Pizza for Samsara….

Second Zen Buddhist Meditation Class…

A couple people asked me to let them how the course progresses.

Today I was late. I thought 1 hour and 20 minutes would get me from Lawrence and Leslie to Spadina and Bloor on my bike with enough time to get home and put on some warm clothes and eat.

 A bridge was closed and I decided to go ‘off-trail’ over the railway tracks and up the hill to where the trail is open. Bad plan! As I rode down the path to the railway tracks I got snagged on something and was thrown off my bike!  ‘F*#^!’, I screamed, my right hand breaking my fall and my left knee hitting the pedal causing pain all over. Shocked I got up and realized I had hit a downed fence and then remembered I had been wearing sunglasses, which were nowhere to be seen.

“This is a good enough reason to skip the meditation class,” I thought, “why not?” Getting to the railway tracks, crossing over and going up the hill, I thought, “odd how when I left the trail I fell, is this some spiritual analogue?” Perhaps a little Buddhism would be a good thing? It worked for Buddha, right? (Earlier when teaching piano at the St. Bonaventure Friary Church, with the 10 metre crucifix imposing itself over the great chalet-style building, I thought, Buddhism isn’t like Christianity. It’s not about accepting suffering as a lifestyle – Buddhism is about compassionate wisdom, the two are intertwined, one cannot exist without the other. I don’t understand it. ‘Little question – little enlightenment; big question – big enlightenment.’?)

I decide I will have to grab some fast food to feed my slow enlightenment. Pizza-Pizza on Yonge. Poor service, attitude, I’m late! ME ME ME! Why do people in the service industries think it’s ok to be rude and senseless? My pizza is getting cold, me standing there waiting, while the pizza dudes chit-chat. Argh!

Moral dilemma: can I bring the other half of my ‘Canadian slice’ with bacon and beef peperoni into a Buddhist Temple? Is that sacrilegious? Thinking it’s better to smell a bit like bacon then to seem to be wearing bacon I scarf it down, hop on my bike and arrive at the temple. We can’t wear our shoes and the floor is ice-cold, seriously! I go to the bathroom, have a minor mishap, minor, and wait outside the main meditation room for a minute before deciding to interrupt everyone and enter anyway. One thing I’ll say for being a classical musician is you learn when NOT to enter, and when NOT to applaud!

I do as I was instructed last week: stand in front of the mat, extend the left leg back, don’t get my dirty feet on the mat, sit down on the cushion – I forgot to bow! Anyway, 5 minutes into the meditation I notice my body odour: earthy (even though I washed the dirt and blood off my knee), and a coppery-dried-sweat smell. How embarrassing!

A minute later the Priest, Sanha, a woman, says, “concentrate!” ? Concentrate? On what? Concentrate on trying not to concentrate? Try not to think about not thinking?

I look behind me and see a beautiful old brass statue of Buddha, and the word ‘safe’ enters my mind for some reason. I notice that the lotus flowers hanging overhead, hand-made by those, no doubt, better than I, are glowing – there are lights inside! They are beautiful! This Sunday is Buddha’s 2,557th birthday! There’s a party – I’m invited, you’re not.

Sanha interviews us. I admit I did not do my ‘formal practice’ once, but I did my informal practice, breathing from my belly, several times on the subway. I guess I can’t bitch at my students for not practicing “20 minutes, 6 times a week!”

I ask her, “why did you say concentrate” when we were in the middle of the meditation?

“Concentrate on the body, the back, the breathing, the belly. It’s very simple practice, like life – very simple!”

Really?

We are taught to chant. It’s not a formal style of singing. We use the syllables ‘yow’ and ‘um’; Korean for heart and mind. Her singing is unusual, odd, but not bad, somewhat comforting – except for the vibrato. That seems a little bit much, and the melody is pentatonic – just 5 notes, in the minor key, somewhat sad. I think of the singer Enya, some new-age spiritual guru introducing the masses to nasal high pitched wining. Sanha’s chanting is a little different: it seems bare, unapologetic, un-selfconscious, requiring several adjectives.

We then learn several different positions for meditation: full lotus, half lotus, quarter lotus and, my favourite –Burmese: no crossing of the legs, no pretzel stuff. (One guy can hardly bend his knees! I’m pleased I’m the only guy who can do the full lotus, but my left knee feels like it’s going to pop open! Oh yeah, the bike accident!)

We end with more bowing, and Senha asks us: “what do you think the meaning of bowing is?”

“Respect.”

“Gratitude.”

“Respect.”

“Servitude”, I’m thinking but decide to use Joseph Campbell’s explanation, “bowing is a way of saying ‘I acknowledge the divinity, the God / Goddess within you.’”

“And what is God?” Sanha asks.

I have no answer. She speaks of her great teacher Samu Sunim, who started Zen communities in several North American cities. “My teacher, used to say ‘you are not 100% Buddha, but you can be 5% or 10% Buddha, you lose your temper, you have bad thoughts, but you can become inlightened.’” 

I want to look out the window to see how Sanha’s tomatoes were doing. When they said they were going to plant a garden I thought there would be a couple trees and gravel tastefully raked to resemble the flow of water. But nope, Sanha wants tomatoes! I pick up a flyer advertising Buddha’s 2,557th birthday party this Sunday and wonder if I can fit it in between work and my sister’s visit.

I leave the temple with no cares or worries on or in my mind but dreading the ride home in the cold.