“Gongggggg-gonggggg-gongggg”. My heart starts pounding, and I’m wide awake. I hear the fleeting sound of naked feet running down the hallway in front of my room. ‘It’s the wake-up bell’, my mind calmly suggests to my heart who’s still recovering from the adrenaline shock. No need to look at the clock, I know exactly what time it is. 4:55am.
I should be used to this procedure by now, but it still gets me every morning and pulls me out of the vivid dreams that I’m having here, living as a guest student in this Zen Buddhist temple in the middle of San Francisco. I’ve always been a morning person and I don’t mind the early start. But I can barely imagine what it must be like to do this for months, years and for some of the residents the bigger part of their lives. But no time for contemplation, not yet – the zendo is calling!
I get up from my bed and start putting on my meditation clothes. Sticking with dark colors, baggy pants and long-sleeved loose shirts, I’m trying to match the monks’ and nuns’ attire as closely as I can. There are so many forms in the rituals and so many unsaid expectations that I’m trying to save the amount of tolerated missteps for something else than clothing.
Slipping into my sandals, I rush down the hall to go through a very quick bathroom routine. In passing, I deeply bow to the big Suzuki-roshi statue in the hall. Cold water in my face wakes me up completely, and I brush my teeth and put my contact lenses in. Although my sense of vision will not be needed for most of the next couple of hours, I will want to be able to see what happens when needed: The carefully executed zen rituals, citing the chants and mantras in the service ceremony, reading the hand gestures and getting the cues of when to bow, when to turn, sit, stand and exit in a delicate procession that follows its own distinct form.
While the han sounds through the temple, I silently walk down the stairs to the lower levels for the morning zazen. I like the zendo, the meditation hall. It is calm, spiritually loaded, demanding respect in its rituals and forms, but still forgiving shortcomings in practice or wisdom; at least for as long as you try your best. And I’m certainly trying. It’s a clear routine that I’m following: Slipping out of the shoes before stepping on the carpet, walking towards the zendo while holding my hands in shashu position (left fist in right hand, right above the belly-button), stepping over the threshold into the hall with my left foot, on the left side of the entrance, bowing deeply before slowly walking to the cushion with hands in shashu, bowing to the cushion, then bowing to the hall. Arrived.
When taking seat on the cushion, facing the wall, it almost feels like coming home now. The different sounds, drums, gongs and bells that announce the arrival of the priest and the start of zazen wrap around me like a blanket, and I take a deep breath, knowing that the next 90 minutes I will be alone with my mind and hopefully some glimpses of non-duality.
Days are fairly predictable here at the San Francisco Zen Center. It’s an ever repeating cycle of meditation, work, meals and rest, all of which are performed with the underlying aim of mindful awareness. By the time that breakfast is served at 7.30am, we will have gone through 2 hours of sitting, walking, chanting and bowing, and I leave the rituals with an incredibly high level of awareness and a deep appreciation for the spirituality that drives all these people to live, work and meditate together in this community. Life in the temple isn’t always easy, but I was assured that it is even more demanding in the two satellite temples, Green Gulch with its organic farm and bakery in the Marin Headlands, and Tassajara, the monastery-like temple that is only open to guests for limited parts of the year, at the end of a 14 miles mountain road, sometimes only accessible with a four-wheel drive, up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The beauty of the places is astonishing and helps keep things in perspective at times when work get hard, at least for me, only spending two weeks here and having a deep appreciation for nature and aesthetics.
There are two work shifts, one from 9am-12.30pm, and the other from 1.30-3pm, only interrupted by lunch, and followed by another zazen meditation and service in the evening. If you are a resident student, you will be assigned to one of the major work teams, including kitchen, gardening, administration et cetera, but we as guest students jump in where needed. My roles so far have included cleaning the bathrooms, dusting off the bookstore cabinets, cleaning the fountain in the incredibly beautiful main patio, cutting up gallons of vegetables, setting up the Buddha Hall for an ordination ceremony, deep-cleaning the Zendo, sweeping the sidewalks all the way around the temple and back, and weeding the backyard.
In short, within just two weeks I have collected more blisters, cuts and bruises than in the previous 4 months of this year. Part of that might be because I throw myself into that work with all that I have, sometimes seemingly to the astonishment of my work leader. I’ve always been an all-or-nothing type of person, but more importantly, I have become quite grateful and appreciative for the instant gratification that physical labor provides – you feel the exhaustion in your bones at the end of the day, you see the immediate effects of your work, and you engage in repetitive tasks that set you in some kind of meditative state by itself. During work periods, we sustain Noble Speech, only talking if it’s necessary to do our work. The rest is spent in silence. And that’s ultimately what I came here for.
