See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April Showers

I've been so busy this month until now, that I'd barely taken notice of what time of year it was. April was never a very significant month for me until a few years ago, when it became a time of milestones. Six years ago my mother died, as part of a nexus of events which threw my life into chaos for a year or more and changed everything forever. A year ago, I had to have Ms. Johnson put to sleep. It was also in April three years ago that I discovered the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, an event which over time led to the changes in my own life and the lives of other Zen practitioners in Nashville which are probably the biggest stabilizer in my life today. Then there was this year's NZC retreat.

I came to this realization last night while watching Storm Over Mount Blanc, a surprisingly gripping 1930 German movie, my favorite so far of Dr. Fanck's mountain films - starring among others Leni Riefenstahl (of course!) and Ernt Udet (who was, interestingly, Germany's number two flying ace in WWI, behind Richthofen, of Snoopy fame). The film is an amazing depiction of man against mountain, all the more interesting when you realize that there were no stunts, in the modern sense, and no special events. Real mountain, real glaciers, real athletes.

The film itself is full of storms, and it was after the movie, when I went to bed early, that the real storm moved in. I've always loved storms, but I was rarely uneasy; the tornadoes last week did damage to the homes of people I know. Which seems to be the metaphor for current unease about these Ratzaz Diaries, among other things.

I think I began this blog because I felt isolated. Maybe a bit because I still felt, in the aftermath of my mother's death two years before, I still needed someone to talk to, and although I had some people I cared about in my environment, I had to go out of my way to carry on an intelligent conversation. That is, I was surrounded by nutball right-wing Christians and nonthinkers of every stripe at work, and I was frustrated in my search for the "spiritual" path I was looking for in my return to Buddhism a year earlier. The earliest Ratzaz Diaries entries (go look!) were rants against Christianity and the Bush administration. I think everyone finally figured out the Bush administration -- eight years too late, at least -- and I rarely hear from the Christians these days, or at least the oppressive variety.

So the Ratzaz Diaries lacks a focus -- instead of lashing out, it is more likely to celebrate. Which is okay of course. But there's a more insidious issue; I have friends now, and what is more, because I still seem to be the main communications outlet for the Nashville Zen Center (since inability to communicate is probably my biggest gripe about the people I now call my friends, which is not bad, considering how I felt about most of the people in my environment 3 1/2 years ago when I began) -- I find myself being (shudder!) careful about what I say.

Because I never wanted to be a spokesman for anyone but myself. I never want my own opinions to be mistaken for the opinion of a group, especially the NZC, or any of my Zen teachers, or even of my friends. And I find myself in a position in which it's hard to make that distinction easily. My principal Zen teacher, Michael Elliston, has encouraged me to let my zazen take me where it takes me, even if it's not where I thought I was going. And in many ways, the way I would express what I've learned so far would not fit into any Buddhist text. Thanks also to Brad Warner, for writing the book which brought me back to Zen from the particular angle of learning from practice, and not approaching "from the top down" -- from theory. That has made all the difference.

I still shudder at almost every dharma talk. Except for rare, brilliant moments, like Saturday night April 11 at Penuel Ridge. But more on that some other time.

And really, my personal opinions are not as strident as they were in late'05. I voted for Obama, he won, and though I don't agree with a lot of what the present administration is doing, I really hate to think what could have happened if the Republicans had remained in power. Indeed, it is the failure of the Obama administration to pursue and punish the villains of the previous one that is my biggest peeve with it right now; I conceptualized and then failed to write "Leon Panetta at Nuremberg."

I had a "friend" from one of these "Buddhist" events who really wanted me to write about politics. And I did. And when months later I wrote of rediscovering my own ethnic and cultural heritage, she decided that I was some sort of White Supremacist or something (which was not at all based in what I wrote) and decided not to be my friend. Which of course she never was; I can't imagine every excising a true friend from my life for any opinion they might hold. And strangely enough from that episode, the Zen practitioners came to my defense. Which tells me a couple of things.

First, that I find myself sharing more of parts of myself with my fellow Zen people only. And that's a little scary really, because I never want to be seen, or to think of myself, as withdrawing into some sort of closed group, especially of others who share my opinions on something. But it's not really that -- it's the ability to see clearly I cherish, and at this point it's the people who've been practicing zazen for a while who can do that,. The "Buddhists" without the essential practice can never see that, because they've simply exchanged one set of delusions for another. I never said any of the things that my false friend thought I said; she was simply incapable of seeing what I was really saying.

But a part of me is not really content to let the Ratzaz Diaries go on being a shadow of its former self. So you tell me: can I continue to say what I really think without having my words be taken as the twisted manifesto of the Nashville Zen Center? I really don't mind driving people away from me personally, if they don't understand me. I do dread the thought of fucking with someone's zazen practice because they mistakenly take me as some sort of leader, and think that my thoughts have anything to do with the totally personal development and "blossoming" they can realize through their own practice.

