knowing he’ll decide if you make the cut – if you’re cool enough. Shaved head, an imposing build, a steady gaze. Some local nightclubs used to import doormen from Manhattan. Local doormen didn’t seem to have the right mix of imperturbable cool and restrained intimidation needed to work a high-class line. When you need cool and intimidation, call New York. It’s no longer necessary, I’ve found a local alternative.
He caught my eye as I walked into the Zendo and leaned ever so slightly into my path, asking, “What’s your name?” I told him and he asked me if I was there for the sitting. I said I was and he started over:
“What’s your name?”
I told him and he asked, “Are you here for the one-day sitting?”
I said I wasn’t and he told me there wasn’t any room in the Zendo but I could sit in the entryway. I bowed and left slightly abashed.
With no false bravado, I can say that it was the first time, I had been turned down at the door. And I’d never felt so handled. The man in the dark blue robes with the shaved head wasn’t physically imposing but he had a quiet intensity and a fixity of purpose that was more effectively intimidating than any man mountain who I’ve encountered working a velvet rope.
- The sound of no hands clapping (netnewmusic.net)