Having developed the habit of writing these little articles, when I don't, stuff just builds up. Which is alright, because if I don't write it out and pay attention to it, it goes away. It does leave me with all sorts of mixed messages about what to write when I do write, though.
Yesterday morning I had one of the crashing sinus headaches I still have, although very occasionally, now. When I was in my teens, the things would come one occasionally, and be relentless -- made me want to pound my head into the dirt. They peaked out the winter I spent in Vermont in 1979 - 80; I had one that went on for days at a time. I'd get drunk to make it go away, and then of course I'd have the hangover plus the sinus problem -- I finally went to a emergency room, got shot up with some goofy drug that made me puke but made the headache go away. They finally stopped when I moved to California that next fall; lower humidity? Different allergens? Dunno. But although they come back occasionally, they've never been like they were then.
Anyway, I missed what must have been a kick-ass day at the NZC. The monthly 5 a.m. sit used to be one or two people at the most, maybe 2 1/2; I understand there were seven people yesterday who came and stayed for the whole thing. And there was a book study afterward! Sometimes it feels good when your effort pays off, even when you're not around to reap the rewards in person.
Which is in a way, good. When I started going to Atlanta in early 2006, I went because I needed something real in Zen that was lacking in Nashville. When I saw what was there, I wanted to bring it back both for the benefit of those who prior exposures to Zen were somewhat less than, and for myself, so I'd have a good context to sit in. I never wanted to be any kind of a leader, much less the public face of anything. But such things happen. And now I can step back from it; except that I still need to rebuild the website, and promote the new MySpace page I just set up for the NZC (and you should all befriend it!).... but the efforts of others are coming into it now. Nat was always there, and he's a much better front man for the thing than I could ever be. Too many skeletons in my closet.
Coming out of one of those headaches is kind of like a hangover. No energy. I went to my dad's house in Manchester, ate fried catfish, and read most of Brad Warner's new book. I'd bought ten copies for the NZC, and I probably should have checked it out myself, but no fear: Brad's stuff just gets better and better.
I've written about Brad's stuff before (I think you can search for it in here?), so I won't reiterate, but his first book caught me right when I was trying to come back to some form of Buddhism in later 2004, when I think I was finally coming to terms with the death of my mother, eighteen months earlier. The main criteria I have for "Truth" from a teacher is when the teacher says something that I've come up with earlier, myself, and thought it was original to me. At least that way I know it's true, for me. And if I'm not the only one to see it exactly that way, maybe there's something to it. Brad's not the only one with whom I've had that experience; often I've heard my teacher Michael Elliston voice thoughts that I've had. But Brad's the only one to do it in writing. Repeatedly.
Brad's first book, Hardcore Zen, for which he is known, was basically a compilation of blog articles edited together, with some filler articles written at the behest of the publisher. Not that it wasn't a brilliant book, filled with exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. His second book, Sit Down and Shut Up, is a more conscientious attempt to integrate views into Brad's own life with his observations of some of the Shobogenzo, Dogen's life's work. The book is again, excellent, but a little labored in the application of the Shobogenzo to the Zero Defects reunion.
But in Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma (don't make me say it again), Brad has finally come into his own as a teacher, I think. His resolve by the end of the book -- as he puts it, to be an asshole for life -- is perhaps better phrased as a determination not to be dissuaded from expressing what he perceives to be clear truth, by the expectations of others. Brad came under attack last year, and the year before, from that microcosm which is the Buddhist blogsphere, for his articles on Suicide Girls, as well as his unexpected appointment as Nishijima's dharma heir. He's making it clear, that after a year in which he witnessed the death of his mother and grandmother, the end of his job and his marriage (and we'll miss you, Yuka!), he's going to express what he sees. And that certainly is an attitude which a self-labelled punk-rock guy needs to come back to.
It's really reassuring to know that I'm not the only one turned off by flowery New Age Buddhism (Brad's parody of the "Zen" practice in which one intones, "Breathing in, I breathe flowers; breathing out, I breathe kittens" remind me of why I no longer participate in the Nashville Buddhist Festival). It's nice to know that someone else whose opinion I respect feels a need to address imbalance, not by neutrality, but by supplying an opposing force.
Weekend before last, I went back to Atlanta to the ASZC for one of the zazenkai events I love most. The winter zazenkai's are small events. It's usually cold and miserable, and not many attend, but those who do are the ones who've become my friends. This month's retreat was led by my friend Gareth, who after many years of practice has finally gone through the ceremony it takes to become a novice priest in Zen. Four of us went down from Nashville - a record!
Gareth's theme for the retreat was balance. Honestly, I couldn't see how he was going to make this theme work. I can certainly see the concept of balance as in sitting erect, as in zazen -- when one becomes erect, one maintains equilibrium. But it seems to me that things that most people are trying to make balance -- their outer lives, their various roles, etc. -- are illusory, conceptual and self-defined. One should be able to balance them by saying "Presto! Yer balanced!" Since even the concept of the self is fluid, what is there to balance?
I'm really not sure I understand, to this day. But I do know that as long as there is a Brad Warner to counterbalance every Thich Nhat Hanh aficionado, there is balance in my world.
Despite the caption, the picture at the top was actually taken at a retreat in Atlanta in March, 2008. I should know, I took it. The label is Brad's, from his website. There were actually three of us from Nashville at that retreat: Nat, Ana and myself. Nat had told Ana to guard the car, and then disappeared himself. Hence, none of us are in the pic. But we were there. Honest.