Thursday, August 25, 2011

eighty-first visit: Aug 24th 2011 Zen Buddhism

7:00pm wednesday
Zen Group of Pittsburgh

Korean Zen (Mahayana)

4836 Ellsworth Ave, Pittsburgh PA 15213

Tonight's practice is a part of the Kwan Um School of Zen, specifically following the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-?2006), who arrived and established himself in Providence, RI in the 1970's.

The Zen Group of Pittsburgh meets in the Friends Meeting House, the same location as my 23rd visit. I am a few minutes late and then have a little trouble finding the room (had to follow the sign that said "restroom").
Excuses aside I feel really, really terrible that I enter mid-chant—into a room of only two others, and I still now feel awful about this. But I'm not made to feel badly by Will nor by William. And maybe this is partly why: It is part of Buddhist philosophy that things are not inherently good nor inherently bad; they just are.

Have I mentioned that I used to work in a small print shop when I lived in Portland, Oregon?
Well, I did, and whenever something happened to go terribly wrong... 1000's of copies terribly wrong, (which can be terribly common in any print shop), our press operator would amble slowly into the front room and calmly recite this mantra: Things are not inherently good nor inherently bad; they just are.

Will patiently helps me to find my place in the prayer book, and chanting continues. Some prayers are in English.
Later I learn that students are discouraged from looking up the meaning of non-English chants. As I understand, chanting is meant to clear the mind, not necessarily contribute to the day's mental input, so a full grasp of meaning can actually be less productive. This brings to my mind two things:
1) the pundigee's Sanskrit that my husband repeats during pujas, for which my husband and many devoted Hindus know no meaning.
2) a quote by Salvador Dali, recently emailed to me by a former student: "Just because I do not know the meaning of the images I paint does not mean they don't have meaning."

We then move on to the meditation portion of the night. I want to mention that at this point in my story, Will has not seen my blog—he does not have the address, nor does he know my last name; he could not have looked it up. Will talks a bit about some principles of Buddhist meditation. He begins by saying, "Buddhism, not unlike art, [and not unlike other beliefs,] seeks to answer the questions we have about life, such as: what is life? And how are we to live it? What does it mean to be human?" Umm, look here if you have not yet: (last 4 lines of second to last paragraph). Pretty amazing, huh?

In my meditation instruction for tonight, there is particular emphasis on remaining physically still and specific suggestions of what to do if I am unable. Unlike my first session of meditation exactly a week ago (visit 76), this is not audibly led by someone else in the room; instead it is self-driven. I am given instruction on repeating a mantra in conjunction with the timing of the breath. And that the breath should remain relatively natural, with special attention to full and long exhales. And I learn something else: This is compatible with and reflects the idea that meditation is more about letting go than creating focus.

After meditation, a letter from one of Zen Master Seung Sahn's books is read aloud. I learn about Kong-ans. Kong-ans are specific to Zen Buddhism, but are not necessarily included in all branches of Zen. As I understand from the quick conversations that our time allows, a Kong-an is a private interview during which a Zen Master raises a seemingly unanswerable question to the student. (Such as: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Or: "Where did you come from?," whereas the names of geographical places are not acceptable.) It's the Master's goal to know his pupils well enough to be able to come up with the question and the phrasing of this question that will allow his pupil to achieve a new way of thinking, expand his/her current capacity of thinking, break out of concrete thought.

If it interests you, go back and read that last paragraph, only this time read it as if I am describing my relationship, as a grad student, to my mentors, professors, and critics, when I was obtaining my masters of fine art. Because it does describe this. Though, of course, with all due respect, there's a huge difference between my mentors in grad school and a Zen Master. ...this also describes how I approach critiques with my undergrad students, hoping to help them experience personal breakthroughs in their artwork.

Throughout the evening is an emphasis on achieving a state of "not knowing." Not just saying that I don't know what will happen; that I don't know everything—but more of a state of being "unknowing." Personally, I interpret this (not knowing if it is fully correct) as adopting a sense of wonder, perhaps? A faithful embrace of the unknown? It's the best I can do at such a short introduction to the idea. Makes me want to learn more.

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