I am Fukudo

June 17th, 2017

I am Fukudo: pelting through the halls at 4:50 am like a medieval town crier, clanging a big brass bell on a glossy red stick.

I begin in the basement zendo, gently bringing the corners of the room to wakefulness, then finishing up with three big cascading peals to rouse Manjushri from slumber. Picking sleep grit from my eyes, I jog out of the zendo and up the back kitchen stairs, ringing as I go. The sleepy cook bends in gassho as I ring to rouse the little kitchen Buddha on the altar behind the samovar, then trot briskly up the stairs to the resident rooms. RANG-A-DANG-A-DANG-A-DANG! I jog around the second and third floor corridors, laying waste to monkish dreams. At the end of the hall I ring and run on the spot, gazing over the fire escape at a faint ribbon of orange dawn rising to meet the San Francisco skyline. Turn and head back down to the zendo, pausing outside Abbott Ed’s apartment to bellow at his door: good morning, hojo-san! A cheerful good morning! issues from within. I resume running and ringing, back downstairs to the zendo where I execute three peals at the han to prime the wooden gong for its daily work. One good thwack! on the han, and I replace the brass bell to rest in its corner.

It is exactly 5am. Break time. I have ten minutes to catch my breath and start a pot of coffee to brew in the kitchen. Then I head back downstairs.

I resume my place before at the han, mallet clasped loosely at my solar plexus. WHACK!… 50 seconds… WHACK!… 50 seconds…WHACK… Residents and priests file past on the zazen morning commute. Big John shows up to ring the massive densho bell. We are both wearing ear plugs. Whack… whack… WHACK… WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK … …. …WHACK! Three piercing wooden rolldowns. Three small bells from the zendo. It is zazen time. Awakened, released, we drop into silence.

After an hour I rise from my cushion and cat-walk to the han, past the backs of the silent sitters. Here we go people, wakey-wakey! WHACK! I give em three good rolldowns, then John chimes in on the big bell for the Chant of the Robe. I place my folded rakusu on my head and intone at the top of my lungs, so that John can keep time with the chanters in the zendo. Suitably berobed, everyone files out of the zendo and up the stairs to the Buddha Hall. I follow and kneel at the mukugyo—a beachball-sized, hollowed-out red drum adorned with golden dragons. There is chanting and bowing and bowing and chanting and then, BOP! I hit the drum with a heavy two-foot-long, padded wooden striker. Game on. Like gentle knocks on the head, BOP, BOP, BOP I go, merrily bopping through the Heart Sutra with one eye on the Ino who is giving me covert hand-signals to keep up the pace. No disasters happen. The morning sun streams through the courtyard bamboo. The smell of cooking french toast fills the temple. At the final double-bell we tromp out to soji – temple cleaning. I go back down to the zendo to prep the altar and plump the pillows.

At last, at long last, the ultimate moment of percussion arrives. I stand before The Big Drum in the basement. It’s a taiko drum on tall thin legs, double-skinned and seven feet high. I pick up a pair of heavy sticks and stand in gassho, drumsticks at rest between thumbs and pressed palms. The work leader comes by playing a little gong, to signal that work time is over. Everyone goes up to the kitchen and I can visualize them gathered in a circle around the steaming platters of french toast. Someone plays a clangy rolldown on the umpan bell in the courtyard, which means, chowtime! The meal bell rolldown ends with one strike, and that’s my cue.

Swish! I inscribe an enzo on the drum head with one stick, then three opening hits: medium-soft-BOOM. Beginning at the rim of the drum I tap tap tap rolling out with the two sticks, starting quietly at the taut edge of the skin then gradually speeding up and moving to the boomy center, louder and louder until I am WAILING at that drum with both arms, givin’ er with all I’ve got, BANG BANG BANG BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! reaching high above my head to hit the sweet spot BOOM BOOM BOOM to climax then back down again, diminishing to the edge, a full 30-second crescendo-decrescendo rolling back into silence… BOOM. I work up another roll, this time only 15 seconds… boom BOOM. And now. The third and final thundrous thirty-second crescendo/decrescendo, I am ten years old and lighning flashes over the lake the storm shaking the cottage my brother and mom and dad and I huddled together on the bed counting the flashes screaming and laughing and BOOM! BOOM! the drum reverberates through the temple the glassware rattles in the kitchen boom boom … BOOM … BOOM … BOOM … boom … boom … … … BOOM boom BOOM!!

The last strike echoing away as the people in the kitchen break into the meal chant: Now as I take food and drink, I vow with all beings to share in the pleasure of zen, and fully enjoy the dharma!

My triceps ache pleasantly. I climb the stairs to the kitchen, where there is sunshine and coffee. Coffee and french toast with maple syrup and walnuts. Dharma. And blackberries, heaped in a bowl.


In Canada people are breathing

May 10th, 2017

In Canada people are breathing. I notice this the moment I step off the plane, home for a weekend visit. There is spaciousness here, where people draw breath full down to the belly and then, in a natural and relaxed manner, release the diaphragm and gently exhale. In America it is different.

