Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kinhin is not a coffee break

'Zen Seeds' by the Japanese nun Shundo Aoyama is a book I enjoy returning to from time to time, and not just because she is my homophonic namesake. The light style of her short pieces belies a strong and intense practice sensibility; I used a piece she wrote as the basis of a discussion with the Saturday sangha a couple of weeks ago, and everyone was amazed at how she cut very quickly to an essential point.
One idea of hers I particularly appreciate is this: 'When the abbot or any of the teachers is away from a temple for a week or so, the novices think nothing of it. But if there were no toilet paper, they would quickly feel its absence'. Since she herself is an abbess, her humility is striking.
Luckily I have never been responsible for the supply of toilet paper at Zen Center, but when I was tenzo, I felt that running out of coffee would be equally traumatic for many of the sangha, and in the early days of my term, I had to run to Safeway once or twice for a couple of pounds to tide us over until the next delivery and thus avert calamity.
I have long ceased to be surprised at people's caffeine intake during our early morning schedule - a while ago I listened to a recent resident declaring how she would get up at four every day, so that she could use the extra hour before the wake-up bell to drink two cups of coffee without having to rush, as without those two cups of coffee she would fall asleep during zazen. I refrained from speculating whether an extra hour's sleep every day might have the same effect. That said, I am still somewhat surprised to see people drinking coffee after four in the afternoon, but since they generally show up in the zendo the next morning, I don't worry about it too much.
Once I sat in on Paul Haller giving zazen instruction, and someone asked him if it was a good idea to drink coffee to combat drowsiness during sitting, and Paul went on to list all the ways that caffeine affects the body before concluding that actually it wasn't really the best thing to do to promote a relaxed awareness of body and mind.
Over the years I have heard many inos and other people declaring that kinhin is not a coffee break - which to me means that since we are participating in the schedule, we should be letting go of our own preferences and needs, and just do the next activity. And I have often heard that as students of Buddhism we should be constantly conscious of our own habits and how they cause us to behave in less than fully mindful ways.
When I first went to Tassajara, I was only drinking tea, and I made a point of only drinking it after lunch so as to keep my zazen 'pure' and uncaffeinated. I would even give that up during sesshins; since I replaced tea with a cocoa and honey drink, I don't think I was really gaining anything by it, but I liked to prove to myself that I could be free of caffeine addiction if I chose. When I went back to live there, I drank coffee during study, and also after lunch, and through sesshins as well. Now I drink three cups a day, and I notice when I don't get time to drink my usual dose in the course of a busy Saturday morning; I also notice that I am in no hurry to try and cut down right now. Maybe we need to run out one day soon to give me a little reminder of my addiction, though of course in this city, you are never far from a good coffee.


DaiganSF said...

I have a half a cup before it is time for me to "make my rounds". I started to say I don't really do it for the caffeine except I get kinda cranky when it's not made and I have to wait, so that's likely a lie. I also only drink another cup with breakfast. It's not so much about keeping my body or mind pure, as it is more than that, and I can't focus or concentrate and I get all jittery. Which I already am anyway.

I would probably say I am more addicted to naps than I am caffeine. I tend to really struggle when I don't get my nap in. Coffee not so much.

kelly said...

One of my more memorable sits was meditating in the Denver airport chapel (I think it was Denver, but it might have been Atlanta) after drinking a red bull or two.  There was a distinctly novel, and rather unpleasant physical sensation.  In normal day to day life, I drink 2 coffees in the morning and a red bull or two in the afternoon, yet this was the first time I had noticed how it really makes me feel.  I think of this when I drink red bull (and coffee), and often now I decide to go for tea instead, but I have not quit.

Sandy's witterings said...

Like your resident, when I'm at work I get up an hour ahead of work time and drink tea (not being a coffee person). It is though possible to chuck a couple of cups down the throat in a few minutes. Morning cuppas are as much about a little quiet time between sleep and what ever schedule we have as it is about caffeine intake.
Could I live without tea?? I've never found it proble,atic enough to try and find out.

Shundo said...

Thanks both for your stories. I think Red Bull and sitting quietly are not obvious bed-fellows, Kelly. Sandy, the ritual is definitely part and parcel of the tea experience, not so much for coffee - though in San Francisco it can be if you take your coffee as seriously as some people do. I think the quiet reflection time with tea - or coffee or even a cigarette - has much to recommend it, whatever time of day.