Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Waking up in Los Angeles
[Dharma Zen Center, Los Angeles]
So trite, the tattered analogy between a city where one lived in the past and an old love.
Sometimes the trite and tired analogies still fit best.
Upon my arrival in Los Angeles in 2001 from the east coast, I felt displaced. It did not feel like a foreign country, but it was obviously a different part of the United States. The plants were strange to me. The birds sang different songs. The local rules of the road were different -- and the volume of traffic blew my mind. The sun had an intensity my skin had rarely felt.
There was so much I enjoyed about living here, and yet I also remember how difficult it was. The stress of driving here, the money problems, finding friends and community. The years I spent here also coincided with a ten-year depressive episode that didn't help matters. In 2008, there were two job offers I had to consider, both of them wonderful opportunities. One job was at Bet Tzedek here in Los Angeles, and the other was a teaching job in Deming, New Mexico. Had to choose. Thinking it would be better for my child (who was at that time a lentil-sized embryo) I chose Deming.
Right choice? Is that even a useful question? No. That's just checking.
Institutions (like zen schools) have their drawbacks, but in some ways they are very helpful. Coming to hang out in Los Angeles for the first time in years, it is wonderful to be able to lodge at Dharma Zen Center, get up in the morning and start the day practicing with other students. Same dharma room and same schedule as it was 12 years ago. Breathing in, time disappears, just chant.
Mu Sang Sunim, the senior monk, actually looks younger than he did 12 years ago. "I do weight training," he says. "Doctor's orders." Stories, catching up, laughter. We lay down on the floor together and practice soen yu.
My friend Chris meets me at Molly Malone's and we are set upon immediately by beautiful young women in fortune-telling costumes. The poor things are working for Dos Equis-- it's a promotion for some new beer. We are asked to pick from a deck of cheesy-looking "fortune telling cards" that are also coasters, a special fortune is improvised based on which design we picked, and we given coupons for one-dollar draft beer. They are bored and still have half an hour to go, so they hang around us, get pictures taken with us. It is hard to understand the banter because of their phony accents. Years ago, Chris and I would have reveled in this attention. Now we are married men and need to exchange information and advice.
"You come to town and life gets surreal," says my friend.
I thought it was the town. Or maybe it's just us. But nothing is surreal. Los Angeles is a great city for zen practice. People here throw all kinds of things at you and push your buttons, stimulating all kinds of reactions and offering every kind of sensory delight and fantasy. One by one, you can practice taking it in, seeing the truth as it appears, and responding correctly. Weirdness is just an idea. Even the traffic -- and it does still amaze me, as I sit waiting to make a left onto Olympic Boulevard on a weekday evening, the torrent of cars roaring past like a waterfall -- is just truth. ("Only this" would be the zen catch-phrase.)
Haven't been to the ocean yet, but even here my skin is opening up and drinking in the moisture in the air. It feels nice.