Zen and a Love Story

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By Anya Light

 

In the beginning, you are seated for meditation. Zazen. You wear a dark sweater and scarf. I notice how tall you are, how slender.

And then we begin to bow. I don’t know this ritual yet, and so I find my eyes drawn to you, as you make the movements. I dip my head reverently to the wooden floor, which represents the Earth. I dip my head and rise my palms for Buddha. (Not in worship—but in Yes!)

Yes, quiet meditation hall. Evening. England. This bowing. And there is no difference, now, between those who are bowing and those who are sitting or moving in this room in other ways. We all Are. I have Buddha nature, and so do you. I bow, watching you. You are always two seconds ahead, to my right. I can’t stop looking.

The story really begins with a headache. My headache. I cannot yet face them: the crowds, the rooms of expectant people, here to hear about my book. I am tired of talking.

Just ten minutes in the Zendo, I tell myself. Just ten minutes of meditation: that’s all I need. So, I rise from the bed, shuffle downstairs, and push open the wide wooden door.

It is you! You are there! You are already seated, on the old wooden floor. My heart is made of firecrackers. My heart is made of chocolate. I burn and melt. In total surprise, I say: You!?

We smile and agree to sit together. At the end of ten minutes, you ring the bell. I don’t remember what we talk about, after we sit, but it’s something that flows beautifully. A few minutes pass, and suddenly we remember other people and clocks exist. We say we are both reluctant to join them, but we do.

And then the story, well, it really begins with my question to you, after the reading: Would you like to take a walk with me? …And then, out in the open evening air, a few streets later, my question: May I kiss you? Your mouth is dry and you laughingly complain. We look around. There’s so much, and suddenly. The moon is big and the river is near. It’s August, the end of summer. We stand in the market town of Hebden Bridge. I don’t live here, but you do. You show the way.

We walk. When we reach the bridge, we hold hands. I remember resting my head in your lap. Your hands upon my head, so gently, so gently.

I tell you I’m a healer, a shaman, that I walk between worlds. I tell you everything. No secrets are between us, already. We talk of magic. We talk of love, mystery, sex. After awhile, we walk a bit more, back toward the house.

Back at the drafty old house, later, you kneel to write your number on a scrap of paper. Time has stopped a long time ago. While writing, you look up at me. I’m in the chair, close to you, legs crossed. You shake your head, disbelievingly, almost like a confused, giddy child. You say: I don’t know you, but I love you.

We are writing a love story, my love. It includes more things. Letters, packages, emails. Visits. Six-hour Skype calls. Orgasms and dances across space and time and all that seems real. You and I in the forest, that afternoon. You and I on the islands, those evenings, when we camped. The whale leaping from the waters.

How your laugh surprises me still.

How crickets can signal not the end but the beginning of a summer.

 

Entering the Moment, Entering the Universe

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When my brother Terry was twelve years old, he began an apprenticeship with my dad, an apprenticeship in plastering. When Terry was in his fifties, I asked him to do some plastering in my house. He obliged. At this stage, he’d been plastering for forty years.

Watching him plaster the wall was like watching someone do T’ai Chi, and I asked myself: Is this his meditation practice? I’d been meditating for about seven years, and knew the look: the soft shine in his eyes, the half-smile on his lips, his face glowing – the look of simple joy. Terry, wall, the flow of hands, tools, and plaster, all formed a totality, a time of pure being. So, was this his meditation practice or was meditation something else?

Prior to this, I had been meditating with the Western Buddhist Order. My teacher’s teacher Sangharakshita had described T’ai Chi, yoga, dance, and painting as indirect methods of meditation, as indirectly working on the mind, whereas meditation proper was directly working on the mind. I was sure that Terry, and practitioners of other arts, achieved meditative states, but if I’d have asked Terry whether he was meditating, I’m sure he would have said no, just plastering a wall.

In direct methods of meditation,  you set about to deliberately change, transform, improve, and refine the functioning of the mind. However, meditation is not simply just mechanical technique: like Terry’s plastering, it becomes an art.

On one hand, Terry was not meditating; on the other, he was.

One way around this puzzle is to reflect on the state achieved: a state of absorption. When we are meditating, we become absorbed in the object of concentration. This absorption arises naturally from following a meditation technique, but it may also follow from any of the indirect methods, such as dance or painting or plastering.

One Buddhist meditation technique for cultivating absorption is the Anna Panna Satti—or awareness (Satti) of ingoing breath (Anna) and outgoing breath (Panna), usually translated as the Mindfulness of Breathing. Bringing our awareness or attention to an object, observing how we are distracted from it, and figuring out how to sabotage the distracting tendency.

Another absorption technique in Buddhism is the Metta Bhavana—or cultivation/development (Bhavana) of loving kindness (Metta). Bhavana also means becoming, so becoming loving kindness. This technique also has an object of concentration, our emotional response, and the aim is to strengthen our warm, positive emotional responsiveness.

For over twenty years I’ve been practicing Zen meditation. I was drawn to it because of its sublime simplicity: one practice covers everything. The essence of this style of meditation is simply the art of being present. Somehow we know that to be present is enough, so we give ourselves fully to the practice of being present.

Perhaps Zen meditation best falls into the category of indirect methods, but there is something direct about it too—the effort to be present. This can lead to absorption and to insight. But in Soto Zen (the Zen school in which I teach), even insight is not the point. When you are fully you, fully present, everything has been set right, you have found your place, you have entered the universe, the universe has entered you. There is nowhere else.

It is wonderful to come to this awareness…and with it, I’d say yes: Terry was meditating.

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Ingen is a Soto Zen priest and teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, having received ordination and dharma transmission (2000 and 2009) from Zoketsu Norman Fischer. He was Shuso at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 2002 with then Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman. Ingen has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years and lived in community for about 14 years. He has led sesshin and retreats in England, Sweden, Italy, Ireland and California, and is a member of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of America. He now lives in his home temple, ‘Ingen-ji‘, in Co. Clare, Ireland.