My refuge as a sesshin stooge.

I had a very disappointing Sesshin at the City Center location of the San Francisco Zen Center during my visit on July 14-15, 2006. Before you feel sorry for me, know that disappointment is really good material for working on one's practice if it is approached with the right frame of mind. Don't worry, difficult and painful as it was, the Sesshin was very good for my practice.

I expected a lot. These expectations bore the fruit they inevitably do: dhukka (which I understand as "persistent dissatisfaction" in English). San Francisco Zen Center is the US dharma home of Suzuki Roshi, whose book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, powerfully influenced me as a young man. Beyond that, Katagiri Roshi, my teacher's teacher, also originated his US practice in this Center. It was my first Sesshin at a Soto Zen Center, it seemed fitting to begin where my lineage began in the US. I was going to be sitting zazen in the same zendo where three generations of my dharma lineage sat zazen. It's even referred to as the Beginner's Mind Zendo, it seemed a good place to begin.

I was in San Francisco on business, sort of. I had planned a trip to Napa Valley some months ago for the week of July 16-23. I found out after those plans had been made that my hospice was receiving a quite prestigious award from the American Hospital Association at their Leadership Summit 2006 in San Francisco on the weekend just prior to my Napa trip. The CEO of the hospice for which I work invited me to attend the ceremony as a representative for the staff and authorized a couple of nights at the San Francisco Hilton (on the hospice's tab) for me.

That all went fine. It was a marvelous setup for my Sesshin. I was the star hospice nurse representing the staff from a hospice agency receiving a prestigious award. I was waited on hand and foot (by the hotel staff). I got to hob-nob with some major players in palliative care and watched some really great presentations. David Gergen was the keynote speaker on Friday, his speech was really fascinating. I felt important and cared for. The high and mighty fall hard and fast. Watch me.

My first clue concerning the tone of my upcoming experience at San Francisco Zen Center came during the orientation session in Friday night. I walked down Market street (Google map) from my hotel, arriving about a half hour early, and both of the doors to the Center were locked. There were people entering the Center who had keys, but no one offered to let me in or inquired about why I was waiting on the stoop. They just looked at me and did not return my smiles.

I started to feel my anger well up. Someone inside there knew I was coming. Someone inside there knew I was new. I was disappointed there was no effort made to account for my lack of information concerning what to do or where to be. This was the theme of my internal reactions that would be repeated throughout my encounter at Sesshin. I felt isolated and embarrassed.

There was a sign on the doors indicating that they are unlocked 15 minutes before scheduled Zazen, so I assumed that the 15 minute rule must have a wider application and I waited until 15 minutes before my appointed arrival to try a door again. At 6:45 I tried the door again, hopeful that someone would at least hear me trying to turn the knob. I had an appointment, so I had disappointment. Ironically (or maybe not), the Sensei who gave the dharma talk the next day touched on this very point. I felt a bit as though he was talking directly to me.

Still no open door. No open door. There's a haiku there somewhere. Hmm.

About this time, a kind-looking gentleman with a shaved head walked up and I asked him if he would let me in for the Sesshin orientation. He indicated he would, but he said "do you know you are way early?"

"I thought the Sesshin orientation began at 7:00 p.m." I said, digging out the e-mail I had received from the Center.

"Oh," he said "maybe it does, come on in."

I walked in and there was another gentleman eating dinner at what appeared to be the reception desk. He knew even less than the guy that let me in, but he did say he would check. He indicated a place for me to sit, and I sat, quiet as a good zen student, while 7:00 p.m. came and went according to the grandfather clock in the lobby. Two other students arrived as I did, asking the same questions, receiving the same dearth of answers.

About 7:05 p.m. (according to the clock, I had left my watch at home as a gesture of acknowledgment of the timelessness of zen practice), a woman walked up whose voice I recognized from my conversations with her on the phone when I arranged my visit. She said "Oh! It's already seven o-clock, isn't it?" That's mindfulness for you. I introduced myself to her, expecting that this would set in motion some series of events and welcomes to the Center. Instead, what I felt from her tepid acknowledgment of my introduction was "so what?" Another newcomer indicated to her that it was already past 7, she dismissed the time on the clock in the lobby with "Oh, that clock is always wrong" and told her she had eight minutes to get her stuff upstairs and report to the buddha room.

I was surprised by inattention to such details as the accuracy of a clock at a zen Center. That wouldn't be the last such surprise. My expectations were really high.

A few minutes later, another gentleman in a kimono walked up and indicated we should sit in the buddha room and he'd be with us in a moment. I learned later that this gentleman was the "Ino." Also typical of my experience at the Center, I was not told what "Ino" means. I just assumed he was a leader of some sort, my research has turned up definitions which range as widely as the person in charge of anything having to do with the mouth (chanting, eating, etc), to the head of the monastics, to the person in charge of services.

