So on my recent visit to Portland, after several previous thwarted attempts, I finally managed to make it to the Dharma Rain Zen Center. My girlfriend recently formally became a Zen Buddhist. Of the various faiths I’ve explored, I’ve found the most to admire, and, in fact, steal from, in Buddhism. I’ve used several aspects of Buddhist practice, including dis-identification with my ego, remaining present to the moment, watching my own mind, and, to a lesser extent, actual sitting meditation. Probably the largest single influence from that tradition on my life came from Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. His though experiment of thinking “I wonder what my next thought will be?” and then watching one’s own mind was the first time I finally “got it” and managed to break free from a life-long identification of my ego. I had recently purchased a brand-new car stereo, but ended up not even using it for almost a month, because remaining present was so engaging that I had no desire to hear music while driving. I realized I had largely been using it as a distraction from the reality of being stuck in traffic, etc. Things have subsided somewhat since then, but Tolle’s work still remains central to my praxis.
Dharma Rain is a Zen Buddhist center, and I’ve found Zen to have the lowest Woo-Woo-to-Making Sense-Ratio of any of the various formal Buddhist practices I’ve explored. I was excited about checking out the actual experience and people that had a strong influence on someone I care about. Despite having Severe Sniffles that I thought would make sitting in silence for 30 minutes difficult, we set out through the darkness and cold to Wednesday night services.
The service started with a bell, at which point we posse-ed on up the zendo. We bowed to the Buddha as we walked past, then chose from a variety of seating options, including zafus, kneeling chairs, or conventional chairs for those with physical issues. We then read through the Precepts, using a book functionally similar to a hymnal, in a challenge-and-response format for about 25 minutes. Then another bell was sounded to begin zazen, or sitting meditation. We rotated to face outward, then sat in meditation for about 30 minutes. The general idea is to simply sit and remain present, allowing all thoughts and feelings to simply flow through without judgement or reaction. This was harder with a very runny nose (blowing your nose would definitely be frowned upon), but without going into a lot of detail, I found a way to make it work. After this we processed back downstairs for the dharma talk.
The timing was perfect, because they were just starting a new 8-week class on the Buddhist Precepts, which are roughly analogous to the Ten Commandments of the Abrahamic faiths. Our instructor was Kyogen, one of the Abbots of Dharma Rain, who I had previously met on an errant visit to the center where I had the chance to help him reset his Palm Pilot so he could sell it on Ebay. He seemed very down-to earth, with a self-effacing sense of humor, and was very easy to listen to. One thing he said about the Precepts that differentiates them from other practices is that each person has their own relationship with each one, and it’s up to the individual to figure out exactly how each one applies to one’s life. Each is somewhat of a koan, meaning that full realization gets asymptotically more difficult the closer one gets to the ideal, and that also there will be conflicts between then when taken to the same extremes. There is an implicit idea of balance among them, and the larger Zen idea than Zen is something you can point toward, but ultimately never describe, only experience. After applying some critical analysis to the Precepts, I decided to try the method of practice Kyogen recommended for a month and see what happened. His description of karma, often one of the more Woo-Woo aspects of Buddhism, was also very practical, and sounded a lot more like patterns from the past as described, for instance, by Re-Evaluation Counseling or modern cognitive psychology. This is a situation where a traumatic situation from the past (often in childhood) leaves a psychic or subconscious imprint on our mind. When something similar happens in modern life, instead of reacting consciously, we tend to get mentally teleported back in time to that previous situation, and find ourselves repeating our previous, now inappropriate reaction as though playing back a tape recorder. The practice of Zen Buddhism exists largely to help us see when this is happening, and eventually to prevent it and remain present. I was impressed that so much of what he was describing was a better-packaged, more-heavily-tested version of many of the things I’ve sussed out on my own through years of studying psychology, self-development, and spirituality. I decided to try out the program for 30ish days.
The general idea is to recite the Precepts, probably in the morning, every day, out loud, and to keep the flow going so as to bypass the critical mind and get them directly into the subconscious. Naturally this isn’t something I’d recommend *before* deciding they were right for oneself, but I’m sufficiently on board with their ideals that I’m willing to try what’s basically programming my subconscious for a month and see what happens. He said that one thing that often happens is that as we go through the day, a Precept will pop to mind, seemingly out of nowhere, and after a few days of imperfect practice, I’ve seen this happen a few times. The precepts about killing, and, more often, stealing, seem the be the ones most likely to come up for me.
The other aspect of practice, besides sitting meditation (the main staple of Zen Buddhism), is to sit in a comfortable chair before evening meditation and slowly drift back through memories of the day. The key is to keep moving and not get attached to any particular situation or detail, but be on the lookout for strong emotional or physical reactions, and notice the situation that sourced that reaction. Simply observe, feel, and keep moving until one arrives back at the beginning of the day. Over time, one begins to see patterns of when certain feelings come up, and begins to gain the ability to see those same patterns during the day when they pop up. Eventually we reach a point where we see the reaction coming before it actually happens, and are freed from it’s previous pernicious influence. I’ve done this four or five times now, and the results have been interesting, though not super-illuminating yet. I think the reason is that I already seem to be aware most of the time when I’m getting propelled into Pattern Space by certain things (argumentative conversations with my mother come to mind) and am able to observe my own emotional reaction without getting too sucked in.
This particular interpretation of karma is very interesting, because whatever a more rational person might think about the likelihood of the physical re-incarnation of the soul into new bodies, I *definitely* believe we all carry patterns that have been handed down from generation to generation from our ancestors, transmitted simply by children reacting to their parents unconscious behavior. The original reason might already have been lost in antiquity, but the patterns remain generations later. For instance, I have a hard time leaving a non-empty plate on a table. I can do it, but it requires effort in the face of a strange, irrational desire to see the plate *clean*. This is something I inherited from my ancestors who lived thought Great Depression, and, possibly earlier trials in hunger. By making these patterns conscious and only choosing to continue the ones that actually serve us, we are improving not only our own lives, but the lives of those who come after us. This is functionally very similar to the idea of making up karma for “sins” in previous past lives without the Woo-Woo burden of actually believing in non-scientifically verifiable phenomenon.
I’ll continue to post as this experiment develops.