Monday, October 25, 2010

Zen Buddhism for a Beginner

My final blog on the Quakers included my complaint that the hour of silence—in which I found much of value—sometimes seemed difficult to me logistically because of the lack of worship rituals which could have helped to initiate the worshipper into a sacred time and space, mark important moments in the service, and bring it to a close.

My first session of Zen practice, which was sponsored by the Worcester Zen Center/Boundless Way Temple (but held at Worcester's First Unitarian Church) seemed as if it were designed to address precisely this issue.

I showed up for the Monday night 5:30 pm service early enough that one of the teachers came and gave me some basic instructions for how to “practice” (which is the term they use for meditation). He demonstrated the correct sitting position to me, the right way to hold my hands, and where to train my eyes. The room began to fill up as we talked, and eventually around two dozen people were sitting in two rows of chairs, facing one another, in a large, carpeted multi-purpose room.

The ceremony began very informally, as our teacher explained how we would begin. Booklets on our chairs contained a number of written chants. We began with one of those chants. The cadence was jarring to me at first—each word is drawn out slowly, and the final syllable of each line has a particular tone to it, so when you chant the phrases in order, they form a kind of musical expression. I still hadn't quite picked up the cadence by the time we finished. Then we recited a longer poem/song, and finished with a chance to speak the names of anyone to whom we wished to dedicate the service.

And then silence.

It definitely felt as if it was a silence that we had prepared for and earned, one that had been marked off as a period of solemnity. In that sense it seemed to me like an effective antidote to the problems I had with the Quaker service.

After twenty-five minutes, a woman rang a bell and we all stood up and followed her into a large room next door. She walked us around this room, in silence, three times, and then we returned to our seats.

It was during this part of the service that the unfamiliarity of the rituals began to strike me as both slightly awkward and slightly comic. Glancing around the room as we walked, I couldn't help but imagine myself coming in some side door and seeing a bunch of people walking around in circles in their socks, staring at the floor, and following a women with a bell. I think I would have laughed at the prospect of encountering a bunch of people who reminded me of the guy who gets his dog stoned in the movie Dude, Where's My Car?

But after we returned and I sat back down, we had another period of silence which began with a short talk by one of our teachers. His words were soothing, conducive to meditation, and struck me as quite relevant to some of the thinking I have been doing on this spiritual journey thus far. So the final minutes of silence passed easily and quickly.

When time was up, we recited three times each what my guidebook tells me are “The Four Bodhisattva Vows.” Again, we chanted them slowly, with a rhythm and cadence that I had mastered by the end.

Afterwards, just like the Quakers, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. And, just like the Quakers, there was a potluck supper downstairs. I had a child to pick up, so I scooted out without the potluck, but not before speaking briefly with the two teachers and letting them know that I would be hanging around for the next couple of months.

My first encounter with Zen Buddhism no doubt would have been much stranger if I had not already been doing silence and meditation on my own, and with the Quakers. Because I have been doing those things, it was familiar enough to me that I felt like I could jump right in and begin practicing.

Fortunately, though, I found plenty of it strange and unfamiliar—more than enough to draw me back next week, and to inspire me to learn more what we are “practicing” for.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Commercial Interruption #2

I am swamped this week with two tasks, neither of which will allow me to give the full attention I need to a spiritual blog entry: grading papers, and preparing for our CD release party on Friday.

So here's just a quick plug for the CD release party, which will take place at Ralph's Diner here in Worcester. We will have folk duo Neptune's Car opening up for us at 8:30, followed by Scott Riciutti and a stellar group of his musical friends (including Duncan Arsenault on drums and Jeff Burch on upright bass) at 9:30.

Hat On, Drinking Wine will take the stage at 10:30 and play a first set consisting of the entire new CD, with all of our special guests: Holly Hanson and Linda Markey on guest vocals and Ed Melikian on the oud. After a short break, we will play a second set of older and newer material, along with some of our favorite covers, and we will welcome to the stage a variety of guests: Scott Riciutti will sing and play guitar; Stu Esty (aka Dr. Gonzo) will play harmonica; Tim Pitney will join us on piano. Other surprise guests may yet pop up, so stick around until the end!

I am looking forward to the evening like mad, and the chance to break out all of my instruments—piano, accordion, and tin whistle.

The cover for all three bands is $10, and with that cover you get yourself a copy of the new CD. Hand-screened Hat On, Drinking Wine t-shirts will be on sale, as well as copies of our first CD.

