Oct 25, 2011

Picture Post Again

By the ferry building!

Guess what city!

We ate the pastry, not the pumpkin!

We rode on the ferry.

The view of the city from the top of the hill.

The view of the bay from the top of the hill.

Another view of the bay.

Oct 24, 2011

Wonderful, Wonderful

Hello everyone!

I didn't post anything on Friday because my girlfriend was here and I was too excited that she was coming to spend any time doing anything other than preparing for her arrival. And then when she was here we were too busy being excessively cute and getting ice cream for me to write on the internet.

What did we do this weekend, you ask? Lots, I reply!

Friday night we got ice cream at Bi Rite Ice Cream which is a San Francisco tradition and delicious and excellent. I had pumpkin and banana ice cream and Caitlin had cinnamon and malted vanilla with peanut brittle! Then we walked around the city for a little while before I collapsed from all the excitement.

Saturday was a one-day sitting here at zen center and I had volunteered to work in the kitchen. This meant that I worked for like 7 hours between 6am and 6pm and spent much of the rest of the time napping, with the exception of listening to a dharma talk and watching a tv show with Caitlin.

Yesterday we had huge adventures! First, we went to get pastries from a delicious bakery that was a quick walk away. Then we caught a bus to the Ferry Building which used to house the San Francisco ferries but is now just a fantastic mall. Then we had some adventures getting to the Presidio, which is a beautiful park filled with giant trees and stunning vistas. We walked and walked and walked around there and then managed to get back to zen center (after a few more adventures). There was showering and then out to dinner at Gracias Madre, a delicious vegan mexican restaurant where Caitlin gave me my birthday presents (in addition to her which is the best present ever!).

Today is back to the normal routine with the exception that on my breaks Caitlin will be here so they will be infinitely better! I leave you with the recommendation to listen to "Wonderful, Wonderful" by Johnny Mathis!

Oct 23, 2011

Oct 20, 2011

Dharma Talks

Every Wednesday night and Saturday morning there are Dharma Talks at Zen Center. My understanding is that these talks are given by senior priests, either at zen center or other zen temples or sitting groups, as an encouragement for the sangha (community) to continue their practice. Often, these talks have been focused on specific buddhist teachings or theories but they also have a tendency to be intensely personal reflections on the speaker's life. In any event, they are awesome.

The forms are slightly different. I will describe a Saturday morning talk and put in brackets [] anything that you would do at a Wednesday night talk instead.

So far as I can tell, people come in to the buddha hall between 5 and 30 minutes early and find a place to sit. There are often extra chairs and lots and lots of zafu (cushions) on the tatami (straw mats). When you find where you want to sit, you bow to your chair/cushion/bench and then turn around and bow toward the altar. If someone comes in and sits in front of you, you bow to them when they do their first bow.

You sit in silence until the bell starts telling you that the speaker is coming. [When the bell does a specific ring, you get up and stand facing toward the altar side of the room.] The speaker enters, followed by a jiko (attendant). They do some bows [and you do a response bow as well] and then the speaker puts some incense on the altar. The speaker does three prostrations [and everyone else does as well] and then sits down and prepares to talk with help from the jiko [and you can sit down too]. The speaker brings his or her hands into gassho (palms touching, fingers together pointing up) and everyone does the before lecture chant. Then the speaker talks until it is time to be done. Everyone does the after lecture chant. The speaker gets up and does three more prostrations [everyone else does too!] and then leaves. Afterwards, on Saturday, the Ino talks about what's going on this week. On Wednesday there are not normally announcements.

That's my best guess at the forms! I am probably wrong about things and very likely missing some things! Hope you enjoyed the form discussion.

Oct 19, 2011

Callooh Callay!

So, I figure I wrote everyone a post about how I was mean and grumpy and messing up and having a rough time, so now I get to write about how much everything has turned on its head!

