By Daniel Scharpenburg
We arranged ourselves on our cushions facing the wall.
There were only three of us in the upstairs shrine room this time. Numbers for Monday Night Zen Group have been dwindling and that’s okay; we just sit and I know just sitting is really not for everyone. If I’m honest, I’ve thought about dropping it altogether. If people aren’t interested, I could free up my Monday nights.
But anyway, I was sitting there this time. I rang the bell at 7:00 pm as usual and we started our sitting. I was sitting in the traditional position: legs in half lotus facing the wall, eyes open and hands in the cosmic mudra (right hand under left hand with thumbs gently touching to form a little circle, resting in my lap).
On my right was my singing bowl and the wooden clappers. On my left was my phone, which I use to keep the time. I’ve thought about buying a watch, but I haven’t done that. I guess I haven’t thought about it hard enough.
I caught myself studying the wall. I was paying attention to all the little cracks and grooves. It’s just a plain white wall, but it’s 100 years old and you can tell. I brought my mind back. Then I started thinking about bullshit.
I’ve had stuff going on lately. I’m trying to find a new place to live, trying to find affordable childcare for my seven year old son for the summer. And then there was some other drama with my ex-wife (not the first one, the second one. Thanks for asking). So, I was sitting there and my brain was just running wild.
Bukowski said we are: “Flattened by trivialities, eaten up by nothing.” That’s how I felt. So, I’m having this trouble. My mind is just going all sorts of places and I bring it back, then it runs away again, so I bring it back again. It’s like herding cats. I was wondering why I was struggling so much.
And then I noticed my hands.
They weren’t fitting together right, so they were vaguely uncomfortable. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the cosmic mudra was not working for me.
There’s a saying in the zen tradition that if you start to slouch, your mind starts to wander. I have found that to be true, but I haven’t heard anything about your hands feeling uncomfortable and the mind wandering. I think the same principle does apply.
So I just switched. I did the relaxation mudra, which is just a really fancy way of saying “rest your hands on your knees.”
And it worked. My mind settled down and became still. Just like that.
In the Zen tradition it’s often said that you have to sit exactly like this and do exactly this to practice. There’s some diversity of thinking on this matter. I know zen teachers who say it doesn’t really matter how you sit. Some say lying down is okay and I know of one unorthodox zen teacher that advocates sitting in chairs. But, it’s normal to do the cosmic mudra—it’s the standard and traditional way to sit.
But I did something different. Because I felt like it. This seems like a minor thing and in some ways it is, but it’s part of a much larger issue.
We sometimes take our practice and put it in nice neat little containers, but it doesn’t always fit. People will tell you what the Zen way is or the Theravada way, or the Tantric way. I’ve been fortunate to meet teachers who encouraged me to find what works for me, but I’ve encountered plenty of the other kind too.
I’ve been trying to fit myself into a Zen container for a long time. The first dharma book I read was a Zen book and I think that really stayed with me. Plenty of Zen folks are great, but some of them are so rigid. And some of them do believe some weird historical things that defy logic and I don’t like that. I’ve been spending a whole lot of time studying and teaching non-Zen things lately: Lojong, Way of the Bodhisattva, 37 Practices. There are many great Mahayana teachings from outside of the Zen tradition.
Maybe I’m a Bodhisattva, not a zennist. Maybe I’m just a crazy Bodhisattva crying out in the wilderness. Maybe I’ve outgrown the container. Or maybe containers aren’t real. No path, no gain. Labels and containers don’t matter.
I’m just sitting here trying to spread wisdom and compassion. Just trying to embody the Bodhisattva path.
And I just thought of all this because my hands were uncomfortable.
Editor: Dana Gornall