Thursday, September 29, 2011

Common Ground

I got word that there were some feelings being expressed in the Young Urban Zen Facebook Group, and since I am not on Facebook, I cannot reply within that space, and as it is not an open-view group I can't link you all to it either. Here is one comment from one of our regulars, whose permission I have to re-post:
"Common ground is really important. The more I think about this, the more I realize that my beef is not with reading passages, but with the difficulty of finding common ground when everyone has really different experiences, beliefs, influences, etc. Actually, what bugs me is not those differences, but the fact that we never talk about them! I have no idea what our common ground really is. YUZ has been going for almost 4 months now and we haven't really opened up to each other in terms of our beliefs, values, feelings, etc. There are just occasional glimpses. I can tell people want to express themselves more, and I want to see more of that, but there's such a heavy emphasis on ideas that we don't get very personal. Most of what I know about anyone in the group is how they react to text. So yeah, I guess I do have a beef with the passages, because they turn our focus away from each other and into our heads. When it comes down to it, we can always read at home, but it's very rare to find a group like ours, and I feel like there are more direct ways to learn from each other".
My answer would be that zazen was always intended to be our common ground, that it is rare enough to be able to sit with people, that the act of doing that, regularly, albeit with a somewhat shifting cast, will inevitably show each of us to each other. At the very least it should foster a field of openness which will inform whatever conversation we have afterwards. It is probably true that in a varying group, some people will not want to be fully open, though the small group discussions hopefully make that easier. In my contributions to the meetings and the small groups, I often find myself suggesting that people find an answer in their hearts more than their heads, and that they use the texts as a way to clarify feelings more than to express ideas. We could certainly learn from each other by doing other things - it was true when a bunch of us played games in the park, and the times some of us have been out for a drink after meetings, and it could also be true if we did an hour of kitchen practice together, or spent an evening cleaning the conference center instead of talking. Nevertheless, what I value most in the group, as I have expressed here on several occasions, is that it gives me a forum to meet people open-hearted and whole-heartedly, and my wish that everyone in the group is able to cultivate that quality in themselves through the imperfect processes of our meeting together.


Once was a zen student said...

This is a good topic. Not being able to find a common ground is a very reasonable observation.

These cultural traits are a part and parcel of the cultural ethos of the time and place and the centers can't help being a part of them.

- question everything
- its all about YOU, what is your practice, how do you define it. A do-it-yourself practice which emphasizes and maybe even isolates the individual self
- easy come easy go, no need to make any commitments, take what you wish.

In such circumstances how can you form common ground with anyone? Each one has their own interpretation of things and no one has any real commitment to anyone or anything. What do you share then with anyone? Of course people will feel isolated. And if everything is easy come easy go, people will be reluctant to share feelings as that has an emotional involvement that may or may not be reciprocated.

It is certainly a nice idea that zazen sitting is a common ground but I'm not sure if people will experience it that way or can experience it that way.

Usually common ground has been found by
- agreed upon common symbols and defintions.
- commitment to the group and each other. Commitment that is a genuine commitment that includes forming bonds, remembering the other's significant occasions and attending them, accepting certain rights and responsibilties, all that old fashioned stuff.

Honestly who cares about any of that anymore, especially in San Francisco? And it is often considered a violation private space to have a commitment to something else or to share any definition.

Then it will be difficult to find a common ground, no matter how often you sit together.

Shundo said...

Thank you for contributing to the discussion.
I would say that finding common ground through sitting zazen together is not a 'nice idea', it is the very basis of what has made Zen Center a strong and viable community for the past fifty years.
I detect a certain world-weariness in this and your previous comment, with the view that everyone following a 'question everything' path will end up isolated and disillusioned. I think there is a large distance between 'question everything' and 'easy come, easy go'.
Personally I feel that people who come to zen as a part of questioning what it is to be a human being often come to see that everyone struggles with the same question in one form or other, and this is more a way to connect with people than to isolate from them.
While this particular group struggles in its growing pains, there are people there, as there are many people aligned with Zen Center, who are making very firm commitments to their practice and to the sangha.
May I ask you what your practice is now?

Shonen said...

Being WAY outside the demographic of the YUZ group, I can only comment on what I have read about its activities from this blog.

I am actually amazed at how far the group seems to have come in only 4 months! It may seem like a long time for some of them but for a group that meets weekly, it really isn't. This is difficult work you're doing, it takes time for things to gel and come into focus.

I sat a 3 month retreat at IMS - 90 days of complete silence except for interviews with the teachers. I got to know the names of some of my fellow retreatants from seeing who was on the bulletin board to do a particular job but I knew nothing about them or what they sounded like. Out of a group of about 100 or so, I felt a connection with all of them but particulary the ones who sat around me or walked next to me during walking meditation.

When we got to break silence at the end of 3 months, we hugged each other like long lost friends. The support I had felt from them was immense. That was over 20 years ago and I still remember some of their faces even though I never saw any of them again.

Do not doubt the power of sitting together as a group, you'll reveal far more than you know...

Shundo said...

Hi Shonen, thanks for that. I think the group has been surpassing our expectations since the beginning, and it is only natural that the regulars want to shape it in a way that makes sense for them in their dharma positions. Those of us who worked on getting the group off the ground will definitely not discourage this from happening.

Kelly said...

Huh, I havent read the Facebook lately but now I feel the need to go check it out.