To begin with, my birthday is coming up! I am going to turn 24 on the 23rd, ending my golden year (the year when your age is your birthday), and I am pretty excited about it. Especially because mysterious packages (and some not quite so mysterious packages) keep arriving in the mail! So far I have received two packages from amazon, two oddly dvd-sized packages, one package from a kitchen supply store and one package from a climbing supply store. In addition! My amazing godfather sent me an amazon gift card which I have promptly used up on new earphones, a new mouse, Krazy & Ignatz 1916-1918 collection, Jose Saramago's final novel "Cain" and Haruki Murakami's new novel 1Q84!

For reference, my birthday wish list:

A nice chef's knife, this one has been recommended the best on the internet: http://www.metrokitchen.com/product/GL-G-2
If you know better about knives, then let me know so I can update the list!

Books: Book of Human Insects by Osamu Tezuka, The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, The Invisibles (Vol. 1) by Grant Morrison, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, The Quiet American by Graham Greene, The Long Goodbye or Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Authors (Anything by): V.S. Naipul, Imre Kertesz, J. M. Coetzee, Elfriede Jelinek, Doris Lessing, J.M.G. Le Clezio

Musicians (Anything by): Michael Jackson, Prince, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Velvet Underground, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Elvis, Sly and the Family Stone, Starflyer 59

DVDs: Once, Grave of the Fireflies, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, 
Anything starring or directed by: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Bill Murray, Steve Martin

Clothing: Nice Shirts for working, Nice pants for working, Awesome socks for wearing, 

And of course, surprises are always welcomed wholeheartedly!

The next thing is that my parents and little sister are coming to visit me a week from tomorrow! This will be lots of fun and we will explore the city and have lovely meals and open all my presents which I am virtuously leaving unopened even though maybe some of them I suspect what they are!

The thing that makes me jump out of my skin with great joy is that my girlfriend is coming Friday. Less than 48 hours from now! Oh, frabjous day!

Oct 18, 2011

Bodhisattva Vows

Today, I will do something different. I will talk a little bit about some of the Buddhist philosophy that I have been listening to. Specifically I will talk about a set of vows that are referred to as the Bodhisattva Vows. Before I get to the vows, a brief explanation of a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a person who is dedicated to becoming enlightened and remaining in the world for the benefit of all beings. This is in contrast to a different approach of becoming enlightened in order to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. How does this bodhisattva intend to benefit all beings? Through the four vows.

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma-gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

This is the translation that we use here, at least. Now a little paragraph about what I think of each of the lines.

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them

What does it mean to say that beings are numberless? Clearly, you could say, there are a specific number of beings that exist right now. In fact, I am pretty sure this is correct. There are, right now, a specific, finite number of beings. So, when you say beings are numberless, you are not saying, "There are, right now, infinite beings." I have come up with two useful interpretations. First, you could be saying, "There might be exactly X beings right now, but as soon as this moment has passed, that number and those beings will have changed." Alternately, you could be saying, "Beings are not quantifiable." Both of these ways I find useful.

To save these beings? I do not really know what that means. I do not think it means "To tell these beings what to do" or "To make sure these beings are doing what you think they should do" or something like that. I am not even sure if it could mean something like "To work for these beings". I will get back to you when I figure it out!

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them

Delusions are, simply, things we think that aren't true. Fantasies, incorrect interpretations, desires and hatreds all fall into this category. These things are inexhaustible. And yet we end them. This to me seems not really very paradoxical at all. Delusions never cease, so we never cease to notice them and end them. Sisyphean? Perhaps. Impossible? Certainly not.

Dharma-gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

Another definition! Dharma-gates: Dharma is the name for the teachings of Buddhism. Dharma-gates are (my understanding) things in the world that lead us to encounter the Dharma. These things which allow us to come into contact with the teachings of enlightenment are not bound. They defy explanation, definition, description, division. A metaphor: Walking through a massive plain, entering countless gates. Something about, "When you bind things, they cease to become Dharma-gates for you. When they remain boundless, you have already entered them." This one is kind of hard to talk about straightforwardly. Feel free to ask questions and I will try better to explain.

Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

This one I do not even really understand, so I will paraphrase Suzuki Roshi. "You are all perfect just as you are. And you could use a little improvement."

Oct 17, 2011

Enjoyable Failures

Hello Readers!

I have it on good authority that people enjoy stories about me messing up. The reasons for the enjoyment range from pure schadenfreude to some mistaken idea that I never mess up, the shattering of which makes me seem more normal or something. I freely admit that I do put significant effort into creating the appearance that I don't mess up. It is one of my big beliefs about acting that as long as you look like you meant to do something, the audience thinks you meant to do it.


The past few weeks I have been messing up!

I have been messing up in my practice. I have missed more of the schedule in the past two weeks than I have for the entire rest of the time I've been here. Additionally, I've been really distant and uninvolved when I have gone. Most of the zazen I sat I was hunched over my legs in a squat, either sleeping or planning my day. Most of the work in the kitchen I was angry or bitter or careless. Several times I was making a dish and I could tell that it tasted worse because of my attitude toward it. Probably no one else could notice, because how would they know what it had tasted like before I had overcooked something or carelessly added spices or forgot an ingredient?

Now, things are feeling a lot better. I did not move constantly during zazen this afternoon. I've stopped being mean to the people here and far away. I paid attention to my cooking. So there's no need to worry, Mom, and I hope you enjoy this post.

Oct 14, 2011

The Glory of Caffeine

Hello Readers,

I would just like to describe what has happened in my body so far this morning. I woke up at 5:15 or so and manage to scramble and crawl my way to zazen, whereupon I promptly collapsed into a sleep. I somehow managed not to collapse completely, partially due to my choice to sit in the Gaitan (the hallway into the zendo where there is a fair amount of hustle and bustle in the morning) but upon hearing the bell for kinhin, I shambled back to bed where I collapsed until time for work.

Having woken up for work, I was still very tired. Honestly, I was worried I would be unable to work productively all day. I did feel like it was definitely necessary to get that extra sleep and wished it could have been just that much longer. I was feeling a lot more spirited than I have been for the past little while, but I just could not seem to get my body to wake up. And then! I had the first cup of tea I've had in a month (or months maybe? I can't really even remember).

I have been chopping and moving and processing and even focusing with ridiculous speed and intensity. I see why so many people I know are addicted to this powerful drug. Truly, caffeine is too powerful. Someone should really fix that.

Look forward to my update about how I crashed and was unable to move for the second half of the day!

Oct 13, 2011

Night Watch

Yesterday was a pretty full day for me. I had Door Watch in the morning, a full day of work, the Full Moon Ceremony in the evening and then I was Night Watch! I will tell you more about the Full Moon Ceremony at a later date, but today I will tell you all about watching the night.

To begin with, 9:30pm is the recommended time for people to go to sleep. This is actually a really good time to go to sleep, as you'll be able to actually wake up and sit in the morning and make it through the day. I've been pushing my bedtime back recently and it is not so good.

So, Night Watch is recommended to start between 9 and 9:30pm. There is a nice set of instructions that you follow which boil down to: go through the whole building, locking all doors and windows to the outside and setting alarms. Also, there are several places where you should tidy or make sure that ovens and lights are off or that sort of thing. Then, you walk through the building with a small bell and "invite people to go to sleep" by ringing the bell in the hallways. You check to make sure no one is on the roof and lock the door.

Then, you spend the night in one of the rooms by the front door in case someone needs to get in in the middle of the night. This does happen sometimes, but most of the time you just get a somewhat poor night's sleep because people wander back and forth in the front hallway. Then, you wake up early and turn off the alarms and open doors and wait for the person doing Door Watch to come and relieve you. You are then permitted to miss the morning schedule in order to get more sleep.

That, in short, is Night Watch.

