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Lions Roar : May 2015
napkin and cleaning cloth, the whole wrapped in a bandanna- sized cloth that, when unwrapped, is efficiently used as a place mat. Because Buddhism is not precisely a religion like the Abra- hamic trio—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, (Buddha was a normal man—neither supernatural nor a prophet)—what appears to the uninitiated as prayers and worship of a deity are actually expressions of gratitude for the Buddha’s compassion- ate teachings. By the end of the first highly ritualized meal, I was convinced entirely too much gratitude was being displayed and began wishing harm on the officiant whose changes and offerings had to end before I would be allowed to leave my seat and mercifully straighten my paralyzed legs. There were chants of thanks when food was offered, chants after it was served, and more when the first bowl was raised. Before the servers entered bearing the food, the wooden bar in front of the sitters’ places had to be cleaned. A damp towel was introduced and then either passed from hand to hand down the length of the room, or if one was graced with an elevated seat, propelled by a runner racing down the aisle between sitters scrubbing the “table” (the edge of the raised platform) as he went. The servers moved quickly, but no matter how efficient they were, I wanted to scream with frustration, impatience, and pain, because until the meal is over and one’s bowls washed and put away and the last chanted syllable uttered, you cannot rise from your seat. Furthermore, it is an arduous and delicate maneuver to change the position of crossed, cramped, insensate legs without sending the delicate bowls in front of you skittering into the lap of the person facing you. The frustration was akin to being trapped behind a comatose driver at a stoplight that changes once an hour for twenty seconds while the moron in front of you misses it while texting. Imagine this occurring repeatedly, over and over again while you are on fire, and you’ll have a clear idea of my state of mind. Every task proceeded at its own proper (agonizing) pace. You cannot simply eat, wash your bowl, and leave to go fart and pick your teeth. At the signal of clacking wooden sticks we wait while the food is brought into the zendo, served into each outstretched bowl, (the serving bracketed by stately bows) and then, before it can be touched, a complex grace is offered reminding us where the Buddha was born, taught, and died, and what virtues each portion in our bowls is dedicated to. Then, (still on fire) we are asked to con- sider “whether our virtue and practice deserve this offering” of food. I was deranged with discomfort and frustration at the slowness, the waiting, the ritualized cleaning of the bowls and the collection of the last scraps of food for “the hungry ghosts.” (“Fucking ants! They’re feeding ants while I’m dying here!”) All of these ritual steps inserted between my wretched self and the post-meal relief I desperately needed. I was furious. Every cell in my body was intent on inhaling my food as quickly as pos- sible so that I could flee the zendo and straighten my legs. This was day one. By 7:00 a.m. I had forgotten that I had chosen to be there because I was desperate for help. It’s quite normal in sesshin for the knees to be in pain, and the muscles in the upper back and shoulders to be burning with tension or even in spasm. It matters not. The pace of meals and services is glacial, and from my perspective that day, pitiless. The older monks sat quietly erect and maddeningly patient with no evidence of discomfort. By the second period of zazen, compounding my discomfort with embarrassment, my body began shaking violently, twitching and jerking as if I were experiencing a grand mal seizure. After awhile the shak- ing enervated my muscles and made me gasp for breath. It was distracting, exhausting, and embarrassing. The monks on either San Francisco in the sixties: Coyote was a member of the radical theater troupe called The Diggers. Their credo was personal authenticity. PHOTOCOURTESYOFPETERCOYOTE SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 66