It is interesting to understand what types of people are drawn to the Zen Center and to what degree they commit their lives and time to it. It comes in all shades: There are chemistry PhDs from Ivy League Schools, serial entrepreneurs, architects and artists. And then there are also blue collar laborers and many people who have never worked in an office or in a job that one would consider mainstream society, corporate or even organized. Nothing of this matters within the four walls of the temple, and the way that the community acts and operates as one sangha and one organism is incredibly interesting.
It’s the whole world in a nutshell, yet all of them have one thing in common: Either physically, emotionally or intellectually, they have realized that life as we live it is full of illusions and strong individual and collective beliefs that unavoidably cause us pain and mental suffering, and they have committed to practicing zazen meditation as a way to lead a different way of living, perceiving and being, in the spirit of seeing the world as it really is, beyond all human-created illusion, and elevating themselves and others around them from sadness and suffering.
Deep breath! As much as I’m in awe of this pursuit and truly fascinated by it, I am as rooted in the world as most of you are, and I don’t think I could personally take this admirable step to a fully committed temple life. But I’ve been fascinated with not only the teachings and philosophy of Zen buddhism and its path west, from India over China to Japan and now eventually to the US west coast, but also by the powerful tool that meditation presents for reaching different levels of consciousness, awareness and therefore quality of life.
Before Suzuki-roshi, as one of the early Zen missionaries to the US, brought solid knowledge and a dedicated practice place to the San Francisco Bay Area, there were only few points of access to this ancient wisdom in the West – partly because of the language and scripture barrier to Mandarin and mostly Japanese, and partly because the Zen tradition was maintained orally and locally and therefore kept within Asia for a very long time.
Today, there are several Zen Centers throughout the state, and multiple opportunities to find a sangha and practice, and popular meditation teachers of the somewhat related Buddhist insight-meditation tradition Vipassana, like Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg or Joseph Goldstein, have done an incredible amount of work to introduce meditation into modern Western societies around the world – to the point where every high-performing athlete, entrepreneur or artist will mention a solid meditation practice as one of their key tools to be successful.
I understand. Meditation has changed my life as well since I discovered its power for mental and emotional healing more than 5 years ago, both personally and professionally. I make better decisions and perceive my environment much more clearly, objectively and empathetically than ever before. But maintaining full awareness and mindfulness is hard when you don’t live life in a temple, and the outside world does everything it can to pull you away from a solid daily meditation practice into the whirlwind that our life is these days. Technology and using it wisely might be the biggest hurdle in winning this battle – if mindfulness is characterized as being fully present in the current moment and in the current place, then looking at a screen could be defined as the exact contrary opposite of this. The efforts of many businesses today are geared towards trapping our time and attention, so the flood of invitations to step out of the here and now are plenty and inexhaustible.
The answer for me lies in retreating and reconnecting to the practice and the teachings in a combination of regular exposure to literature, conversations and community meditation, and little islands of dedicated time to fully embrace, and in return be embraced by, the teachings and practice meditation in 10-day retreats like silent Vipassana, or now here as a guest student at the San Francisco Zen Center. The frequency might be different for everyone, but I have found that with my intense travel schedule, a once per year deep experience, combined with exposure to the sangha at least every 2-4 weeks, one book on the topic per month and a daily meditation practice, as small as it may be, are needed for me personally to keep level and continue to grow and develop.
This year’s visit to the San Francisco Zen Center has definitely delivered on what I was hoping to get out of it, including some truly enlightening and inspiring conversations with priests, teachers and long-term practitioners who have studied with Suzuki-roshi in the early days themselves. I am truly grateful to the Zen Center for this experience, and I intend on coming back next year for another couple of weeks.
I want to close with an invitation to you, dear reader, to explore the topic on your own, because I truly and deeply believe that every minute spent with this practice is a wonderful investment into our short and incredibly precious lives, and that anyone without exception would benefit from it.
It’s not that easy to sum up what meditation does for me personally, but I will give it a try. It cleanses my mind and my perspective from ego and entitlement. It grounds and connects me to my environment, nature and the world as a whole. It cultivates a deep understanding, empathy and goodwill towards all people and, really, all fellow beings on this planet. It makes me a much happier, appreciative human being, towards myself and others. I feel lighter and less burdened, both materialistically and mentally (or emotionally), with a sense of freedom and appreciation for everything and everyone around me. For me, this is the essence of a truly livable and quality-driven life, one of freedom, contentment and happiness, one that is able to similarly affect others in a positive and meaningful way.
Thank you, San Francisco Zen Center! I’m beyond grateful for these two weeks of meditation, chanting, working and some surprisingly deep relationships and insights into the sangha and its individual members. And above all, my deepest gratitude to my work leader, Terri – you’ve been amazing to work for, meditate next to, discuss, connect and bond with. Thank you for everything!!
Interested in more?
Read my blog post about a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat I did in 2016, explore opportunities as a guest student at the SFZC, visit the beautiful temples in Green Gulch or Tassajara, check out Suzuki-roshi’s book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, or venture out to Spirit Rock, Jack Kornfield’s wonderful meditation center in Woodacre.