Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Getting an A in zen

One of the aspects of this job I know I am going to find most difficult is giving feedback to people. Part of my responsibility is to uphold the forms and practices of City Center, and that means finding a way to encourage people to do the right thing, without getting too hung up on right and wrong.
The first time I was ever a doan at Tassajara, many summers ago, Myo (the tanto at the time) came in for evening service, and the first thing he did when he approached the altar was to move the 'greeting sticks' of incense that I had placed in the incensor. My heart sank, and I thought, wow, I haven't even hit a bell yet and I've already fucked up. I continued to feel deeply ashamed until I had had a chance to ask Myo about it, and he said simply, well if the incense is too close to the rim, it tarnishes the metal.
It is natural for most people to want to get things right, and to feel bad if they don't, and for many people their inner critic is going to be harder on them than anyone else will be.
In the mornings after service here at City Center, the doanryo gather and check in about how things went. This is something that I am used to doing at Tassajara, and one of my predecessors had introduced it here; it is a good way to refine things and point out problems within a strong container, as it highlights the aspect of continual training that we are doing - things are not always perfect, but we strive to do our best. There have been a few conversations that have gone like this: 'Could you hit the bell a little louder?'- 'But last week you told me to hit it softer' - 'Well let's aim for something in between those two, and then we might get to the middle way'.
It can be helpful to notice if your striving for perfection can be an obstacle to getting it right. Daigan, my inestimable Head Doan, who keeps many things running smoothly around the building, told me that he once went in to see Paul and said ' I want to be getting an A in zen', to which Paul replied 'well let's start with an F'. I can imagine how I would have reacted to being told that, but perhaps sometimes getting an F is just the way to let go of some ideas and start again.

1 comment:

Café Zen said...

All the leaders (tanto, jisha, anja, jiki, and teachers) have a brief meeting after each evening sit at the Denver Zen Center. Sometimes it's just "that was flawless--thanks everyone" and we all bow and go home. Other times (more often) we might minutely review the subtleties of how to hit the densho or the han or how much time should elapse between striking the keisu. Maybe the tanto wasn't loud enough when making announcements; maybe the anja forgot to light a candle for a dedication. In any case, it's presented as matter-of-fact and not given or taken personally. We laugh a lot. I think most people are able to see the evening as a production--almost like a theatre production--a big collaboration and we're all constantly learning and striving to serve the sangha better.