Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tassajara, jury duty, and an unexpected encounter

A couple weekends ago, we went to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia (part of San Francisco Zen Center). Our teacher takes small groups there every summer, where we visit for four days as "guest practitioners": we eat breakfast and lunch with the students, and work with them in the mornings. In the afternoons we have a dharma discussion, then some unscheduled time, then we eat dinner with the guests.

I missed jury duty back in July, and when I called to reschedule, for some reason I thought I'd just get it done with--who actually gets picked for a jury?--and I scheduled it right before the Tassajara trip. I promptly forgot about it and then discovered I had to go to the courthouse.

I had fun calculating the odds of getting picked for a jury: there were 165 of us, and before the morning started they knew they needed 120. I ended up in a courtroom, where they were selecting a jury for a 5-day trial of a gentleman charged with various drug offenses, and something about importing a dagger into California. (I don't know under what circumstances that's illegal; I know people who have done it recently, and knife sellers are happy to ship daggers here, which they won't do with e.g. nunchuks.)

Notes about jury selection:
  • The process is absolutely fascinating, in almost every way. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • I am reminded of how many kinds of people I never encounter. One woman had an FBI agent ex-husband and her son and two cousins are DEA agents, and decided that affected her impartiality. Another woman saw her husband murdered a few years ago, but figured she could be impartial.
  • The bar for serving as a juror is fantastically low, and the judge was very articulate about why that should be.
It was particularly interesting to watch the judge decide whether someone's English was good enough for jury service. One guy who was up in the jury box at the same time as me didn't even understand that he was dismissed, just as he hadn't understood that he was supposed to go sit in the jury box. To save everyone some time, I turned around and said "Se puede salir." It's possible he wasn't a citizen and could have saved himself a day of waiting around--I thought English was a requirement, at least de facto, for naturalization.

The judge was a little cranky about letting me go, but Anna helped with the proper wording: "I have a pre-arranged religious retreat in two days with my wife and our teacher, and I won't be able to go again for a few years." The judge is properly skeptical and reluctant to let anyone go, but eventually let me out. This saved us all the awkward conversation where it turns out that I (a) believe in jury nullification, and (b) have a small knife collection and would be hard-pressed to convict someone of something as lame as simply possessing the wrong kind of knife, as opposed to using it on someone.

I felt genuinely bad for my lame planning. It would have been interesting to serve, and I'm lucky that I can afford the time and money to do so.

And then we were at Tassajara! There is no electricity, it is very warm during the day, and we got up for the morning zazen at 5:50. I love, love, love being in a monastery. This was Anna's first monastic visit, and she now understands the draw. When we have successfully turned J into a self-sufficient adult, maybe the two of us can go there for a while.

The big surprise was that Richard Baker showed up. You can read the history yourself, but the short version is that he built San Francisco Zen Center into the mammoth organization it is today, and was forced to resign as abbott and teacher in 1983 over various ethical failures. He disappeared from Zen Center's world, teaching some in Colorado and mostly in Europe. People have been working all these years to effect reconciliation between him and SFZC; I was at City Center in 2008, and while the organization had done a lot of healing, his shadow hung over the place. Finally, at Zen Center's 50th anniversary, he came to give a talk, and...apologized at the beginning. For the first time. It wasn't a long or detailed apology--you can watch it here, starting at about time 29:00--but according to my teacher, it felt like the entire room exhaled, because it's been 30 years that Baker and Zen Center have been stuck like this.

On the drive up to Tassajara, we talked about reconciliation and forgiveness, what's the difference and who has to be involved. One person unilaterally forgives another, but for reconciliation, everyone has to be there. Zen Center, as the individuals who were there and the group culture they passed down to subsequent members, has done the work to forgive Baker, and understand their own role in his behavior, but reconciliation was impossible, because Baker wasn't there for it. All Zen Center has had, all these years, is Zentatsu Richard Baker as a historical construct, just a reputation and a bunch of stories. You can't reconcile, you can't have a relationship, with a reputation and a bunch of stories. For him to be present and acknowledge, even briefly, that he made a lot of mistakes and hurt people, makes all the difference for the people who were there, and it could have a remarkable effect on the general culture of Zen Center.

Baker Roshi's visit was spur of the moment. I was actually detailing the temple cars at the front gate when he came, so I got to say "Welcome!" and have a brief exchange, which felt nice; I wondered if he'd been there since he had to resign in 1983, and I suspected not. For whatever reason, when addressing the combined Tassajara residents and guests, he did not start out by mentioning The Great Unpleasantness. As a result, the first question after the talk was a tactless interrogation from a resident in his early 20s: "How does it make you feel when people demonize you?". Which has a pretty obvious answer ("Not very good.") and maybe was not the question that young gentleman really wanted to ask.