It would have been extremely helpful to me if I had been given a simple glossary. I respect traditions, even the "hazing" of leaving new students to figure out things in the Soto tradition of "following along," but it seems to me to indicate a certain lack of compassion to place me, even by unintentional neglect or innocent mindlessness, in a position of needless worry when I am trying to concentrate my practice. As I sat with my anger, it dawned on me that I had this unexamined and heretofore subconscious expectation that the Center was a collection of fully realized beings rather than what it is, a collection of beings in the human realm caught by various amounts of delusion, ignorance and greed like the rest of us. One thing this experience helped me to understand was that even Sensei put their pants on one leg at a time.

The Ino's compassion, warmth and patience radiated out from him in all directions. He was what I want in a teacher. My first impression of him proved to be consistent as he continued to distinguish himself as a member of the Center who treated me with real compassion during the entire length of my visit. That compassion not only significantly distinguished him from all but a few of his colleagues but it also validates his dedication to the dharma. I made a point of thanking him for it as I left. It was indeed an honor to have met a Sensei with such a sincere dedication to kindness.

I felt as though the rest of the sangha was amused by my ineptitude and clumsiness as I fumbled around trying to fit in a highly structured environment with a lot of rules without being told what to do, what to expect, or what was expected of me. I have no idea what was really on their minds, if anything, this mind-read belonged to me, a remnant of my childhood, but the repetition of the pattern of this particular kind of disappointment, i.e., not being cared for as a newcomer, deeply surprised me. I expected more mindful attention to my fragile ego..

As an aside, I have to say this experience left me with a very warm appreciation for my sangha in New York City. We may be relative newcomers as a buddha-dharma tradition. We may be without a dharma transmission lineage, but we do not let a novice feel unwelcome or abandoned. They are told what to expect and what is expected of them as they are welcomed into our midst, even if they are only around for one sit.

At the San Francisco Zen Center, the one with the ancient tradition and direct dharma lineage (see my anger?), we didn't get very far into the orientation before we learned that Ino was not going to be able to finish because he had something else to do which was more important. More important that welcoming guests to your Center? More important than giving us the tools and information to have a successful Sesshin? That seemed odd.

We were handed off to another person who did not know what he had told us, she just did what she could to pick up in mid-sentence and completed the rest of the orientation, including the highly complex Oryoki instruction, by reading instructions off of a piece of paper, stopping, going back over things she missed, and basically adding to my confusion the more she tried to relieve it.

Here's where I set myself up again. I was very interested in Oryoki instruction. I am trying to bring mindfulness to my eating. I thought learning Oryoki would help. Getting my eating into balance is a matter of life and death for me, and just as it says on the Han (a block of wood they pound to indicated it is time for Zazen), this matter of life and death is very important. I really wanted Oryoki instruction. Expectations lead to disappointment. Great expectations lead to great disappointments.

It takes me a long time to put my shoes on because of my obesity. We were forever putting our shoes on and off as there were strict rules about where one could wear shoes and where one couldn't (the experienced students all had slip-on sandals, by the way). Because of my struggles with shoes, I was always the last to get anywhere when we changed rooms. So, when I finally arrived at the dining hall for the Oryoki instruction the table at which it was provided was full. I had to sit at another one, alone, fully consistent with my upcoming realization as the "dismissed one."

So, the Ino began the Oryoki instruction but, as I said above, he had to leave in the middle of it. The woman who took over for him did not know where he was in the training, and I couldn't see what was going on anyway. It was fortunate in a way that I was sitting at a table alone because my eyes began to tear up as I realized I wasn't going to get the instruction I wanted. I had come 3000 miles for this disappointment. I almost didn't show up for Sesshin the next day because of it.

The next morning, I arrived a bit early at 5 am. I stood outside the door which I had been told to enter. It was locked, of course, but to be fair, I was early. I waited a few minutes and heard a key in the door from the other side. It didn't open, so I continued to stand there until the appointed time I had been told to enter--5:20am. I had committed this day to practicing mindfulness, I wanted to get off on the right foot. Well, I should say the correct foot, since you enter the Zendo with the left foot.

But, did I know that because I had been told that during orientation? No. I knew that because my teacher, Steve Hagen of the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, mentioned it in a dharma talk months before. I was not told how to enter the Zendo at San Francisco Zen Center.

Before I tried the door to the Zendo another student carrying Oryoki bowls walked up and opened it. The perimeter alarm goes off. Now, I did find humor in this. Someone had unlocked the door but had not been mindful enough to disable the alarm. A few seconds later a gentleman who identified himself as the "night watchman" opened the door and told us that he did not know how to disable the alarm and was waiting for someone to show up to turn it off. He then shut the door and left us standing on the street and listening to the alarm.

Then, another student walked up and indicated he had a key and would let us into the other door, the door I was specifically told not to use this morning. I followed him, went inside, and found my seat in the Zendo. Fortunately, the message had gotten through that I needed a chair to sit. As I sat there I realized that the shirt I was wearing was inappropriate. It had colorful stripes. I had a black t-shirt on underneath with "WTF?" in big white letters across the front. This message was ENTIRELY appropriate for my state of mind at the time, but out of respect for my fellow students I stepped out and turned it inside out until the end of Sesshin so that it wouldn't serve as a potential distraction. I only wish I had felt the same consideration shown for me.

