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Monday, March 13, 2006

The Empty Well

I just got back from a three-day retreat at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center near Ashland City, Tennessee, with Brad Warner, Zen teacher and priest, and his wife Yuka. The event was sponsored by the Nashville Zen Center; whether the retreat was actually a NZC event is open to question, but for me it was a deeply meaningful weekend which brought some personal demons to the fore, so I am resuming writing here after a hiatus of over two weeks, to try to exorcize some of those nastly little critters and try to deal with minor league PTS.

For those of you who don't know, I have been seeking and rejecting philosophies, mostly centered around Buddhism, for most of my life. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, and I discovered Zen through books at that time; I first got a chance to practice at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1980 or '81. I was way too dissipated and entranced with becoming a lawyer to actually practice at that time, although my fiancee did so and lived at the Zen Center for a while. Anyway, to reiterate previous posts on this blog, I went through everything from an extensive stint with Nichiren Shoshu in the late 80's to a brief dalliance with Tibetan Buddhism in 2004. In between, I was always looking for something, although I had pretty much abandoned academic philosophy as intellectual masturbation and found religions blatantly absurd and pathetic. I had decided that truth was more likely to be found in art, and to this day I still believe that, to some extent.

I will say that although it appears to me that to most churchgoers and practitioners of every persuasion, spiritual practice appears to be some sort of social activity or reaffirmation of identity, and philosophy even to most philosophers is just a game, I was always serious in that the focus of my life has been to find some reason to be here, as misguided as that search has become at times. In other words, my intentions have always been good. It was in an attempt to get my life going in the right direction again that I decided in 2004 that although I had rejected the beliefs of Nichiren Shoshu and would never go back, the daily practice was an integral part of all the positive results I had achieved in my psyche and my life at that time, and was something that I needed. So I was searching for a daily practice that produced benefits in my life yet did not require me to believe in absurdities.

I had largely given up on reading about philosophies, so it was a in a kind of desperation that I picked up Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner, and found in that book an intimation of what I was looking for. I say intimation, because of course the benefits of Zen practice, as I am now coming to know, cannot be found in a book. But it was the book that led me to believe that in zazen I could find what I needed, and I have not been disappointed.

I am not going to to discuss here what Brad is all about or what it is the book; if you are interested and don't know, just follow the permanent links on this blog to either the Hardcore Zen web page or Brad's blog, which is in remission, or to the Dogen Sangha page, which I will be adding shortly. I will be talking a lot more about Buddhism in future blog entries very soon, I think.

Anyway. In late 2004, inspired by Hardcore Zen, I began sitting regularly and then attending meetings of the Nashville Zen Center. The NZC, I understand, was founded by some academics about 25 years ago. Although some members of the NZC will probably, hopefully, be reading this entry, I beg their tolerance if I am inaccurate with their history. My understanding is that the NZC began as a leaderless group, merely to sit together and share their understanding of Zen, above and beyond what their consideral intellectual accomplishments could provide. At some point the NZC formed and then ended ties to a Korean Kuam Um group, leaving a residue of ritual. In the whole year and a half I have been with them, I have seen their longtime members and leaders falling away at an increasing pace, for the most part to be replaced by earnest newer practitioners.

The NZC is a very loose group; it is organized as a non-profit corporation, but beyond the requirements of officers and directors of such, it is pretty much a cooperative effort of the sort one would expect from academics; for the most part, everyone pitches in and helps with events and does what they feel they should. The major activity of the NZC is a Saturday session of zazen, kinhin, readings and coffee, usually attended by 8 - 12 people. It is a laid-back, tolerant, comfortable atmosphere of the sort fostered by well-meaning and mature academics, and several of these people have become my friends.

The other activity of the NZC is semi-annual three-day retreats, held Friday through Sunday at varied locations, most recently at Penuel Ridge. Because the sangha is eclectic and has no leader, various Buddhist priests and teachers have been invited in to lead the retreats. Sandy Stewart, the abbott of the North Carolina Zen Center, has been leading the fall retreats. Sandy is an eminently qualified Buddhist teacher and a very fine human being, with whom I have had the pleasure to attend one retreat, and I certainly hope to have the opportunity to attend a second.

A problem, however, had arisen with regard to the spring retreat. The person who had been leading the spring retreats had become unavailable, Mr. Stewart (I'm sorry, I don't know his correct title) was not available in the spring, and no options were forthcoming. I should note at this point that an electic organization like the NZC has both the benefits and drawbacks of diversity; not only does it not have a defined spiritual leader, it appears to me that the present members of the sangha would probably be unable to agree on one. This has probably led to the recent splintering-off of the longtime members and leaders noted above. For this reason, it can at times be demonstrative of the maxim of that horrible country song that says (and I paraphrase) that if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. In my brief time with the NZC we have been treated to a counsellor posing as a Buddhist teacher; a war veteran trying to work out his own anguished and very major PTS; and a friendly little experienced monk who just couldn't shut up.

