On Friday night I went to a zazen (zen meditation) class in Brighton.
I used to go to zazen for a while when I lived in Vancouver, Canada, but this was quite different.
There were the same black robes around the place, the same ‘just sitting’ meditation with a bit of mindful walking in the middle. But there was also a whole bunch of ritual, chanting and dojo protocol that I wasn’t familiar with.
Appropriately enough, this reminded me of a zen teaching. Shunyru Suzuki put it quite nicely. He said:
In the beginner’s mind there a many possibilities. In the experts mind there are few.
Me with my 20 years of meditation under my belt and my impressive MA in Buddhist Studies, I’m something of an expert. But in that dojo I was a beginner.
A lot of the Japanese terminology was unfamiliar to me. I didn’t know about putting my hands just here, and pressing slightly there on the outbreath. And I’ve never got into meditating with my eyes open.
So there I was, a beginner, trying to get my head around something.
While I’m pretty familiar with zen concepts and practices intellectually, I haven’t done them much – certainly not in that form.
In one way I enjoyed it. Adherence to forms and rules isn’t something that comes naturally to me, but I get the point, and I kind of felt like I was taking part in a piece of performance art.
On the other hand, it made me think how off-putting a lot of the ways Buddhism is taught can be for people who are new to it.
It reminded me of when I first got into going to Buddhist groups and how confusing it all was, and how downright weird it all seemed.
All the odd bowing, the chanting, the weird language, the peculiar deference to statues – or ,even weirder, to English dudes with funny Indian names and strange clothing. You’d get beat up for wearing that stuff where I grew up. Let’s face it, a robe is pretty much a dress.
All that stuff is not necessary to meditation, or to taking Buddhist ideas and concepts and using them to lead a happier life. And that has always been my main interest.
Sure I love a lot of the cultural stuff. I’m really drawn to Tibetan Buddhist art, for example. I enjoy chanting a mantra as much as the next guy. But all that stuff is just one way of practice.
You can be a regular Joe and practise Buddhism all the way to Buddhahood. You don’t need all the fancy accoutrements.
The next day I got talking about all this with an old (non-Buddhist) friend. During the conversation, my mind made a spontaneous decision without informing me.
I’m going to run my own Buddhist group in Brighton
I’m quite excited! It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years but due to my itinerant lifestyle (I’ve moved something like 30 times in 20 years) I’ve never made it happen.
But here I am in Brighton, probably for a while, so why not?
Last night at 2am I set up a group on meetup.com.
It’s called Dharma Hangout, which hopefully communicates something of the approach I’ll be taking.
For years I’ve been going to different groups and temples, and never finding a good fit for me. The closest I ever got was maybe DIY Dharma in Vancouver. It’s a group inspired by the Dharma Punx movement in America. Non-hierarchical (at least in intention) and pretty informal. And very welcoming.
So that’s my plan. A group of people hanging out, doing some meditation, talking about Buddhism (aka ‘the Dharma’) and building friendships.
You can come to learn meditation or learn about Buddhism, but you can also just come to practice and hangout with like-minded people.
You don’t need to follow any particular guru or school. You don’t need to be Buddhist. You can do whatever practice you want (as long as it’s quiet and you sit still while you’re doing it).
So I’m entering a new phase. A beginner once again!
If you live in Brighton or you have friends who might be interested in coming along, please ask them to join the meetup group. That’s how I’ll let people know when and where we’ll meet.