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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Slighty Different Weekend at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center

I stole this photo from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; I'm using it because it's a good picture and because I was too lazy to take pictures of my own this weekend in Atlanta (despite having a pretty good camera on my new PDA), and the guy who was supposed to take pictures somehow didn't get it done. But it's going to mislead some people about Zen. It kind of looks like Michael Elliston, the newly (or newly-officially) transmitted Abbot of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, is praying. Odds are he's either chanting, or just being posed by the photographer, who probably just thought it looked priestlike. You should read the AJC article that goes with the picture.

Of course everything about Zen that you hear or see is going to be somewhat misleading, other than the actual practice itself. So every time I find myself trying to talk about it, I kick myself. I can however tell you about my weekend.

Usually when I head off to Atlanta for a weekend zazenkai or sesshin, I'm in the mood. This time I wasn't particulary, partly because of the Buddhist burnout I've been getting from the Nashville Buddhist Festival, and because I've been experiencing a low level of non-specific tension which probably comes from a whole list of minor annoyances; but I was determined to go because Shohaku Okumura Roshi, founder of the Sanshin Zen Community of Bloomington, Indiana, was in town to conduct Sensei Elliston's transmission, as was Barbara Kohn, head priest of the Austin Zen Center. I've sort of met Sensei Kohn before; she was present the first time I visited the ASZC in April, 2006, but I've never had the opportunity to speak to her. I still haven't, but I do someday want to tell her I feel a link to her Austin Center because I started sitting at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1981, where she was later Abbot before going to Austin. And although the transmission ceremonies for Elliston, which occurred over six days, were secret, I wanted to see what was going on

Another difference was this time was that normally I stay in the ASZC from the time I arrive til I leave on Sunday; this trip, because of overcrowding at the center from the out-of-town teachers, their entourages, and senior ASZC disciples returning from afar to see the show (which, since the transmission ceremonies were secret, basically consisted of others there for the same reason), I was lucky enough to be put up by a couple who attend the ASZC and live in the nearby Virginia Highlands area of northeast Atlanta. Whereas normally when I attend a weekend session, I would be doing zazen/kinhin for about 7 1/2 - 8 hours a day, this time I figured out that I sat for 4 1/2 hours on Friday, 3 hours on Saturday, and 1 1/2 on Sunday, plus hearing one of Okumura Roshi's four lectures on the Shobogenzo (or a very small part thereof), and of course attending Sunday's ceremonies.

It was hot in the zendo, which along with the strange atmosphere created by the secretive scurrying about between the altars set up all over the Center for the secret transmission ceremonies, and by a few humorless senior disciples who don't share their Abbot's capacity for not losing his perception of absurdity (and that of my friends there), gave me an excuse to skip some cushion time and go exploring in the 100-degree Atlanta heat.

I need to go back to Virginia Highlands when I'm not going to the ASZC. There are some really interesting-looking bars and stores there; and no I didn't hit the bars, that would be an altogether different story. I did have some good noodles. And I did find the main building for the Center for Disease Control, a monster of a lab building which gave me thoughts about the Umbrella Corporation.

Anyway. In some ways I think I enjoyed the sitting I did and the ceremonies more because I wasn't exhausted from more sitting, and because I wasn't trapped in the center. By the time I got there, the sesshin had been going on for several days and I never really felt a part of it, and for the first time I behaved like a guest, coming and going and taking my meals outside. It gave me a whole new perspective, not necessarily a better one, but it's nice being able to move between perspectives, which is important for Zen, or at least for my Zen.

And I will say that it reaffimed my faith in Soto Zen, in the ASZC, in Taiun Micheal Elliston and in my own involvement with all of the above. By the end of Sunday, if I had it to do all over again, I would've come down Tuesday night for the entire sesshin, if work had permitted. And I am going to visit the Austin Zen Center someday, but I'm also going back to Atlanta on a different mission.

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