Saturday, May 12, 2012
Things Buddhisty and the Silent Table [CORRECTED]
Mumon blogged a sort of tongue-in-cheek lament that "the Buddhist blogosphere is becoming a little thinner of late."
It seems to be a time when many of my favorite bloggers have been busy, and I've been running around quite a bit myself. (Good things happening at the zen center, much to do on the parenting front, figuring out whether I can still afford to go on my solo retreat after I pay my car's unexpected hospital bill, and then a performing arts camp followed immediately by the Italy job...)
A question that has come up for me from time to time, usually when reading reviews of posts that are current in the "Buddhist blogosphere," is: what are we all looking for in these Buddhisty blogs? Is there something new to be said about any of this, really?
Zen Master Seung Sahn had an unusual teaching practice of getting new students to speak about their practice at public dharma talks. He would handle the Q&A part, but have a young student sitting next to him speaking for ten to twenty minutes. Sometimes these "young" dharma talks were fresh and wonderful, and at other times they were polite exercises in explaining basic Buddhist teachings or sharing very familiar zen anecdotes ("Have you heard the one about Guji and the finger?") .
As a teaching method, this is really wonderful. From early on in a student's practice (usually when they've taken five or ten precepts) their effort to share their practice with others is validated. It isn't to showcase their understanding, but to share their experience and process their experience putting this into practice in everyday life. The point isn't to find some new spin on the madhyamika.
The teaching strategy did not stop just at the student giving the talk, however. At these talks, some longtime, knowledgeable older students would be in the assembly listening to this talk. The temple rules say, "Do not think 'I already have great understanding; I have no use for this speech.' This is delusion." We are directed to listen even when the talk seems familiar and we are feeling more knowledgeable or bored.
These intro talks by younger students rarely had anything new to present about the teaching itself; the gift was the person himself, the person herself, a different expression of person but also us. And after going to these for a while, you even become familiar with most of the questions and the answers.
The blogs I read -- and not all of them are Buddhist oriented -- are written by people I find interesting and enjoy. The selection is small because there are only so many blogs I can read. Occasionally I do still learn from a person's speech, but mostly what I learn doesn't come from speech -- it comes from seeing them. It's like I say to my improv students: don't try to come up with anything original, just try to let go so you can be yourself, un-self-consciously. (Paradoxically, perhaps, that's when people become most interesting to me.)
Could he have been this ingenious: did he really set these dharma talks up as mirrors so students could see one another as he saw us, the mixed-up, hurting, practicing rabble that we were?
A hazard of dharma discussion, of course, is argumentation -- not in the sense of healthy academic debate, as when you challenge a thesis to test its truth, but in the more common sense of identifying with an opinion and defending it, turning it into a competitive squabble of ego against ego. "More dharmic than thou." I've met them at zen centers, and I've seen some of them writing on the internet: folks who know a lot about zen, buddhism, or both, but they are full of themselves and their hearts, so to speak, are closed.
Which reminds me of the late Lou Hartman of San Francisco Zen Center. Meals at the zen center are eaten in this large dining hall at tables and chairs. Lou, if I recall correctly, is the man who instituted the convention that one of these tables was the "silent table." At this table, there was no chat, no discussion, no argument, no talk at all. It was the table for eating together in silence. The first time I ate a meal at SFZC, during a short stay there several years ago, Lou was sitting there all by himself, simply eating. After that, I joined him at that table for meals. Sometimes there were several people at the silent table, sometimes just Lou and me.
And Lou did not eat "mindfully." He just ate. It wasn't teaching, it was just lived wisdom. The kind of thing that words have trouble illuminating, and that easily gets lost in conversation, language, stories, arguments.
Maybe occasional silences in the blogosphere are good. There's not much to report if you aren't taking time to be alive. This is a problem actors and other artists deal with, too.
But if you thought the blogosphere was entirely asleep, I will point out that Justin Whitaker has a new post, Gay Marriage in Buddhism, that might offer something of interest...
[CORRECTION: For some weird reason, I wrote Lou Hartman's name as "Lou Pearlman." Do I even know a Lou Pearlman? I don't understand my mistake. Anyway, the error has been corrected. -- A]