One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Showing posts with label Philip Whalen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Whalen. Show all posts

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Three Key B’s of Buddhism, Bowing Boredom and Bliss," by Phil Whalen & Ken Ireland

Phil with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa

Bowing, Boring and Bliss


I recall one talk about “Bowing” by Zenshin Phil Whalen at the Hartford Street Zen Center. Damn I loved his talks. He was without a doubt one of the most literate men ever to don the robes of a Zen priest anywhere, at any time. And if you want to challenge me, I’ll be suiting up on the Dalai Lama’s debate ground up here in McLeod Ganj. 


But first things firstI was going to try to record the talk, but was my usual bumbling self with electronic equipment, and couldn’t get the machine working in good time. Being his usual patient-self, he yelled at me, saying that we didn’t have all day and, anyway some things were just not meant to be recorded. Sometimes words are purposefully impermanent. It was not like he was going to recite some goddamn hidden, secret sutra for the last time before he croaked.


So I lost the talk, but I am going to do my best to reconstruct it from the basic “B’s” as I remember them.


He began by saying that if he really wanted to write a bestseller, his publisher would insist that he come up with a title like the “The 10 Recondite Rules for Clean Buddhist Living” or something like that. So let’s give it a try: “The Three Key B’s of Buddhism, Bowing Boredom and Bliss.”  Perhaps Phil’s publisher was onto something. More than 20 years have passed, and I still remember long sections of his talk (it’s also true that as with many teachers, he returned again and again to his favorite topics like an old horse headed back to the barn).


When he was in Japan, in the monasteries and temples there, everyone bowed three times. People just always bowed three times. But for those who couldn’t count, he said, before he just sat down to begin his talk, he bowed nine times. We all bow nine times at Zen Center, why is that? Well he said, when the first students began to gather around Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, they went to him one day and complained, “Roshi we love you but we’re Americans and we don’t like all this bowing. We don’t understand it. So why are we doing it?” And the Roshi said with a smile, “Oh so you don't like bowing three times? Good. Perfect. I think we should bow nine times. Better that way, More practice.”


So we bow nine times. Better that way. Practice.


Phil then told an anecdotal story about some legendary old Japanese teacher way out in the middle-of-nowhere backcountry who was revered for the callous on his forehead. He explained himself: one of his first teachers had scolded him for being stubborn and told him bowing would be a good practice. So he began bowing. He never stopped. He discovered that the body is stubborn and the mind is stubborn. He said that he would stop when he stopped being stubborn. So he just kept bowing and thus the calloused forehead. In one way or another, we’re all like that.


Then he said that Zen students actually have it very easy. In Tibet all the new monks bow 100,000 times before they do anything. It’s called Ngondro, and it involves the whole body, not just your forehead, hands, arms, knees and feet touching the floor but your whole body flat out, like you were a swimming fish, and it’s so strenuous that it takes a lot of effort to reel back and bounce back up. Do that a hundred thousand times. I’m told that it’s a purifying exercise. But it’s not done with some idea of repentance like Christian pilgrims bowing every three feet along the Camino de Santiago. It’s done because we practice meditation with every bit of ourselves, wholeheartedly, fully, without reservation, holding nothing back. 


And then he said that anyone who’s lived in Asia knows that bowing is just good manners. It’s a sign of respect. You tilt your body down, your eyes are not focused on the face of the person you’re greeting, your whole body is lower. Of course you’re going to bow lower to a king or abbot. There’s a whole book of bowing etiquette: you bow very slightly to someone who’s your equal, but your bow is lower when you greet your parent or someone who’s older out of respect. That’s why we bow to our teachers in a formal situation. We’re showing respect and love. And we show it by using our whole body and mind. Our mind bows down, and for maybe an instant, we’re slightly less arrogant. We have to throw every bit of being into the bow.


But the most important thing, and here is a place where I actually have Phil’s own words, from his notebooks from Tassajara, we have to make it our own. In the rule infested monastery or practice center, we ask ourselves are we “bowing to rules rather than using them? We must contrive to be Buddhas & patriarchs rather than students who are good at following schedules (and bowing).”


But you’ll notice, he said, we follow a certain order in the zendowe bow to the cushion, then everyone else in the room, and we sit. How strange, bowing to the cushion. We’re not bowing to a Buddha, or a person. You can think of it anyway you want to. Sometimes I like to  think that I am bowing to the practice, but that is really way too abstract. Sometimes I do it just automatically, without thinking much of anything. But in any case, we just do it. It’s probably not important what you think about.


Now we get to the B for boring.


We sit and almost immediately after we learn to sit with only slight discomfort and our bodies become both more relaxed and more alert, we get bored. We all have our own experiences, but I’ll tell the world, I get bored.


But then the mind, it’s like fiddling with a bungled up ball of twine, if you try to untangle it when you’re frustrated or angry, the knots are just going to get tighter. You’ll be looking for a knife (He laughed). I’ve pictured the mind as a bag of worms or a net of living anchovies. But you get the point, it’s a conundrum, it’s a mess. It may be filled with ghosts or paranoia or algebraic equations. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s just there, all tangled up. 


So there’s this big mess of thread sitting in your mind, and you just begin to play with it, without much purpose, no rhyme or reason. You tug a bit here and notice a bit that’s a bit looser over there, but you’re relaxed and maybe you follow the thread to a knot that looks tight but on closer inspection, it loosens up and falls away. And maybe after a while there’s just a whole mess of lovely threads in front of you, and though you really don’t fully grasp how it happened, there it is.


Then the bell rings. 


I’ll end by quoting Mr. Robert Bly who tells us to follow our bliss. Of course Mr. James Campbell has also told us to follow our bliss, and he did it on the Public Television Station so it must be something worth doing. But I was watching Bly talk about it on the TV and found him quite interesting, if not persuasivebecause bliss is not something I can buy, like the gummy bears I get at the Walgreens. It’s just there. 


Some very fussy Buddhists might describe it as a fruit of meditation. If you hang out long enough, it’s just there because it’s always been there, but you wake up, or you open your eyes, or you open your heart. I’ll agree that it’s just there, and it really doesn’t matter how it got there. But this it does share with the gummy bears: when you taste it, you know that it’s a gummy bear.


And sometimes it might feel like something is lost in the process. Bly quoted a poem by Antonio Machado which I quite like.

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

The wind said, “In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses. ”

[Machado said,] “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead … ”

The wind said, “Then, I’ll take the withered petals, and the yellow leaves, ”

and the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

I think that’s enough for today. Keep bowing. Thank you.


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