Moving house and home after so many years has been a big deal made even bigger by ‘shelter in place’ rules, since being able to do it with family and friends had to be scrapped. The work was mine to do alone, which meant clearing a 10-room house down to what could fit in the space of a made-over garage, and finding takers for all the rest. And this at a time when thrift stores are in lockdown and whatever I have touched is potentially contaminated.
Everyone I know – and many I do not know – got gifts from me, and even the house itself has been donated to the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative as affordable housing for local artists.
It was a huge job and I am still recovering from it, but somehow, step-by-step it all got done, and I am now installed in my sweet garage/studio surrounded by familiar rocking chairs and quilts, with good folks nearby and sheep and goats in the paddock outside my windows.
I am in a new life now, and have to make all the adjustments and shifts of mind and heart that accompany such a big change. It is a tall order, but I figure that changing the way we live is what every one of us has to do now.
We are either being globally stopped in our tracks by a tricky little virus or, as some say, being deluded into believing we are, or pushed by a madman to react to his madness, but the signal for big change is clear. Personally, I find the whole dynamic as fascinating as it is terrifying.
According to many ancient traditions, this is a time of major world shift as old ways are giving way to an expansion of consciousness and a new world is being born. We have little choice but to pay attention and make the required shifts in our understanding if we are to survive this era of change. As I discovered on the small scale, I had to give away most of what I owned in order to make the move!
I’ve been reading “SHOES OUTSIDE THE DOOR,” found when I emptied one bookshelf – an expose of the San Francisco Zen Center that came out over 20 years ago. I was a student there in the 1970s, and the author tells the story of a blatant misuse of power that happened around that time, and the passive willingness of people in the community to obey rules that were not in their interest. It is a human story and a story of our time; I lived through it, got out of there at a run when I saw what was happening, and learned some hard lessons about the abuse of power. I saw what happens when good folks obey bad orders without questioning them, making themselves as responsible as the perpetrators.
Big, hard lesson!
If you were around at that time, you may recall the newspaper stories of the meditation hall at Tassajara burning down one night. It was big news, and the cause of the fire has never been determined, remaining a mystery! The author barely mentions it, probably because nobody he interviewed had a clue how it started.
As it happened, I was there that day but never spoke to anyone about my version of the story. Maybe I figured nobody would believe me. I will tell it now, though, because it may be relevant to what we are experiencing now in the world.
It is about wrong uses of power and inappropriate obedience to that power.
I was, at the time, an independent Zen student living outside the practicing community with my husband and children. B., one of the photographers at the San Francisco Zen Center, was collaborating with me on a book about the re-emergence of a burned-out forest, focusing on an area close to Tassajara where fire had burned a large swath of the Los Padres Wilderness. B. had practiced at Zen Center with the founder, Shunryu Suzuki, leaving the practice when Suzuki died but staying on as photographer and friend. Both of us outsiders to the community, we’d gotten to know each other well.
About once a month, we would take off from the city well before dawn and arrive at our site near Tassajara with tripods and cameras. In the growing light we’d slog through ankle-deep ash to find new vegetation shooting up through the old burn, and we’d set up the tripod to start shooting. We got utterly filthy, and enjoyed every minute of it!
Visit by visit, the green forms became more evident as life spread across the blackened earth; I took copious notes and B. took pictures, pointing out to me how his eye viewed his subjects as art. I believe it was B. who taught me how to see. Then we would talk about how to present this scene of transformation in Buddhist terms.
By the time the sun rose over the hill, we would pack up tripods and cameras and walk down the road to the monastery to slow down, take a bath, chat with folks and eat some breakfast before heading back to the city.
On this particular morning, we happened on a ceremony in progress we’d not been informed of, and stood by as a solemn procession of students robed in black, led by the new Abbot in silken brown robes emerged from the Zendo.
We had no choice but to stand by respectfully, covered in soot and cameras as we were, and try to be inconspicuous – impossible by definition. I was shocked to hear the Abbot hiss,
“What the Hell are you doing here?” He was not pleased. “Oh, it’s the novelist and the photographer!” he mocked.
I found my breath and said, “We had no idea this was happening. We’ve been photographing in the burned-out forest. I believe you know about this project.” He ignored me and directed a nasty comment at B. His students, my cohort, just stood there passively, eyes downcast. I wanted to kick them, the ninnies! What was going on here?
Dear B., a gentle guy from Brooklyn who had grown up tough and knew how to fight back, shot back a smart-ass comment about staying for breakfast, and from there it escalated into a mean contest of smears. The obedient students still didn’t move a muscle while their fancy-robed teacher and the well-known photographer in a dirty shirt yelled at each other. And I was apparently invisible, just a woman with cameras around her neck.