I even thought of abandoning this blog to the lotus-sniffers and developing another anonymous blog to get a little more virulent. Opinions?

Photos courtesy of Sharon Bogner.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nashville Zen Center Spring Retreat '09

If I ever needed a reminder that zazen is a physical practice, I have it this morning. Every muscle in my body is sore - sore in that way that makes it hard to move when you first get up and send you right back to bed til you convince yourself otherwise. I mean, I've been on a physical fitness binge (for me) since about mid-February, working out (step aerobics and yoga) since the third week of February, and I was probably more sore this morning that at any point in that period.

The occasion was the Nashville Zen Center Spring Retreat at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center, just out of town here toward Ashland City, out in the country where the cell phones work slowly, if at all. I had looked forward to and dreaded this one. It was the bookend to a transition period in the Zen practice of both myself and the NZC, the "[" to a "[" that began with the legendary (in my own mind) Empty Well retreat in March of '06 that also happened to feature Brad Warner. I knew that the outreach I'd made to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center the month following, had made all the difference in my own Zen practice, and I wanted to see if the NZC had been revived as well. It has. The transition period is over, and I'm excited to see where it goes from here. Since it's Zen, there's nowhere else for it to go, of course. But still...

And to tell the truth, it hasn't been a period of transition for the NZC -- it's a rebirth. We started with seven people who spent the night at Penuel Ridge on Thursday to set up, hit a dozen on Friday and it just got bigger and better from there. Most of the people who came, stayed. The people who made up the old NZC just didn't get the concept of a retreat, and used to drop in for a few hours, say, on Saturday when the wife didn't have them busy clearing the garage, and that was it. But I'm really proud of our new people. And I'm proud of us for rebuilding the NZC the way we did it. We made it real, with no compromises. If you want to start a "Zen" group these days, it's easy to do, especially in a town like Nashville with very little background of authenticity in Buddhism. I mean, there are Vipassana and Tibetan groups which have real teachers, with all that that entails, but if there's been a real Zen practice, it had to have been before my time here. It's easy to fool the hungry, and people have done that, exploiting the "Barnes and Noble Buddhists" (thanks for that phrase to one of our new members) by offering them more Talky Buddhist Shit. If you've got the money, you can jet off to France and join up with the Thich Nhat Hanh Army of Pablum, or you can just get your ordination out of a cereal box; it doesn't matter.

For our newcomers, we offered the unrelenting: seven to eight hours a day of zazen. We had two very different teachers: Taiun Michael Elliston, Atlanta Soto Zen Center Abbott,  who built a real Zen school in Atlanta over thirty years ago, and who is the head of the Silent Thunder Order, the disciples of Soyu Matusuoka; and Brad Warner, author of three books starting with Hardcore Zen through his latest, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, head of the Dogen Sangha, the disciples of Gudo Nishijima.  We had originally planned the retreat with Elliston Sensei, who had to pull out due to an unrealized prior commitment, and was able to make it up only for Saturday night and Sunday, for our Jukkai ceremony.  Meanwhile, Brad was coming through the area, sort of, and happened to email me after the retreat dates were already set, being available just at the right time.  Of course I said, hell yeah, and the Monsters of Zen retreat was on.

I was a little scared of this one. I couldn't handle another failed retreat at Penuel Ridge, especially with Brad present again.  And the idea of having the two men whom I consider my teachers both present, if the new NZC had failed to appear in droves like the old one did, would've been just too much.  But I had nothing to fear.  By sticking to the real practice -- by leaving the armchair Zen of the old NZC and refusing to be seduced by the New Age crap and the "all is one" Unitarianism of the blenders -- we attracted the real people, the genuine article.  And in attending their first Zen retreat, our new people made it work.  Our first-time Tenzo pulled off the whole operation (which means running the meals and the housing) better than a lot of veterans I've seen.  And Zen happened.

I was able to make a few modifications I thought would help.  A little Yoga stretch every day.  A good hiking Rinzai-style kin-hin on Saturday afternoon when the rain stopped (possible the best remnant of the NZC old school).  But for the most part we didn't pull any punches on the zazen, which is why I'm so damned sore this morning.  And our new members are too: Congratulations, you've found the real practice.

There's more to talk about.  The semi-impromptu Q & A session Saturday night with both teachers was about the best I've ever seen anywhere, especially for the nubies.  And I was reassured: doing right, is right, even when it's hard, even when at first people don't understand.

The pic at the top is not from this retreat; it's from the ASZC March '08 zazenkai, with these same two teachers.  I'm waiting for someone to send me pics from this one; I just couldn't wait to get this up.  Congratulations, guys.  I won, you won.  More soon to come.

And come see Brad at Davis-Kidd in Green Hills tonight at 7.  I understand there will be a guitar involved.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

"Stripped" - Leni meets Rammstein!