I don't know if there would have been a spring retreat this year if I hadn't been exchanging emails with Brad occasionally, and happened to mention that if he were ever to be coming to Nashville, we would love to sit with him. To my surprise, Brad indicated that he was very willing to come to Nashville; to my further surprise, when I forwarded that email and info to my friend Nat who is the retreat committee chairman for the NZC, he indicated that not only would we be willing to sit with Brad, we wanted to discuss his leading the spring retreat. When Brad agreed and the date was picked, the seeds of this past weekend were sown.

The meaningful weekend which just passed was both a stress nightmare and a wonderful experience for me. It was a wonderful experience because I got the opportunity to meet, talk with, and come to know the man who brought me back to Zen, and his amazing wife. My dedication to Zen practice has been affirmed and refocused. The stress nightmare came because I found my place in the organization of the whole affair to be undefined, and I dropped the ball in more than one way. Nat had been pretty much running and organizing the retreats during my duration with the sangha; as the date neared, it appeared that personal and business pressures would keep him from fulfilling his usual function, leaving those functions up to me and the other members of the sangha. What I didn't realize is that the rest of the sangha had largely opted out of the retreat and for reasons to be discussed failed to tell anyone. Had I known this, I would have taken a much more hands-on approach to organizing and promoting the retreat. I certainly had the time. In my defense, being new, I was reluctant to assume authority in the way that I would have had someone said, "Bob, this is all yours. We are not going to attend nor promote the retreat. We will provide the financial backing and the physical implements for practice; you need to provide the attendees and set the schedule."

You see, the both the capacity of Penuel Ridge and our supply of cushions are limited. The place really won't hold more than about thirteen people, which at the fall retreat was what we had at the peak on Saturday night. I knew that I could fill the place and more just by publicizing Brad's appearance, but in deference to the sangha members, I did not. After all, it was their retreat. So the only notices of the appearance were a notice on the NZC website (which at this point can still be viewed here:, and a notice on Brad's blog. What was lacking of course was a notice to Brad's fans in the Nashville area.

I could go on in detail ad infinitum, because I am still thinking about those details. In short, what happened was, the retreat was attended by only maybe four sangha members, only three of whom were there pretty much the whole time. In addition, we had a couple of guests from the local vipassana group, and a couple of amazing new practitioners from Bowling Green who were fans of Brad's and happened to run across the above web notice with a search engine. So we peaked out at eight people all day Saturday, which to me was one of the most rewarding retreat days I have ever had. But Friday and Sunday were affairs of Brad, Yuka, and three sangha members. Had I not been an, or the, organizer of this thing, I wouldn't have cared. But the failure to produce more students for the man who brought me back to zen left me feeling incompetent at a period in my life when those feelings were already prevalent. These are issues to be dealt with in my life and in zazen; their exorcism here is part of the process.

I don't want to leave the readers of this lengthy and anguished entry with the feeling that I was the only one who did a lot of work here. Nat came to the retreat after what appears to have been hell week at his work out of town and worked tirelessly. Our friend Jennye, a member even newer than me, found herself in the undesired role of running the kitchen. Since the sangha members hemmed and hawed until the last minute about attending, Jennye shopped and prepared menu's for up to twenty people, and wound up cooking almost every meal. Brad and Yuka, although brought in as a teacher and his helper only, wound up participating tirelessly in all the cooking and cleaning, as did all the guests who appeared on Saturday. The problem was that four five people were doing the work of eight to twelve people in preparations for up to twenty. In the end, even Jennye disappeared into the wild, unexpectedly, and could not be reached, leaving Nat, myself, Brad and Yuka to clean up and pack a huge amount of food which had been bought on the false promises of those who failed to attend, and Nat and I to transport a truckload of equipment with no truck. Jennye's disappearance was truly a gonzo event; in the middle of kinhin, she whispered something to Brad about either her daughter or her dog, grabbed her cushions, and fled the zendo. I hope she is OK.

To be honest, there were several things about this retreat which were extremely rewarding for me. Brad's schedule provided more free time that we were used to at retreats, as a result of which, especially Saturday, I came to know some very good and intesting people much better. Special thanks to visitors Eric and friend who helped me affirm to myself the value of the effort I had put out here in bringing Brad to Nashville, and to Yang, who gave me the most interesting intellectual conversation after one of Brad's lectures that I have had in a long time. And of course getting to know Brad and Yuka was not an experience I would have missed for anything. Because of their inspiration, not promoting but providing the opportunity to learn about real Zen practice, as inspired by Brad's teacher, Gudo Nishijima, even in the face of apparent indifference and misunderstanding, I will resolve to try to do the same, within the context of my limited experience. I certainly hope to continue the relationship with them, and to work with them whenever possible.

My relationship with the Nashville Zen Center is not so certain. It is not only that except for the valiant and exceptional members set forth above, no one did anything to support the retreat (although of course they did pay for it, at least in part; and one leader did initially come up and drop off most of our equipment from our usual spot, never to be heard from again). I accept that people's interests and availability may differ from mine. The problem is that by silence and affirmation, in mixed doses, they pledged their support and then withheld it, which bothers me a lot more. And that undermines my faith in the sangha, which is an issue I will have to deal with. Me and Ms. Johnson and the Rufi and the wall.

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