“Unclear on the concept!” I wanted to scream at the whole scene of people gone mad. Was this the person I’d taken on as my teacher?
As the scene got worse, I figured somebody needed to take charge so I moved in closer and hollered,
“Cut it out, you guys!” Breathing heavily, they both laughed, and the Abbot told anybody who was listening that he and B. had been doing this for years. Neither I nor the birds in the trees believed him for a minute. Brushing himself off and bowing ceremoniously, he continued up the path followed by his obedient acolytes.
He still had not acknowledged my presence.
“What was that all about?” I demanded of B. once we put down our gear and took a rest under a tree.
“Oh, nothin’ much,” he insisted. “We go way back. You hungry?”
“We haven’t been invited,” I reminded him.
“Oh yes…yes we have!” he snorted.
Later, escaping from the dining hall, I ran back to the tree to be alone, but soon B. found me, and then the Abbot found him, and then the students drifted in to follow their teacher. It didn’t take long before the 2 men were at it again. Eyeing each other like prizefighters, they moved into a clinch like battling gorillas, one in fancy robes, the other in sweaty pants.
“You fuckin’ phony!” B. grunted, landing a hard punch to the teacher’s ribcage. “Ow!” “Scared I’ll make you sit all night again?” Pow! “Got married to prove you weren’t gay?” Gaahh!
The insults were cutting closer to the bone and the students just stood around like jackasses! We were in a monastery, for God’s sake!
“Stop that!” I shouted, inserting myself rather dangerously between them and pushing with all my might to separate them before they drew blood. They finally gave way, panting and laughing unconvincingly.
I was certainly not convinced and neither were the birds. “Sit down!” I ordered, as if I were in the playground with a bunch of 8 year olds. By this time more students had gathered – in awe of the show, no doubt – and we were surrounded. Nobody moved forward to help.
The teacher changed from dark to light, and laughing with a warmth that did not quite reach his eyes, called B. “Old buddy…” told whoever was listening that they had been fighting like this for years, and then he took off a circlet of skull-beads from his wrist and sat down on the log bench. The students hovered around, still silent as the teacher chatted about this and that, and casually handed me the beads, otherwise still barely acknowledging my existence.
“What’re those?” B. asked. The Abbot made up a tall tale about shrunken skulls from an island off the coast of Ireland, and B was again on his feet in fighting posture. The teacher coldly skirted around him and, totally ignoring me, strode away towards the side door of the Zendo, leaving me with the skulls. (I have since learned that bracelet was given to him by his teacher.)
“No you don’t, mister,” I muttered, following after him with the bracelet in hand. “You forgot something,” I called to his back just as he went through the door of the Zendo. Without looking at me he turned around, snatched the skulls roughly out of my hand and disappeared through the door.
It was over. All my commitment to the practice and the teaching of the Buddha with this man and this community, gone in one morning. I just wanted to get out of there and never come back.
This teacher badly needed a teacher!
Big breath…that was the night the Zendo burned down. In all these years, no one has ever been able to determine how it started.
“They don’t know what we-e know!” sang B. to me the next day over the phone. Not only had the Zendo burned to the ground – down to ash – but it also toppled a priceless ancient Buddha figure on the altar, breaking it into three pieces!
That all happened in the 1980s, several decades ago. The Abbot has long since been deposed and I left even before that. Finally, the community rebelled; huge debts incurred by reckless spending were either forgiven or paid off, and everybody hopefully learned some important lessons. For me, watching the downfall of a brilliant, but troubled man who had not done the work of banishing his own inner demons, was a painful lesson to bear. The fact was that he was also brilliant, and I loved him at his best.
He has taught me anyhow – mostly negative lessons as I watched him fall deeper and deeper into his own inner pits. I have looked at my own, and learned compassion for his. He may not have realized it, but I finally did, that we are all in this together and each has to do our personal part of the work of liberation, taking a good hard look at our deep fears and longings before we can presume to teach others.
Every single one of us needs to do this, no exceptions, and the sooner we take it on, the better.
So here we all are, in global lockdown, with a precious opportunity to go slow and reckon with our own shadows, pulling out the weeds rooted in our tender and frightened hearts.
And our President has his own job to do, I wager, which is to pressure us into action to create the world we wish to live in, rather than to use up our good energy protesting the one we don’t want. (Democrats, take note!)
As the cosmos is a Whole interconnected system of infinite proportions, then every single part of it is important and relevant, because nothing is outside the system. Nothing.
Not the Butcher, the Baker nor the Candlestick Maker.
Not you. Not me.
Not the President.