Thursday, 25 May 2017

Facing the Wall

Sitting area by office (Tassajara).jpg
My brother Fletcher – formerly an ordained Zen monk, now an ongoing seeker after insight on another path – recently described to me his initiation as a novice at Tassajara. (That would be the largest Soto monastery in the States – possibly largest in the whole West – and a dependent house of San Francisco Zen Center.)

His story was typical: the ranking monks shut him in a room with other boots and made them meditate for five days straight. Is that OK? Maybe. Maybe not. Feel free to undertake the koan.

But the part of Fletcher's tale that most seized me was his coping strategy: he began chanting "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" in his head, and continued doing so throughout the ordeal. In fact, he says, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" remained a go-to mantra through the course of his considerable monastic career.

I like this on several levels. First, as juvenile as its lyrics may sound, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" is basically what the Ancestors instructed us to do when we sit. My technique is theirs: I count my breaths from 1 to 10, then start again, until I'm done. All Fletcher changed was the number of reps.

His approach is also refreshingly free of twee chinoiserie. You know what else is free of twee chinoiserie? Zen. Or it was, until it acquired "Ancestors". Once upon a time we were famous – scorned, actually – for our coarse working-class pragmatism, and also our impatience with Confucian obsequium. "Get it done," Bodhidharma said (more or less).

And Fletcher did. By his account, the old summer camp ditty (was this ever a real drinking song? don't drinking songs end every so often so the singers can drink?) got the job done: it kept his discursive mind occupied so it couldn't stuff every silence with worry, regret, and drama, and it afforded the rest of his consciousness an opening to engage the Great Matter.

Sounds like enlightenment practice to me.

(Photograph of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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