Last Wednesday I went to the Kannon Do Zen Centre up in Mountain View to hear Natalie Goldberg speak. A friend had invited me to see her, and when do you get a chance to actually meet the writer of Writing Down The Bones? Of course, I had to go.
It was a bit of a shock to see the Zen Centre right there in the middle of Mountain View, just a small way from downtown. The grounds were immaculate, the neighborhood was quiet, and everything there was geared towards one purpose — the practice of Zen and the encouragement of mindfulness. I was really impressed with it, and introduced to a community of practitioners who were all striving for the same thing.
We meditated first. My friend asked if I wanted to sit in a chair, and I told him I would probably be able to hang on a cushion. That turned out to be a big mistake. I meditate on a seiza bench at home; it’s basically a tiny little bench meant to hold your butt up off of your heels when you’re kneeling. I’m way too inflexible for half-lotus, and I’m pretty sure I’d break my legs if I tried full-lotus. (I’m still marvelling that anyone can manage that pose. It’s like they have cartoon noodle legs). Sitting seiza, though, is not the best without some sort of barrier between your rear and your heels. If you’re not tiny (and I am not), then it doesn’t take long for your lower legs to fall asleep. After that, any shift you make will send a horde of angry ants skittering from your ankle to your kneecap.
At first I could hang, but the second half of the meditation session was pure agony. I shifted out of seiza, awkwardly tried the half-lotus before I gave that up too, and just sort of ended up hugging my knees and resting my chin on my legs. It’s a horribly undignified way to meditate, but nothing brings you into the present moment quite like shame.
After meditation, there was a brief chant. I had never experienced anything like it before! We chanted the “Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra,” which is this:
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when deeply practicing prajna paramita clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering. Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, or consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight…no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance…neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana. All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false. Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says “Gate gate paragate parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”
Something came over me in the recitation of this sutra. It felt like something came unlocked, this idea that there is nothing to attain because whatever we could strive for is illusory; and once you realize that, the very idea of holding on to something — or scrambling to achieve it — just doesn’t hold any weight. When you realize that, fear simply leaves you.
Fear is something I struggle with all the time. The past couple of weeks have shown me that I’m a very tightly wound person. I’m terrified of making mistakes. It frightens me to talk about something that means a lot to me and have it dismissed or rejected. I hate the idea of stretching myself out, of being in a place where I’m not certain. But that’s where life is; and as much as you strive for the comfort of knowing exactly where you are and what you’re doing, you will actually spend very little time there. That comfort, that stability, is illusory and impermanent; attaching so much of my emotional energy to it is a thing that causes me suffering.
Natalie spoke, after chanting and a period of silent reflection while a few associates navigated through technical difficulties. She talked about living in (and hating) Palo Alto, and how it taught her to be careful what you hate because so much energy goes into that act. She talked about being diagnosed with cancer and how it stopped her writing cold but channeled her creative output into painting. Her work there was interesting; warm, vibrant yet serene, touched by her New Mexico lifestyle while still capturing pieces of the setting she was in. Her self-portraits were the most interesting, capturing the fear, worry and sadness she couldn’t express in words.
I was impressed mostly by the softness with which she lived her life. She was very gentle with her words and her tone, as if she knew that she didn’t need to use pressure to get at the truth she was trying to communicate. There was a deep and abiding acceptance in everything she did, even when she spoke about the cancer that had frightened her so. That discomfort was something she knew intimately and embraced just as much as everything else.
Silicon Valley is not a place that lends itself to that softness. It’s a fast-paced, high-powered world, and it’s not conducive to slow and ponderous attention to one thing. It’s difficult to know how to attain that soft and gentle attitude. The current teacher of Kannon Do, Les Kaye, wrote Zen At Work and actually worked at IBM for 30 years before becoming a Zen teacher. I think he understands the unique challenge of marrying Zen practice to the tech sector, which is pretty neat.
The intimacy and care with which the community of Kannon Do related to the space and with one another is something I’ll remember for a long time. There are a number of things within my calendar right now, so I’m not sure if it’ll be possible right now to attend services regularly. It’s definitely something I will make time for, however. Just being there for one warm summer evening gave me an awful lot to chew over, and for that I’m grateful.