I'm back from Tassajara. That's a photo of the full moon over the Tassajara valley. Did you miss me?
Man. A lot went on while I was away. Jani Lane died. I didn't see that one coming. I never knew Jani. But I was pals with Steve, who is also mentioned in the article I linked to, all through high school. I didn't realize Jani was also from Akron. I can't say I was ever the world's biggest Warrant fan. But among the LA hair metal bands of the time, they were far better than most. They could actually write songs that were about something, as well as dumber-than-dumb rockers like Cherry Pie. I actually really like that song and always have. "Think about baseball, swing all night!" Genius, I tell ya!
A bit closer to home for me, Tim LaFollette died last Tuesday. Tim was a close friend of my friend Catie Braly. I only met Tim once. But I heard a lot about him from Catie. Tim wrote the theme song to Dan Savage's Savage Love podcast. The last 5 minutes of the latest episode are a tribute by Dan Savage to Tim as well as one of Tim's best songs, "Sad State of Affairs." Catie sings on most of Tim's stuff that he did with their band The Popovers. Tim had ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was dedicated to raising awareness of the disease. I'm sad he's gone.
The other night I spent some time with my buddy Daigan Gaither of the San Francisco Zen Center. Daigan is a Zen monk and also one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters are officially heretics according to the Holy Roman Catholic Church! Way to go, Daigan!
Daigan noted that my work is something people either really love or really hate. That seems to be true. And I'm glad of that. If I only inspired indifference I wouldn't be doing my job.
What can I tell you about Tassajara? I did three weeks there as a member of the kitchen crew. I chopped loads of vegetables, baked tons of cookies, and washed more dishes than I ever thought there were on Earth. I'd been invited down by Greg Fain, the practice leader, to give some talks. But, like last year, I thought it was boring just to go down there for three or four days, lounge around the hot springs baths, do a couple talks and leave. So I enrolled as a rank-and-file student. That's loads more fun and a lot more interesting and informative.
My first talk was called "Was Dogen Really Dogen?" I tried to address the issues raised by Carl Bielefeld and others recently concerning certain parts of the accepted biography of Dogen. Much of what we think we know about the man turns out to be dubious. It's doubtful, for example, that he wrote his masterwork on Zazen, Fukan Zazengi (Recommending Zazen for All People), in 1227 when when he first arrived back from China as a youngster of 27. More likely he wrote it about five years later and then extensively revised it in the 1240s, when he was an old man in his forties. Also, the stories of his wanderings in China looking for a true master are probably highly exaggerated by the contemporary Soto organization. Dogen himself never really claimed to have done a whole lot of traveling on the continent.
I said that I wonder if the matter of who our teachers "really are" is actually very important. Who one "really is" is a kind of fiction we create about ourselves and about others.
My second talk was about Dogen's views regarding monkhood. In a few of his later works, Dogen seems to directly contradict what he said in Fukan Zazengi about everyone being able to practice zazen and reach enlightenment. He says that only one who has "left home" (出家, shukke, pronounced shoe-kay）can ever hope to truly understand Buddhism.
In today's Japanese style Buddhism, what it means to "leave home" is a bit vague. Nishijima Roshi's definition is even more vague. In the old days, a "home leaver" really left secular society. He or she couldn't hold down a job, get married, handle money and so on. These days the Japanese Soto-shu and other such organizations permit "home leavers" to do all of those things and more. In America and Europe the rules have become even looser.
I once asked Nishijima Roshi, "Am I a monk?" He said, "Yes. You are a monk." In his eyes anyone who took the precepts automatically became a monk. My friend Konin spoke up during the talk. She said that she believed a monk was anyone who was committed to helping maintain whatever it is that supports people to do the practice. An interesting definition.
I've never lived in a monastery except for a few short stints at Tassajara. I did a month last year, three weeks this year, plus a few other odd days and weeks over the previous years. Nishijima Roshi never kept a temple or monastery. Neither did my first teacher. So the monastic life is still somewhat mysterious to me. What does it mean? What value does it have to contemporary society?
I'll try and get the recordings of these talks to John to put up on the podcast soon.
OK. I gotta go.
See ya later, skaters!