If you don't feel common ground with the people in your life, it might be worthwhile to examine your notion of "ground". You could find "ground" to be much larger than you initially thought.

Also Shundo, conflict is a natural part of how human groups form. I once had a leadership coach who taught the classic 4 stages of group development: forming, "norm"ing, storming (conflict), performing. (cheesy to make it memorable). It means people are getting invested when they start to question the purpose, tactics, process and leadership.

Shundo said...

Thanks Kelly, I hope that quartet does not stick in my brain too long. I don't doubt the investment of those of you who are showing up regularly, and we don't want people to feel stifled by formats.

Once was a zen student said...

Hello Shundo, thanks for at least being up to engage in a discussion. I still do my meditation, (a wonderful practice) but have returned to my roots, don't consider myself in an affiliation with any modern style center of any kind.

Look inwards, it is all about you, expand your definitions, these are certainly very common responses and exhortations. But interbeing is one of the teachings isn't it? It is not just all up to you.

As a simple example, you can't keep your word in a place where others dont keep theirs. You can't make a commitment to something that has no commitment to you.

And you can't really have a common ground with an inanimate object, you can only have common ground with people.

Now I might temporarily feel something common with people whom I do a sit with, but if, when the sit ends, the common ends too, then that common wasn't much of a common. It is natural for people to seek commonness that lasts.

I would find it actually be good to be given a format of some kind for any group really. That is the beginning of establishing a common ground. Something solid is expected of you as a participant. That expectation may sting initially but will establish a base.

While I would always have something of a soft spot for the center, I could not help feel that I could engage for as many ever years, share many things with many people and my history wouldn't really matter, the affiliations would always be 'loosey-goosey', including the most important, the student-teacher affiliations. Then it wouldn't make any sense to set up a strong affiliation on my end, to think of a common ground in such a case, would it?

Now it may be that the general idea is to, given that we are talking about a Buddhist center, learn how to live without making affiliations, without forming lasting comming grounds that become attachments.

If that is the case then even though I enjoy meditation I can't really call myself a Buddhist, it is not my thing.

So when I hear talk about a common ground missing, well, rather than give the usual californian look inside, it's about you answer, the more sensible thing I would suggest is this. In an easy-come easy go culture, you have to make an extra effort to recognize people around you who are not a part of that ethos, who are willing to accept the rights and responsibilities of lasting relations, and cultivate common ground with them.

Shundo said...

Thanks again for your thoughts, and I think your last point is a valid one.
Other thoughts that this provoked were about the inevitable fluidity of sangha, which I have written about before, but may write about again, as it seems to be coming up in conversations; also about the distinction between continuous effort and long-term effort. In the long term, nobody will remember that I was ever ino (since in the long term we are all dead, as has been observed), but nonetheless, making this effort now counts for something.
I commend Michael's Saturday talk this weekend to everyone who wants a different angle on this topic - at least that was how I heard it.
Once again, though, I fear you pass from 'looking inwards' to 'all about you', which is not my experience of how practice often manifests for people, especially when we take the vows of a Bodhisattva.

Once was a zen student said...

Hello Shundo,

Thank you for your response. When you say the effort counts for something, the question that follows is to whom? If the answer is just 'you' then that is a circular turning inward that will only hurt. Unfortunately you can detect this ethos in some of the californian culture, especially new age, which any center cannot help absorb.

If the answer is towards the people you know and the wider world then you are engaged, directing your energy, your mindfulness, outwards and living brightly and fully and connected.

This is how most people normally experience the direction of their effort, towards their significant others and then towards the wider world.

However, if every one around you lives with the former answer, even if you don't your energy won't matter much.

This distinction is worth clarifying, no?

The Buddha renounces everything, including all his affiliations (wife, child, family, etc). The emphasis on renunciation is probably one of the reasons why Buddhism died out in India, the place of its birth. It had to morph into different forms in other places in order to take hold.

I suppose the question for modern centers is how much do they want to renounce and what direction is the energy going to be channeled.

All the best.

Shundo said...

The entire premise of the Bodhisattva vows are that any benefit from the effort that a person makes is dedicated to the saving of all beings. You would have to ask other people if they are self-focused in the way that you describe, but my impression after more than ten years at Zen Center is that the practice and most practitioners are not tainted by new age wooliness; if you have been reading the pieces from Katagiri Roshi, who was a formative teacher here, I don't think you could get that impression either.
Whether it matters much or not is not something I am concerned about. I am happy to make the effort in the hope that it will be useful.
Nor do I think it is entirely correct to say that Buddhism has died out in India; I think the Dalai Lama might take issue with you there. Zen practice moved on from that level of renunciation, though of course there are sacrifices involved in living here.

Once was a zen student said...

Well, one can get isolated looking inwards even if the motive isn't selfish but altruistic. But I hope we have clarified things well and helped suggest better ways to create a common ground that puts less pressure on the individual.

Alright then, don't have anything more to say. Good luck.

Once was a zen student said...

Oops, one more thing, sorry, couldn't resist :), a golden oldie, a homage to the alienated modern self.

Here is a live version

Wow they've gotten really old now.

There, you can see why I could not last long as a zen student. Was too hard to be that serious.


Shundo said...

...mmm I pretty much lost interest in Pink Floyd after 1978 when my older brother moved over to New Wave and I like the sound of that better. I still listen to the Syd Barrett-era stuff though.