Great is the matter of birth and death.
All is impermanent, quickly passing.
Awake! Awake! Each one.
Don’t waste this life.
Three days a week, I get up at 5:30am. Voluntarily.
The Austin Zen Center has ten regular programs each week, five of which begin at 6am. I’m not a morning person by nature, but given my choir schedule and the fact that I live barely two blocks from AZC, I’ve gotten into the habit of attending the morning sessions on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
Actually, I rather enjoy walking down the street in those pre-dawn moments. If the sky is clear, the moon and stars are quite visible. On those mornings, I always check to see where Orion is while treading as mindfully as possible down the pavement. It’s like being up in the middle of the night—a stolen moment while the rest of the world sleeps—only I’m relatively refreshed after seven or eight hours in bed.
On Mondays I serve as fukudo, which primarily involves striking the han with a wooden mallet. The loud, percussive blows I give this thick square of wood follow a set pattern, alerting all in the vicinity of the approaching start of zazen, or sitting meditation. The quote at the head of this post is written on the han itself, and speaks to the symbolic function of this ritual: to remind us of the transience of this life by calling to mind (or so I was told) the knocking of death on our hearts.
However, my intention with this post is less to take you through an AZC morning program than to relate two observations that came to me last Friday, during and after sitting. For context, it may help to envision the zendo, or meditation hall, as a spacious, rectangular room with zafus (cushions) on zabutons (mats) in a perimeter lining the walls. During zazen, practitioners sit on these zafus and face the wall (or outward, if the zabuton they occupy sits in the middle of the room).
While zafus share a common, rounded shape, they exhibit a surprising range of firmness and thickness, depending in part on whether they’re filled with plant fibers or buckwheat hulls. There are very few reserved spots in the zendo and so, upon entering, one must decide where to sit. I try not to put too much thought into this, but must confess that many times, I try to quickly assess which zafu is most likely to support my back and legs during the long periods of sitting.
The first of my twin epiphanies came during Friday’s second period of zazen. To preface this, I must add that the uniqueness of each moment becomes tangible when practicing zazen, as you always sit on a different zafu, with different people (and numbers of people) present. Sometimes the zendo is packed; sometimes there’s space on either side of your zabuton. If it’s morning, the sun will gradually rise during the program; this time of year, the sun sets during the evening session. At any given program the way you feel, whether your stomach is empty or full, your legs or back sore, your throat dry (or not), all varies. Even the walls are not as uniform or featureless as you might suspect, with bits of moulding, ventilation grates, and other marks distinguishing each blank vista.
Anyway, last Friday I was sitting in such a position that the angles of candlelight projected two silhouettes of myself on the wall before me. Yes, I thought: projections. Here I am, reminded that not only does the reality we conceive consist of projections, thin, flickering shadows: even in meditation, I can’t isolate a single projection of myself. (Of course, these thoughts didn’t arise in this exact narrative, or even in narrative form. What one does during zazen varies, depending on a variety of factors, but generally the idea is to observe the thoughts that arise and depart, rather than attempt to stop thinking altogether.)
My other mini-epiphany occurred during the period of soji, or temple cleaning, that concludes the morning program. On Friday, my task was to brush the zabutons and firm up the zafus. Working my way around the zendo, zafu by zafu, it struck me: there must be as much variation in the shapes and consistencies of these cushions as there are in the practitioners who sit on them, including each person’s mutability from one moment to the next. Again, it’s not really the point or purpose of soji, to gain insight: as with the overall practice, it’s rather about cultivating mindfulness in each moment, not learning any specific lesson.
Seeing multiple silhouettes or comparing zafus to people may not be the most profound of observations, but in my limited experience of Zen practice, this is something I enjoy: sensing connections, parallels, or overtones where previously none had been noticed. It’s one thing to read about being in the moment, and another—much more gratifying and centering—to actually experience it, however shallow or fleetingly.
(p.s. I actually had a third Zen moment while writing this post. Seconds before I was to click the “Publish” button, a rogue keystroke combination wiped out nearly an hour’s typing—like a 21st-century sand mandala, another unwanted reminder of transience. Ah, well: as they say, every moment is practice…)