In America people breathe shallowly, fearfully, like they are hiding under the stairs. Under the veneer of extroverted Americanness is a layer of subcutaneous anxiety. A readiness to duck and cover at any moment. The throat is constricted, muscles primed for fight or flight.

I step out of the tube into YVR and draw cool air deep, deep into my lungs. It has been been four months since I breathed so fully. Fully here, fully home.

Photo borrowed from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pajamas-for-llamas/20022253772/in/photostream/

The perfect science of napping

March 18th, 2017

I am so all about the post-breakfast power nap.

Here’s the routine: 5am wakeup bell, zazen, kinhin, zazen, service, cleanup, breakfast, NAP! The nap can be up to twenty minutes, or as few as seven or ten if I’m in a rush. But that’s all—no longer, or else I feel groggy and am back to square one. When the alarm goes off I bounce out of bed and grab a shower and a coffee. I feel fresh and clear, and the burst of energy can motor me through the rest my day.

I think the trick is to totally commit to the nap. No feeble half-measures. I take off my clothes, arrange my bed, Read the rest of this entry »

Give up meditating

February 26th, 2017

Why would a person spend hours and hours staring at a white wall? I ask myself this question a lot.

On a spring Saturday sixty of us rise at 5am and hustle to the basement for the monthly one-day sit. We hunker down for another big day in the zendo—sitting, slow-walking, sweeping, eating brown rice from little bowls. At break time I dash across the road to Koshland Park, to greedily watch hummingbirds and dog-walkers in the San Francisco sunshine. Then the bell calls and it’s back to the zendo. Back to staring down the wall.

Some people have this idea about meditation that when we do this we float off on a little lotus blossom of bliss, leaving the cares and pains of daily existence behind. In fact it’s exactly the opposite.  More often than not is a masochistic endeavor. Read the rest of this entry »

Zen time is gold

February 19th, 2017

I want to say that the reason why I haven’t posted anything in the six weeks since I landed at San Francisco Zen Center is because I haven’t had time to write, but that would be untrue. The fact is there are  24 hours in every single day, with 60 minutes crammed into each hour and every minute packed full of moments. That’s as much time as there’s ever been and all the time I will ever have. I’ve got all the time in the world, and really, it’s enough.

If there is one overriding lesson to be learned by living in a Zen center it is that time is gold. Every second between every hit of the wooden han as it calls me to zazen—the hits increase in frequency but not in urgency. They all matter equally. From the 5am ringer Read the rest of this entry »

There is nothing I cannot afford

December 20th, 2016

“If you’re passing through the Bay Area,” I wrote to my Bicycle Buddha mailing list, “come visit me at the San Francisco Zen Center. Come sit zazen with me, then take me out for a fancy coffee—cuz I can’t afford lattes on monk’s wages.”

“Hi,” a friend shot back. “With an inheritance that allows you to travel to Mexico to get your teeth fixed and then fly kitty corner across a continent and then off to a zen centre for 4 months I truly think that you should give up this “cuz I sure can’t afford lattes on monk’s wages.” Read the rest of this entry »

Swimming with crocodiles

December 15th, 2016

img_20161212_105438Machito, a local fisherman, met me at the little thatch-roofed visitors hut in San Crisanto – a ramshackle itty bitty village on the long sandspit between the lagoon and the wide Gulf of Mexico. He rolled up on his bike, with a second bike in tow for me. I droppedmy beach bag and water bottle into his basket and we bounced down the sandy path to the boat launch, followed by two mexican women in a car who were also along for the 50-peso tour of los manglares.

Machito ferried us through the mangrove forest’s clear streams, pointing out trees and termite nests and giant ferns and fishes. After a dreamy half hour we docked at the cenote and I climbed down into the cool clear water, to swim with the giant tarpon fish that washed into the cenote during the hurricane of 2004, and got trapped there and bred. I asked Machito if it was OK to swim into the mangrove stream and he said sure, just try not to touch bottom and stir up the silt. I drifted through the clear shallow stream through schools of pretty little fish. No hay cocodrillos? I called. He laughed. Read the rest of this entry »

In the chair with Dr. Jesus

December 10th, 2016

img_20161206_161728I did two hours in the chair today w Dr Jesus and his dental tag team: wife Claudia, Gina, and the lovely Mar, whose Mayan eyes I have fallen in love with over her green paper mask. That was session number 4, with two or three more still to come. I recline in the chair to a wash of Mozart, Phil Collins videos, and easy Spanish banter. No pain, no heavy drugs.  Team Jesus are total pros.

I am a dental tourist. This is the main reason for my 3-week residency in Mérida, in the Mexican Yucatan. I am here, like lots of gringos, to get my teeth fixed for a smidgen of what i’d pay at home as an outside-the-box Canadian. I have standard MSP of course, but dental’s not included – I guess because, as my friend Chris says, a holdover from the day when teeth were a luxury. Read the rest of this entry »

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