Saturday, March 16, 2013

Paying Homage, Rehearsing Respect


Some famous monk -- was it Thomas Merton?  Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh?  I cannot remember anymore -- once said that the very first thing he learned at the monastery was how to shut a door.

In my first years practicing with Zen Master Soeng Hyang, she was always calling my attention to how I left doors.  It was like a barometer of my mind.  When I wasn't sure whether it was better to leave a door open or shut, I would leave it ajar instead of taking responsibility for shutting it.  Or I would let doors slam behind me, startling other people in the room, because I was in such a hurry.  Or I would forget the door entirely, leaving the thing waving in its jamb like my own wavering attention.

I was reminded of those days during the run of Our Town in the new performing arts center at NMSU.  It's a wonderful, large theatre with doors leading from the wings into hallways that lead to the scene shop, green rooms, dressing rooms, and so on.  It can be nice to wait in the wings while offstage, so as to stay connected to the entire play and not just one's own part.  However, the wings can also be very crowded: there are crew members working, prop tables and cabinets, scenery, and so on.  So it also makes sense to get out of the way, and that means going through these doors while the performance takes place.

Opening and shutting these large metal doors silently requires one to stop, breathe, and handle the door with attention and care.  Simply pushing the panic bar and storming through will create a noise than can be heard on stage, and maybe even by the audience.  As part of my own backstage routine, I organically became a door opener, allowing others to pass discretely and quickly, and staying behind to ease the doors into the jamb and onto the cushioned strips before slowly releasing the handle.  It acquired a beautiful grace and rhythm.  This sense of grace and respect easily migrates to other things: how we treat our props, how we prepare to go onstage, and how we treat our fellow actors and the crew members.  Every instant of it is an opportunity to wake up a little bit more and appreciate what is happening just now.

We've heard zen masters use that word appreciate as in "Appreciate your life!"  but this kind of appreciation is not just aesthetic admiration; it is about caring.  This is why Buddhist ceremonies still move me, even the comparatively simple forms we use in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  This is why we bow towards the buddha statue when we walk into a dharma room; why a priest will, given the opportunity, offer some flowers to a buddha statue.  I think it is also why people who knew Soen Roshi still cherish (and share) memories of that priest who improvised tea ceremonies while waiting for airplanes, using styrofoam cups full of soda pop.  These rituals -- from the big ones that take place in formal settings, to the improvised tea ceremonies with disposable cups -- are opportunities to stop and rehearse a radical kind of respect and grace.

Sometimes, doing this actually feels rebellious in a world that exults speed and thoughtless consumption.

Some people are uncomfortable with Buddha statues and icons because they suspect we are engaging in idol worship.  The government of Iran has even banned Buddha statues as home decor, out of a concern for "cultural invasion."  (See a report from the Cleveland Leader here.)  There is a lack of understanding that paying homage is not the same thing as worship. Granted, under feudalism, to pay homage was specifically to express fealty to a lord.  In our day and age we can overtly pay honor and express care for our loved ones, for our rivals, for our community and our country, for the eco-system that sustains us, for the wholeness of life and any life form that manifests itself to us.  To me this seems like a different activity than worshipping a god or an emperor.  A statue is just a form; we can bow to trees, to a policeman, to the desert or an ocean.  It may feel silly, but do we stop and wonder why it feels silly?

The care we show to a door or a plate full of food or, yes, maybe a statue, just might be a barometer for how we are applying ourselves.

It just might be an opportunity to rehearse caring ever more deeply for the ten thousand things of this world.  

1 comment:

Kelly said...

I see it as reverence, not idol worship. Like kneeling at the altar or bowing as the cross passes during the processional.

It's one of the things that's drawn me back to our Episcopal Church and away from the contemporary worship service I was attending at a Methodist church. As individuals, we thrive on different forms of worship and at this time in my life, I need the liturgy and structure the service I attend provides.