To the Center's credit, I was seated across from (what I discovered later were) very senior members of the sangha. Had I been told even that I could have discretely observed them to begin to catch on to some of the rituals and customs of their Center, but my constant worry at this time that I was doing something so wrong as to offend someone really detracted from my ability to practice. Really, just a little bit of instruction on form, just a little bit of clarification on the termInology, and my practice that morning would have been tremendously easier. I didn't want my hand held, but I did want a hand up. I wanted some tools with which to work. I wanted to be cared for, seen, helped.

I attempted to comfort myself with that notion that I was likely following in the footsteps of a long line of new students, i.e., even the most experienced practitioners began as uncertain and embarrassed newcomers, but this notion did not significantly comfort me. It seems neither unreasonable nor inconsistent with the dharma to provide an absolute novice like myself with a mentor, or with enough information for a minimum level of assurance for the novice that their clumsy actions (or inactions) will not offend. I did not know who to bow to, when to bow, why we were bowing, which way to face, how to enter and leave, nothing. There was a lot of bowing going on. I didn't understand it. The schedule was posted, but it used the zen terms for things and I did not know the definitions. I felt completely abandoned. I did not know I was doing something wrong, or not doing something I should, until someone corrected me.

I may be new to the San Francisco Zen Center, but I am not new to mindfulness practice. I wanted to show my respect to the entire Soto lineage by mindful practice at my first Sesshin but I was not given the tools to do this. I was told that there is a Soto tradition of "following along," which is fine, but I was not given the tools to know who to follow. Not everyone did things the same way, I had no idea who to emulate, so I felt isolated and abandoned in the midst of what was supposed to by my parental sangha.

Ah, that's interesting. This is quite consistent with my own parental history in my family. That's a very powerful resonance. Fortunately this insight came to me in Zazen and I was able to sit with it.

That was all I could do. I could apply the dharma to my dilemmas. About halfway through the day as I was sitting and waiting for Zazen to begin, wondering if I was facing the right way or doing the right thing, a couple of famous scriptures occurred to me. First was the Buddha's dying words: "Be a light unto thyself." So, I thought, forget these people who abandon me. This is an opportunity to realize the dharma, I'll use it as such and if I offend anyone else they can use that for their own practice. I'm doing what I was told, I just wasn't told anything.

The other refuge I sought in the dharma was Buddha's kalama sutta. Basically, the advice the Buddha gives is forget what anyone else tells you is the truth. Find your own truth without regard to anyone's stature or lineage. It is quite possible that organizations such as the San Francisco Zen Center which comport to practice the buddha-dharma have just as surely lost their way as the Christian church has strayed from Jesus Christ's message of love and compassion. This is just human ignorance, greed and delusion. No religion has a monopoly on these human frailties, the San Francisco Zen Center, my own expectations aside, was no different.

I could go on with a hundred other examples of things I was not told but should have been. I made mistakes in every single ceremony owing to a lack of instruction. I was left out of dinner because I had gone to the bathroom to wash my hands after struggling to put on my shoes. The meal chant was already going on when I walked in, not knowing where to get food or where to sit. I got no salad because I was late. Earlier I had interrupted everyone (all 70 students had their eyes on me) leaving the Zendo because I was not told how to leave. I sat facing the wrong way for lunch because I was told to sit in a seat facing the wrong way. Now that I have some emotional distance from all this it is more than a little bit funny. It is hilarious in fact. I was all three stooges in my own production of "Suckers sit Sesshin."

One thing I do regret is there was a student who actually went out of her way to help me. We spoke barely ten words as we sat next to each other in the Zendo but her compassion was as radiant as the Ino's. I looked for her at dinner to thank her but did not find her. I wish I had. I do not know her name. I do not even have a good memory of her face (we are discouraged from eye contact during Sesshin) but I will never forget her kindness as she discretely pointed to things and bowed in Gassho (palms together, like Christian praying) when I sat on my seat next to her. it was my own little Sesshin romance, she really touched my heart.

I tried to cultivate beginner's mind, but I had no beginner's luck.

I arranged to stay in a guest room the next day. I have to say that these arrangements were very well thought out, I had all the information I needed, I felt welcome and cared for. The next morning, I got to breakfast late (damn those shoes!) and didn't get any fruit. To his credit, the Tenzo (head cook) noticed this and expressed palpable, if silent, disappointment that I was left out. That felt nice. I went and ate my cream of wheat at the silent table and reflected on my feelings of isolation. The work goes on, even as a guest.

Oh well, chop wood, carry water. Get up, sit. See. My refuges are only the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Not the San Francisco Zen Center. They are in the human realm just as I. I was very happy to have the opportunity to look into my own emptiness, to experience the consequences of my own expectations. I am not upset with the Center, I am happy with the work I did in sesshin. I did a lot of work. In spite of all the pain and struggle I will always feel a little bit at home here.

That was a very valuable lesson to learn.