Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.

A neat house in old suburban northeast Portland. I wasn't sure I was in the right place -- there were none of the "alternative" markers that, in varying degrees of subtlety, tend to mark of the houses of people I visit. No prayer flags on the porch. No beans growing in the front yard. No "save Tibet" or "We are Everywhere" or "Live Simply" bumper stickers on the cars parked in the street.

But it was the right place. I entered, and added my shoes to the dozen beside the door. There was lemonade, grainy chips of some kind, fresh-made guacamole and salsa, sliced apples, chunks of dark chocolate. Tea in the kitchen. And more food that we didn't even find out about till afterwards. If you want to eat well, all you need to do is hang out with American Buddhists: three quarters of them are great cooks, and they tend to turn all of their events into potlucks. This was just an evening discussion group, Gender and Dharma, but we could have lived well on the yield for a week.

L. rang a bell, and we sat shamatha for a space. Very still. I could hear the cat washing himself. Someone farted quietly, at intervals. I was amused at how much that filled my mind -- guessing who it was, imagining their embarassment, trying to think of how to lightly banter the embarassment away when we're done -- oh, that's right, back to the breath. Was it farting at all, could it be, at such regular intervals? More amusement, to think of the whole castle I'd built, complete with relationships and strategies, on a sound that might after all just be something mechanical -- oh, that's right, back to the breath. What else could the sound be? Was there any smell to tip me off? No, just the smell of cinnamon and -- what? nutmeg? from the someone's tea -- oh, that's right. Back to the breath.

My vision rested on the glass of lemonade on the glass coffee-table. As my eyes crossed and uncrossed, the gold dakini on the cover of our book travelled slowly across the lemonade. Two yellow tulip shapes exchanging places. The pattern of relections and shadows was entrancing. I wonder if I could photograph something like that? So many bloggers I read are blossoming photographers. Oh. That's right. Back to the breath.

It's always awkward, sitting shamatha on furniture that's not meant for it. I tried to sit up straight, but I was tilting on the couch like a tower of Pisa. Falling onto J. would be decidedly uncool. Though I had to admit that I liked the idea.

Oh. That's right.

L. rang the bell again. What was that, fifteen minutes? Longer than I'd expected, anyway. A moment of awkwardness -- no one knew, were we going to bow? Dedicate the merit? Would Lynn ring the bell three more times, as at a formal sit at the center?

Someone put their hands together and bowed. I did too, to keep them company.

I had felt like I ought to come, since J. and I started this group, and I'd missed two meetings now, having gone only to the first. But I was a little bored. I hadn't much liked the essay and I wasn't much liking the discussion. The emptiness of self, the self that Buddhism denies and the self it doesn't. Ho hum. When I was first learning about Buddhism, I had a large appetite for this kind of talk. Now it strikes me as a bit ludicrous. I wondered why on earth we were talking. We had two hours. We could have sat shamatha the whole time. Much better use of our time.

Though of course, if I hadn't come tonight, I wouldn't be sitting, I'd be playing computer games.

J. a couple times asked me what I thought about things. Was I obviously withdrawn? I tried. As I spoke my voice sounded thick and syrupy to me. I was awkward. There was no flow to what I said. It made no particular sense to me. I've never been a fluent speaker, and without practice, I've gotten worse. "Conference maketh a ready man," said Francis Bacon. Full and exact I may be. Ready I am not.

Finishing up. Establishing the next meeting place, choosing the next essay. Should we switch over to meeting monthly rather than every three weeks? It takes an absurd amount of time to decide.

We put our hands together and dedicate the merit, all murmuring together: "By this virtue may I quickly realize Mahamudra, and establish all beings without exception in that state." Prosy, unbeautiful Sanskrit rhetoric, abstract and prolix. But it makes a difference. No matter how little merit I may feel I've acquired, and God knows it's little enough tonight, there is something about giving it away that changes everything. It's different, if I've been doing it for all sentient beings. I have to think about its successes and failures a little differently.

Unready. An old Anglo-Saxon king was called that, though not, I imagine, to his face. Ethelred the Unready. Ethelred meaning, of course, "Noble Counsel." Damn Sir Francis Bacon. I've always disliked the man.

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