November 17, 2009

Winter in the Form of Winter

June McAfee, one of our members, gave us a new statue of the Buddha. It's about 2.5 to 3 feet tall and is placed now in our entryway. Every time I pass the statue I'm sure it's a real person sitting there because it's as tall as a human would be sitting down. The statue may be from Indonesia where many Buddhist statues originate even though Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. What's interesting about statues from Indonesia is that they often have mudras that are unusual. They might be slightly incorrect when considered in relation to Chinese, Japanese or Thai statues that carry rigorous standards for design. The head of the Buddha, for instance, must have particular relational measurements for the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The mudra too follows standards of correctness so that the whole statue falls into a cultural/physical prescribed balance considered to be perfect for an expression of the Buddha. Statues from Indonesia may often be made by someone who is not Buddhist and therefore may either not know of stylistic requirements, or doesn't have to follow them. These statues then become quite interesting and unusual. I've no doubt that when Americans begin to make statues with an American Buddha look, unusual features and postures will begin to emerge. Americans love to break rules and I'm sure will not feel themselves bound by Asian cultural rules.

Form, of course, often comes up as a question in America. American students ask, "Why are you doing this? And, in that way? What is that for? Who says you have to do it that way?" Well, I can only answer that that is Zen practice. Even when students don't get a good answer for themselves, they may continue to practice and take up the forms. Still a year or so later they will begin to want to discard them. The forms have been around in Japanese Zen for about 8 or 9 centuries and yet after one or two years of intermittent practice, that is, coming to sit once or twice a week, the student will itch to change things as if they had mastered the forms and had some right to make it the way they want.

Imagine going to take tennis lessons to try to improve your serve. You find someone who has mastered tennis pretty well and after several lessons you say, "I don't think the serve should be done that way. Why are we serving the ball that way? I don't think we should include the serve in the game of tennis." No, we couldn't imagine that in most of our activities. We might learn the form quite well and then discover that if we toss the ball a little higher or a little lower, we serve better. But we don't discard the basic serve. We allow the body to play tennis and to learn what works well within the form of tennis because that's what tennis includes.

Zen forms are similar. When we learn to bow, in the beginning it may feel awkward and we can't easily master getting up and down. Slowly we begin to realize that if we bend our ankles a certain way, our knees don't pound the floor, or if we throw our weight a certain way on the rise, we get up more easily. These things take time, and slowly as we practice we fall into the ease of the form. After all of that, we might fall into the bodily understanding, the bodily wisdom of what the bow means and why we bow. That is, the body itself, realizes itself as the body of practice. The body gives wisdom to the mind and the mind to the body. These go together as one body, one expression. Maybe after 25 or so years, we can consider whether we should discard this or that, but by that time it's too late. After 25 years of bowing, one could never give it up.

It amused me that there was such fury over the president bowing to the emperor of Japan. When I saw the picture of the president bowing, I felt very heartened that he could follow the culture of Japan because that's what's done in Japan. I felt glad that our president was not too proud to bow to his elder, to bow to an ancient culture, and to bow as a man of reverence and not hold arrogantly to having to be the head of state. The emperor in Japan is not the government. After all, it's often American arrogance that has gotten us into such messes around the world feeling that we are more important than anyone else and our way is the only way. But, you know, I'm often in the minority and have a view of things that will never quite fit with the mainstream....thank goodness. I think, how lucky we are to have a president who can bow. This means he can restrain himself, that he has humility, and that he can step back with deep consideration and discernment when making unbelievably hard and problematic decisions. We always hope that a true leader has these qualities. Let us hope so, indeed. But, here we are in the press embroiled over the form of our president bowing.

Well, enough on this. The rain has a mind of its own and insists itself on us, inch by splashy inch. Slowly the moss turns bright green and the soaked downed branches fall apart in the hand. Winter in the form of winter.