Tonight April 21, 2009 (Tues) at 7:30 I'll be at Legacy Books 7300 Dallas Parkway, Plano, Texas 75024. Be there! Then it's on to Montreal, Detroit and Saskatoon. The dates for the rest of the tour are linked to your left<<<<<<.
I just got done with Austin, San Antonio and Houston. I must say I'm very well impressed by the great state of Zen in the great state of Texas. All three Zen centers I visited were terrific. Those of you who live nearby should be glad there are such solid places in your area and you should visit them often.
It always makes me a little sad when I visit tremendous Zen places like these and then afterward get told, "That's the most people we've had in here in ages! We've never seen half those people before." It's hard for me to comprehend anyone going out of their way to hear the likes of me talk. But, then again, I'd travel a long way to see KISS. So quality may not be a factor in what makes people go see stuff.
I think a lot of people are afraid of Zen. It reminds me of what the members of Spinal Tap say in the film This is Spinal Tap when asked why there are so few women in their audience.
Martin DeBergi(interviewer): The make up of your audience seems to be predominantly young boys.
David St. Hubbins: It's a sexual thing really. Aside from the identifying thing the boys do with us, there's also a reaction of the female to our music.
Nigel Tufnel: Really they're quite fearful. They see us on stage with tight trousers and we've got, like, armadillos in our trousers. It's really quite frightening, the size. And they run screaming.
I think a lot of people see the "armadillos in the trousers" of Zen and run screaming. If you've seen the film, it's revealed later on that the bulges in the trousers of the band are zucchinis taped to their legs. Such is the way of Zen. What might appear metaphorically to be "armadillos in the trousers" of Zen teachers* are nothing more than zucchinis.
What I mean by that is much of the fear people have of going to Zen centers is based on unreal images of what they think goes on inside. For example, many people are terrified they might get some of the steps wrong in the various rituals. But, really, it doesn't matter. Everybody gets the steps wrong! Even the most highly trained monks sometimes make big errors.
And you know what happens then? Nothing. Nobody cares. You just recover and move on. In most Zen centers they won't say anything or even look askance at you if you blow some of the steps. The worst that might happen is someone whispers in your ear or just waits till you notice what everyone else is doing. There is no need to fear the trouser armadillos of Zen. How's that for a quotable quote?
ANYWAY, I had an especially great time with Gaelyn Godwin of the Houston Zen Center. She is a truly terrific Zen person. Very impressive.
I started thinking about her and why I liked her so much and what she had in common with other Zen teachers -- and just people in general -- who I like and respect. It's acceptance. Most religious teachers are extremely unaccepting. They want to push you into a mold they've created. There was some nastiness in the comments section of this very blog recently created by a Zen teacher who wanted to force others into the mold he created. So even Zen teachers are not beyond this.
But the Zen teachers (and other people, but leaving them aside for the moment) I have the most respect for are the ones who accept everyone as they are. This might be a good answer for the question I always get asked; "What should I look for in a good Zen teacher? And what should I look for as a sign a Zen teacher might not be so good?" Acceptance is the key. Can they accept you or do they want to force you into a mold?
There's a funny thing about this in Zen, which relates to the whole "trouser armadillos" matter above. And that is that communal Zen is often very ritualized and depends upon people doing the same thing at the same time. It stresses conformity and discourages overt displays of individuality. But this aspect of the practice is fairly superficial (with some caveats, see below). It's there to make sure the group functions smoothly.
But it's also not superficial. We human beings have individual personalities that are not alike. Yet we are social animals who cannot survive on our own. We're a lot like ants or bees in that respect. We love to pretend we aren't entirely dependent on others. But it's all bullshit.
So we have to learn to function smoothly in a group. And much of Zen training is aimed at making that happen. But it should do so without denying what each individual is. We do not want to strip people of their uniqueness. Far from it! We want to celebrate that uniqueness. But we also strive to show people how to blend smoothly into society.
I've been well impressed by a number of teachers I've met in my travels and in my life. To name a few, Tim McCarthy, Gudo Nishijima, Tonen O'Connor, Gaelyn Godwin, Zuiko Redding, Greg Fain, Dokai Georgeson, Mel Weitsman... There are many more whose names I'm blanking on right now. But they've all exhibited the quality of radical acceptance.
They all could accept anyone, whether they agreed with or even understood them or not. And that's such a rare thing. You can't overstate the preciousness of meeting someone who accepts you as you are. I've fallen in love with people solely because they showed me that kind of total acceptance (there's a dating tip for you!).
When I interviewed her, Nina Hartley said of Mel Weitsman (abbot of Berkeley Zen Center), "He was the first person who ever showed me compassion. Mel was the first person who ever looked me in the eye. He was very direct, very there, relaxed, open, not expecting, not judging. I recognized it as something I’d never had before, something I wanted more of, but something I could barely stand. For 37 years I have been circling that moment, really trying to become centered in it." That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. Find that and you've found something really special.
I was also interested to learn from Gaelyn that much of her congregation is -- gasp! -- Republican and even -- deeper gasp!! -- supporters of George W. Bush and John McCain. Why should this strike anyone as ironic? A koan for you all!
(Secret Answer: It isn't ironic at all.)
Big, big thanks to Mr. Lauren Crane for all his help in making the Texas leg of the tour happen!
*Or literally in my case!