Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Howie

Last night I was going to go to the first session of Paul Haller’s Zen in Action class at the Zen Center, but, unrelated to that, decided to fix the links on my blog, which is celebrating its five-year anniversary tomorrow. I guess checking one’s links once every five years is not overdoing things. I got rid of a few, added a few, sort of put them into clumps here and there.

Pursuant to that, I looked up the website for Howard Cohn, my beloved first and always teacher, whose Tuesday night sitting group in the Mission I began attending in 1991, my initial exposure to Buddhist meditation. I had drifted away, however, in recent years because it meets from 7:30 to 9 p.m., meaning there would be little hope of being in bed before 10. I get up at 5:30 a.m., so I like to go to sleep at 8:30 p.m. I also had ventured elsewhere because I was actively in search of dharma buddies, which Howie’s group had not afforded.

Some groups are very social (e.g., Eugene Cash’s), but Howie’s was more of a deep, quiet refuge. You went there, you sat, you heard a talk and/or Howie answered questions, and then you went home (or wherever).

It always left me uplifted and inspired, and I learned many things that I still think about all the time, but it didn’t give me meditation friends to have tea with—which is what has been wonderful about the Zen Center, which overflows with sangha opportunities. (A sangha is a community of meditators. It can be a particular group, or you could also think of the sangha as being every meditator worldwide. Sometimes when I’m meditating, I like to remember that someone half a world away is doing the exact same thing.) The Zen Center also happens to do things much more on my schedule: at the crack of dawn, right after work, Saturday mornings.

I didn't even have a link to Howie’s website here, partly because it only recently came into existence, I believe. (He told me last night that he had nothing to do with it. Some of his devoted students put their heads together and, in time, told him, “You now have a website!” It’s beautiful and simple.)

As it happened, yesterday was Howie’s sangha’s very first Bring Your Own Burrito night! I discovered it just in time, and was delighted, as it will potentially add the exact dimension I had been in search of.

The related web page said: “There comes a time in every community for joining together and sharing food. Mission Dharma has pondered the question, ‘What makes us so inspiring?’
1) We meet on a weeknight after work to awaken together AND
2) We have yet to have a potluck!”

I thought that was very funny—that not having yet had a potluck was one of the extra-inspiring features of the group.

There was no way I was going to miss this event, so I pedaled furiously home after work in the not-quite-searing-but-still-plenty-hot heat, walked, practically dripping sweat, to El Toro to obtain my burrito, and on to 15th and Julian. Julian Ave. gives a very fine flavor of those gritty aspects that have vanished from my own immediate area.

In the charming courtyard of the church where Howie’s group meets, a woman had set up a booth with various flavors of chai, and a man next to her had empanadas on offer, while another fellow walked around sharing slices of his homemade bread, which was delicious.

When Howie arrived, we had a happy reunion and a giant hug. It was so fantastic to see him.

Now and then over the years, when certain things became clear, I would think, “For goodness’ sakes, why didn’t Howie just say so?” Well, he probably did, for one thing, but I believe also that he wasn't setting out to browbeat us head-centered
types with logic, convincing us that a certain thing is true the way it's true that two plus two equals four. Ultimately, it's probably that once something is clear, now you're someone else: a person to whom that particular thing is clear, and it's hard to remember back to the dark ages, yesterday, before.

Anyway, Howie was just himself, immensely warm and kind, funny, relaxed, extremely well grounded in the dharma, which seems to permeate every aspect of his being, and he simply invited us in and shared Buddhist teachings with us, trying to give us a hint of why we might find this exploration worthwhile. It was his being such a very lovely person that brought me back week after week.


His sangha has grown to 80-100 people, of whom I recognized maybe 10, and there was a fine turnout for BYOB. We ate together in the courtyard and then we meditated out there, too, in the warm dark, and Howie gave his dharma talk, on the Four Noble Truths, as we sat under the Mission sky, surrounded by the Mission sounds.

In his talk, I could hear what sounded like a hint of Phillip Moffitt’s book Dancing With Life and I heard the word “stress” once, as Thanissaro Bhikku uses it, in place of “suffering.” I have been interviewing with Phillip at retreats for 10 years as of this year, and I also utterly and completely adore him. And when I go on the concentration (samadhi) retreat each year at Spirit Rock, I bring along a little stack of Thanissaro Bhikku’s writings on this subject, which I have found so helpful and encouraging, so when I heard what seemed to be these other two floating in the air above Howie’s talk, it gave me a very nice feeling of the whole vast community interweaving, coming and going.

It was truly a magical evening.

So it appears the cost of the Zen in Action class may end up being just a contribution to the Zen Center, which is fine. I know I would have loved being there and hearing everything Paul has to say—I’m also very fond of him, though I know him much less well—but, at least on Tuesday nights, I’m going home. (At least, that’s my thought right now. Who knows what the thought will be by next week?)

As long as I'm listing revered teachers, I can't leave out Sally Armstrong, who I have also interviewed with at many retreats, and who has given me much sage advice that comes back when needed. Most particularly, she was there when intense fear arose in the middle of a month-long retreat, and she saw me safely through to the other side. I've had occasion to employ what she told me many, many times since then, and I so appreciate her brains and her wonderful sense of humor.
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