The endnote is that Anna and I ended up at Baker-roshi's table for breakfast, which was a trip. This poor resident was there and asked him about the previous night's talk.
"You mentioned a few times that Zen is a 'yoga' practice. What did you mean?"
"Oh, I just meant that Zen is a Yogachara practice, that's all."
It is obvious to me, but not to Richard Baker, that this girl has no idea what Yogachara is. And isn't about to ask.
"Could you talk a little more about Yogachara?"
"Oh, well, there's an amazing book about it, very dense, but worthwhile: [insert a couple minutes of recommending very dense and somewhat scholarly books about Yogachara without ever explaining why one would care]."
I intervened.
"Sarah, do you know where Yogachara falls in the timeline of Buddhist history and everything?"
"Uh, well, no..."
So I told her. Maybe being observant isn't Baker's thing.

I still had my question.
"Is this your first time back here, since way back when?"
"This is my first time staying overnight. Once or twice I drove out here to the end of the road, looked around, then drove back."
"Welcome back. We're glad you could come."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

a visit to church(!)

I keep starting posts and then not finding the time/energy/focus to finish them the way I'd like. As part of my Zen practice *cough* or something, you can look forward to the publishing of much somewhat-finished writing that starts out really promising and then has bad endings! You lucky devil.

I went to church today, which happens at least every couple years for one reason or another. I mean going to an ordinary church service outside of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Usually this has to do with my friend M, who has been leading the singing at various services for quite some time, first in his native Catholicism, and then at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and today he was the cantor at his new home church, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.

(I got drafted into the choir, which is apparently what happens when you show up early as a newcomer and look wistfully as the choir warms up. "Are you a choral singer?" "Yes." "Want to join us?" It's fun having semi-professional-level skills.)

I've been meaning for years to visit St. Gregory's, ever since I read Sara Miles's conversion-and-food-pantry story, Take This Bread. The book itself comes and goes in quality--sometimes it's a little self-involved--but the spirit of St. Gregory's comes through unmistakeably, and parishioners told me they do get random visitors from around the world because of the book. Sara Miles gave the sermon this morning, actually, so that was pretty cool. I could have met her but didn't: authors being complete strangers like anyone else, I don't think we have anything in common to talk about.

St. Gregory's is Episcopalian only in name and origin. M says it started as a mission church of San Francisco's Trinity Episcopal, but I grew up Episcopalian and I can safely say there is nothing Episcopalian about how they do services. I'd be surprised if you found more than one copy of the standard hymnal or prayer book in there.

It's an astonishing place, and well worth a visit. Ethiopian crosses abound (yeah, I wouldn't recognize one either), the English writing on the walls has Greek translation, and Eastern Orthodox-style iconography abounds, to the point where they have icon-painting workshops on weekends. (Making icons is a complex, disciplined meditative practice, following strict rules of symbology and technique. You knew that, of course. Though I suspect maybe they use paint-by-numbers.)

They generally aim for a sort of closer-to-the-original Christianity, with its egalitarianism and universal participation. Everyone starts together in the rotunda with some singing, then processes into the rectangular section with the chairs, where the majority of the service happens: readings and a sermon followed each by a series of Zen-style Japanese bells meditative silence, more singing, a time when people can speak if they're so moved. Then everyone processes back to the rotunda, using a special step: right-left-right, left-step-back. More singing, drums, clinking things (kids were recruited for this part), liturgical bits from the priests. The Communion bread plates and wine cups go out, and everyone just passes them around to the next person. Then there's a short acknowledgement of the Eucharist, and then it just sort of ends and flows into everyone talking and hugging and saying hello. No "Go forth into the world in peace, to love and serve the Lord", which is one of my favorite traditional bits, and no ending procession. As an attempt to get back to Christianity's first couple centuries, it's pretty awesome.

Will I go back? Who knows? I imagine so. I liked it. On the other hand, it's not clear that Christianity speaks to me now much more than it did when I was a kid. Partly, they didn't exactly teach Sunday school for the kind of kid I was. Unsurprisingly, the very kind and loving teachers didn't have a satisfying answer to "What is a soul, exactly?"; and if they knew how to make the Bible and the faith intellectually coherent, they weren't sharing the secret with me. Any vaguely inquisitive and literate child can see that the God of the Old Testament was a murderous psychopath; people have been trying to make sense of that for the past 2,000 years, and it seems like there could be a pretty in-depth Theology For Kids class that would do everyone some good.

It's possible I wasn't normal.

Anyway, I know my own way. I'm sure I'll make it back to St. Gregory's occasionally. I highly recommend it if you're anywhere nearby. There's nothing like it.