Come out and join us!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Summing Up the Quakers: Part 2

Spirituality seems a lot like sin to me in one important way. When you find yourself in the habit of doing something you know you shouldn't, it gets easier and easier to do the thing you know is wrong. Every time you do it, you feel a little less guilty about it, and pretty soon it hardly seems wrong anymore. This principle, of course, works in the reverse. The more you can stop yourself from doing what you know you shouldn't, the easier it gets.

To paraphrase Aristotle very loosely, we are not born “good” or “bad.” If you want to be good person, just start doing good works—every time you perform one, you are building yourself into a good person.

Likewise, if you want to be a spiritual person, you need to establish and stick to your spiritual practices, whatever they may be—praying, singing, volunteering, attending church, and so on. The more committed and regular you can be with those practices, the more spiritual you will become.

This principle definitely applied for me to the spiritual practice of Quaker worship, which consists of an hour of communal silence, broken occasionally by unrehearsed testimony from those who feel inspired. After I had been to three or four meetings, I found it easy to walk into the House, sit down, and begin to meditate. Thirty or forty minutes later I would find myself in thoroughly embedded in spiritual communion with something beyond myself. And I definitely found myself sympathetic to many Quaker ideas and ideals, which made me look forward to coming back each Sunday.

This past Sunday, though, was my first visit to the Quaker house after a two-week hiatus, and that lapse in practice made it just about impossible for me to get back into the Quaker spiritual groove. I sat in the room with fifteen or so others and did my best to pray in ever means and manner I could think of. One person gave a testimony, describing a recent talk he had attended which had spiritual implications, but other than that it was sixty minutes of silence—and, for me, sixty minutes of fidgeting and distraction. I felt no deep connection to myself or anything beyond me.

That's my fault, of course—I had lapsed in my practice, and I am mentally preparing for my next spiritual tradition, so neither my head or my heart were as committed to it as I should have been. But the experience highlighted for me what ultimately left me wanting about the Quakers, and what will make it unlikely for me to return to them when I finish this year of spiritual searching.

Initially I found myself appreciative of the Quaker rejection of ritual and ceremony and hierarchy. Since the Quakers believe that God is within each one of us, they see all of the formal elements of religion—priests, churches, ceremonies, worship rituals, songs—as superfluous. If God has something to say to me, according to the Quakers, or if I have something to say to God, we'll communicate directly. All of this seemed to me like a welcome change from the Catholic worship ceremony, which sometimes feels like an acrobatic act in which you are constantly being directed to sit, stand, kneel, shake hands, come up front, go back to your seat, sing now, be quiet now, and so on.

But I have begun to realize, in the absence of such formal rituals, how they can be helpful in preparing us for worship and marking its transitions. Beginning a worship service with a song, for example, provides a way to focus your attention from the outset; the music guides your mind to an ordered place, and the lyrics sound spiritual themes. When the three minutes of the opening hymn are up, you are standing and ready to begin, with your mind and heart on the hour in front of you. Your eye can look just about everywhere around you and see signs and symbols of your religion. The song at the end of the service provides a similar function—it helps transition us out of worship back into the world.

When you walk into a Quaker service, by contrast, you walk into a bare, empty room, and sit down in a padded folding chair. You can't help but wonder what everyone else is thinking about, or whether anyone else might talk, or what everyone brought for potluck. Even on my best days of Quaker worship, it took a good fifteen or twenty minutes of start-up time before I really began to feel like I was getting somewhere spiritually. And once I found myself really deeply engaged, all of the sudden I would hear people rustling around and it was over. I had a terrible time smiling and shaking hands with everyone a minute after I had been sitting in deep meditation—it was a weirdly disorienting sensation, and I would sometimes feel irritated at everyone for interrupting me just when I felt I was getting somewhere.

So, in the end, what drew me to the Quakers is ultimately what turned me off. Communal worship, at least for me, needs to provide me with a little more help and guidance than I received from the Quakers. I certainly learned from the Quakers the value of silence, and the importance of spending time in quiet prayer, but I also learned that one can perhaps get too much of a good thing.

I am terrible at saying goodbyes, and the conclusion of my time with the Quakers proved no exception to this rule. This past Sunday's service concluded with the usual meet-and-greet, followed by a potluck lunch. When we had all introduced ourselves to one another, and the time came to stand and re-arrange the chairs for the meal, I slipped quietly out of the room. I returned the library books I had borrowed to the shelves in the reading room, and then I walked out without a word to anyone, back down Pleasant Street to home.

Next Monday evening I will begin phase two of my spiritual journey, just a few blocks down the street from the Quaker House, when I sit in for my first session with Boundless Way, one of Worcester's Zen Bhuddist communities.

I'll look forward to telling you all about it.