Oct 12, 2011

Door Watch

Every Wednesday for the past while, I have been morning Door Watch. Door Watch is what is known as a Doan Ryo job, even though it is kind of unaffiliated with the rest of those jobs. The standard Doan Ryo jobs are things like ring the bell, take roll of the people sitting, hit the wooden board to tell people to come sit and other jobs that make sitting run smoothly. Door Watch is: watch the door!

Admittedly, it is a necessary job, as our sitting is open to the public. Sometimes people will come in who do not know what they are doing. Door Watch tells them what to do! Also, the door is open, so it is necessary to have someone make sure thieves do not come in to steal things.

Furthermore! As Door Watch, you get to watch the seething tides of humanity enter and exit the zendo, which is really pretty fun. There is a slow trickle for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the call to sit and then a whole big rush right before the doshi (head priest) shows up and you are officially late. Then a few people show up late.

After the first period of zazen, there is a zendo exodus. Many people are probably going to practice discussions  or work. Some are going to the bathroom. Probably some are going to have coffee or brush teeth or something else that is discouraged. Some number of these people return for the second period.

The exit from the second zazen is nice and orderly, all the ducklings in a row. That is, orderly until they reach the shoe shelf. Then there is quite the scrum of people finding shoes, turning around, putting them on. Normally no one gets hurt. Normally.

Oct 11, 2011

A Morning in the Kitchen

So yesterday I described for you in great detail what working in the kitchen is not like. Today I thought I'd tell you about what it actually IS like.

The kitchen begins right after the 9am work meeting that all residents are supposed to attend. First, we have a kitchen service. We light incense to Buddha, bow and chant. Generally the chant is from the Tenzo Kyokun, which translates roughly to Instructions to the Chef. This is a set of guidelines for the kitchen written by Eihei Dogen, the founder of this particular school of Zen. There are many jewels in it along the lines of "pay attention to the food as if you were saving your head from a fire".

After service, we talk as a group for a little while about how best to practice in the kitchen. Who are we, you ask? Good question! First, there is the Tenzo, Rose. Also, the Fukuten, Patricia. Then there is the Kitchen Crew: Chris, Eric, Yasi and me. And then there are the other people. Every morning (and afternoon for that matter) there are between zero and six extra workers in the kitchen. All of the resident's have to do one shift working in the kitchen and there is a cadre of volunteers. The schedule shifts from day to day and week to week and sometimes on a moment's notice.

After talking about keeping silent, how to walk with knives, how to clean things and other tips for working in the kitchen, it is time to go to work! Often we start with Soji (cleaning!), although occasionally we need to get right to work preparing lunch. Soji includes cleaning the small kitchen which people use for toast, microwaving, bread and coffee, cleaning counters, cleaning sponges, putting away the food from breakfast and taking trash and compost down to the recycling area.

Then we start preparing for lunch. Lunch generally consists of a grain, a soup and a salad. Normally one member of the crew is assigned to each of these dishes. The grain is easiest and will at most require washing grain, boiling water and setting appropriate timers. The soup requires the most precision and tasting and will often take up most of the person's shift. The salad requires a lot of washing. We get most of our lettuce from Green Gulch, the part of zen center which doubles as a farm! They do not use pesticides so there are lots of slugs and a lot of dirt. We wash the salad many times and then make dressing and add some tomatoes or cucumbers or sprouts or sunflower seeds or something like this.

Additional workers will aid in chopping or washing for any of these dishes. When that's all ready they start preparing for dinner and meals beyond. On a good day, most of the prep work for dinner is finished before lunch is served. It is not always a good day! Also, there is always more cleaning, restocking and dishes. Always, always dishes.

Then, we finish all the cooking, wash all the dishes and have a pre-lunch service. We offer the lunch dishes to Buddha and do some bows and light some incense. Then at 12:30, someone goes and hits the Umpan, otherwise known as the lunch bell! Then we eat lunch!

This is a general morning in the kitchen!