OK now, this is such a strange coincidence that I just had to post it. I just finished watching Disc 2 of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, which is Olympia: Festival of Beauty (Disc 1 was released separately in theaters as Olympia: Festival of Nations). If you missed that blog, shame on you; it was one of the more important recent ones, to me. Anyway, I pop in my latest Netflix disc of Rammstein music video, and in the seventh one I stark recognizing the scenery.

Yep, not only is "Stripped" the first Rammstein song I've ever heard in English, but the video itself is 100 % Leni - from Olympia! Just to show you that great art is eternal...

Although this is not my favorite Rammstein song, they do a good job with the movie footage. This is for those of you who complain that there's not enough nudity on this blog. Enjoy!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Return to the Black Diamond Sutra

I woke up this morning with the intense conviction that I need to make more room in my life for myself and my art.  But I have no art.  Such, I guess, is the nature of dreams.

Most people would probably think that this "realization" is nothing but another expression of selfishness.  After all, I have more "room" in my life than most people.  I live alone; I have no family except some stuffed mole-rats, since the passing of Ms. Johnson, and I've gone to great lengths to keep it that way.  I see my father maybe every other week and although I enjoy his company, I find myself resenting the time I spend trying to read through the blaring TV.  My job is stupid, as I think all jobs are probably stupid; I just got lucky enough to dispel the illusion of career early enough, to eternally bask in the pointlessness of meaningless labor.  I have recently re-committed to my physical exercise routine, which is probably the most important thing I can do at this point in my life, although the exuberance I discovered when I started it twenty-three years ago is hard to find these days, and I am probably fighting a rearguard battle against the deterioration I see in myself and those around me, more than trying to advance, as I was all those years ago.

Then there's the Zen stuff.  I both look forward to and dread the Nashville Zen Center's Spring Retreat at Penuel Ridge over Easter weekend.  My role as a Zen "leader" and organizer began almost exactly three years ago, at a largely failed though strangely rewarding retreat at the same location, with the same teacher.  I've belabored that occasion enough herein.  At this point, I long for a retreat, but I dread the role I'll have to assume in this one.   I long for the simplicity (from my lowly participant's point of view) of the retreats I discovered in Atlanta just three years ago, driven there by the farcical nature of what passed for Zen here.   I long for the time in which I could spend that adversary but always productive time with myself, without dealing with the maintenance of others.  

But no, I have to organize, and lead and produce, and to what end? I have no desire to teach Zen, and no qualifications to do so.  If people can only sit up straight and sit still, Zen will teach itself.   I have enough compassion to want others to have the opportunity I have found, the framework within which to do what they need to do.  At this point, I have no real interest in being a part of that framework.   Atlanta should give them all they need, and there are others here to carry on that spirit here.  I just want to go back where no one knows me, as a student, and sit quietly.

This Easter weekend, anyone who truly seeks will be able to find.  They have Michael Elliston and the ASZC for the aforementioned framework, organization and competence.  They have Brad Warner, for the primal spirit and need to know, the work that brought me back to Zen in the first place.  They who do not find what they need at this event -- I have nothing further to offer them.

Me? I want to go back to the mountain films of Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstaller.  I find inspiration in strange places of history in these days.  Germany in the twenties and thirties of the last century - the American Civil War (the real one, expressed so well in The American Heritage History of the Civil War, not the tripe you read these days about Lincoln freeing the slaves.  Lincoln was a pompous politico, and the freed slaves can go to hell).

I find my motivation now in a dark beauty it appears I can only pursue within as, I found over twenty years ago; the undefined (except by me) spiritual practice that I named the Polishing of the Black Diamond within, the mythological adherence to an unwritten Black Diamond Sutra that finds its expression in music dance, and a fine edge of adrenaline, a Sutra that exists not even in my head, for it finds no words, just a feeling a tendency -- a straining toward art in one who finds himself without the skills of artistic expression.  I am a failed musician, a writer who's never had the patience to generate a work of substance, a worker of words who's fallen out of love with them.  Because the vision I have sits on the edge of a dream; I can almost see it, but I can't bring it to you.   I have the additional benefit and advantage of having had philosophy fail me a long time ago.  Perhaps it is life itself that is the only true work of art, at least in my case.  Certainly, i can't see my obsession with diving to the bottom to bring back the black pearls of beauty and wisdom which transcends expression, as anything else, unless it is pointless madness.  And if it is, well then, the world is mad and will be no worse for my labors.

So, then, when these travails are done, then they are done.  There will always be, while I must live in this society, a modicum of working to fulfill the goals of others.  But I need to remember this time when I feel too trapped by the demands of enterprises I have accepted as my own, when they are not.  I need to pursue this dream, where the pursuit is the dream itself.  I have spent the good parts of my life getting to this place where no one else is; they need not try to follow me now, because there are minefields at every turn, and I have no yearning to go back for them.

A beautiful darkness beckons.

The little pic above is a poster from The Holy Mountain (1926), the first of German silent film maker Arnold Fanck's mountain films to star Leni Riefenstahler. If you'd rather watch the stuff you usually watch, no skin off my nose, as they say.