I got back Thursday night from a three-week intensive at the San Francisco Zen Center. I had a lot of fun--"better than Vegas", as I've enjoyed telling people. I hadn't really expected anything in particular to happen, since that's not really how these things work...we can't project-manage spiritual experience. It's occasionally frustrating, but I think it's mostly more fun that way. And it might as well be fun, because that's how it is and it's not going to change.
I took some pictures, and here you can see the schedule for the first two weeks, as well as the sesshin schedule. Wikipedia has good explanations for sesshin and kinhin. I enjoyed the normal schedule; I didn't enjoy sesshin, but for the most part nobody enjoys sesshin. (One American student a while back asked her Japanese teacher if he was enlightened. He said, "Oh, I don't know anything about enlightenment. All I know is when I sit, my legs hurt.")
There were some Tassjara evacuees there; there are some stunning pictures of what they were evacuated from.
Did anything change? Of course: we're always changing, and changeable, to a degree we're not usually aware of. We're capable of letting go of entire chunks of what we feel to be our permanent selves. (We don't have a permanent self, which is why, if we examine ourselves closely, we can't find anything we can point to and say "That's what I am".) In this case, I have a greater understanding of why it's important to study as well as meditate, and the weeks of study have started to knit together some things that I knew were linked, but hadn't really internalized. I think the end result is that I have a better understanding of the teaching and how it applies to our everyday lives, and I have a much clearer sense of what I can do that is good in the world, to help people pause and breathe, and feel known and responded to.
A couple of months ago, I started sewing a rakusu, which is a sort of symbolic mini-robe. We sew it in preparation for jukai, the ceremony of "receiving the precepts". The precepts are ethical guidelines in Buddhism. They're not really commandments, but if you imagine our moment-by-moment experience and choices as a jewel, they're facets we can turn the jewel and look through to examine our lives. There are the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave Precepts. I like Zen Center's writeups just fine, but ultimately we "practice" with the precepts, and to practice with something--a precept, an idea, an emotion, a reaction, a habit--means to hold it gently and turn it, and look at it from one direction and then another and another, in order to intuitively understand it.
To take one example, what does it mean to kill? There's the obvious physical killing, of people, animals, or plants...some of which we can avoid if we choose. But with our actions we can also kill hopes, dreams, and joy, in others and in ourselves. As with taking life so that we can eat and survive, sometimes this nonphysical killing isn't avoidable, sometimes we don't want to avoid it, sometimes we'll choose to do it anyway, hopefully in a skillful way.In practicing with the precepts, our ever-changing view of them is uniquely ours. For me, I've been using them for a long time: after years of chaos in my personal life, I had to work very hard to learn to become honest with myself and with others (mainly emotionally, but it's not like our emotions are so walled-off from everything else). I had printouts of the precepts on my walls at home and at work, and in difficult moments when it was time for unpleasant truths--and when you're not accustomed to being truly honest, many truths are unpleasant--and I felt that tug to convince myself I could say something other than the real truth and it would be okay, I would just read or remember "Be honest--do not lie". It was clear to me a long time ago that this was my path, and if I couldn't settle down to meditate or study, as a good beginning, I could stop being a walking train wreck, bringing suffering to everyone I dated.
Or intoxication. So there's substances, but why am I using substances? For fun? As a component of meaningful relationships with people? To avoid things in my life I don't want to deal with? I can ask the same questions about sex, dating, food, work. Which reasons are consistent with living a life of mindfulness and compassion and inclusion? What behavior helps me be clear-minded and moving skillfully in the world?
The practice of Zen, and most Buddhist practice generally (and really any spiritual practice), is exploration. It's a kind of adventure, really, where we take our selves and our lives and, with this endless Swiss Army knife of inquiry that is the body of Buddhist teachings, the Dharma, we look and feel and question our way through our experience. We become more aware of what we're feeling, we're able to feel it more clearly, and we're able to look calmly and ask, "What's going on? Am I really angry at this person, or did she just touch on some old anger I've been storing up for the past twenty years?". The answer will come up eventually, not reached logically, but just...felt.
Anyway. We use the precepts to guide ourselves this way. Since I've been doing that for a long time already, explicitly committing to it feels right.