Oct 10, 2011

More of What You Want

Hey Everyone,

So, I've been tracking page views for the past little while and it seems that people are more interested in the blog when two things happen. First, you like regular updates. Second, you like hearing about me. So I will try doing this again for a little while.

I now resolve to update every weekday with a glimpse at my life in the zen center. We will see how it turns out.

Today I will write about one of the topics that I have ready access to: Food!

For about a month and a half I've been working in the kitchen at the San Francisco Zen Center. Working in the kitchen here is a very different thing from working in the kitchen pretty much anywhere else. It is different from: cooking in a house, cooking in a restaurant, cooking at a soup kitchen, cooking at other zen centers, cooking here next year. I know these things first-hand or second-hand.

It is not like cooking in a house, unless your house has forty people in it and you cut potatoes and onions in the gallons.

It is not like cooking in a restaurant, unless your restaurant only serves three options at every meal, is vegetarian, focuses more on effort and intention than perfection, requests silence in the kitchen, allows amateurs and professionals with the same willingness, or makes roasted vegetables taste like a delicacy.

It is not like cooking at a soup kitchen, because we are not doing a service for people in need. We are making an offering of ourselves, our work and the food to people who we recognize as doing the same thing for us (except they are not doing the food).

It is not even like cooking at other zen centers. From what I understand, actually even the other centers that are directly affiliated with City Center (Tassajara and Green Gulch) are very different in the kitchens. In Tassajara, there are animals everywhere and they are also cooking very high quality food for the guests there. In Green Gulch, they have a farm! So much of their cooking is just their own food, even more than our kitchen.

It is not even the same cooking here now as it will be in a year! Next year there will be a different Tenzo (head of the kitchen), a different Fukuten (head of the kitchen crew) and a different crew! Who knows who will be there, how they will like things cooked, how dishes will be washed?! Quite exciting.

More things like this tomorrow.

Oct 1, 2011

Book Reviews!

As prompted by my recent post on books that I am asking for, I am going to do some reviews of books I have asked for and received in the past! Hope you enjoy!

From Hell
by Alan Moore

Are you interested in a ridiculously arcane plot that focuses on (in order of increasing randomness) Jack the Ripper, the British Illuminati, the architectural history of London and some random nobleman who doesn't really have anything to do with anything except he got a prostitute pregnant? If this sounds appealing to you, then "From Hell" is perfect! 

Written by Alan Moore, the best graphic novel author I've ever read, this book is thematically dense, filled with unique and compelling characters and drawn in pencil. I might read it again, but it is not really calling out to me. Maybe the movie is pared down and thus more appealing? I would be interested in investigating, given the Depp Factor. On a scale of purple to grey, I rate this a teal.

Soul Mountain
by Gao Xingjian

Are you interested in a ridiculously complicated narrative structure accentuated by the immense difficulty of properly translating experimental fiction from Chinese to English? Perhaps you are instead interested in random fables about tiny villages in various rural regions of China? Perhaps you are, like me, interested in reading the best reviewed work of a Nobel Prize winner! 

In any event, this book is fairly long and pretty circuitous but it is not actually a difficult read. The chapters are short and generally engaging, even given the experimental and translated nature of the text. I occasionally felt like the book was pointless as a book, but by the end it felt pretty well wrapped-up. On a scale of omelette to canape, this book sits at a solid crepe.

Nip the Buds, Kill the Kids
by Kenzaburo Oe

Are you interested in a ridiculously depressing look at Japanese orphans in World War II? Maybe when you read "Lord of the Flies" you thought it provided you with an overly optimistic outlook on human nature? Maybe you just love fiction that focuses on what it's like to be an adolescent boy in an anarchic world?

In any event, this is a short, pleasant, depressing book. The horrors of war, disease, exile and puberty all gel wonderfully together into a nice little coming of age story. On a scale of lawn chair to banister, I put this all the way at bookshelf, just narrowly missing gazebo.