Yesterday marked a turning point in my practice. As most of you know, Frank and I facilitate/manage/runaround a sangha. Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun. We have an opportunity to sit, walk, drink tea, and laugh with like-minded folks who share a curiosity about life. Sometimes, it’s a pain where the zafu meets the body part. Events are rarely attended and often we’ve been left holding the financial bag for community gatherings. (Probably the worst was a fund-raising dinner for a local charity to which we had “bought” a table for 10 and no one showed.) We tend to roll with these things though Frank and I have markedly different approaches to the ups and downs of interest and attendance.
My view is quorum-based. There’s no point going ahead without the right size of body count. His view is to go ahead with practice and eventually the bodies count.
I finally acknowledge that Frank is right.
There. It’s in writing and published across the multi-verse. And yesterday was that kind of turning point in my practice, a realization finally that practice must be independent of all outward markers of success. It was our Day of Mindfulness (zazenkai, for those of us who need exotica in our language). The number of emails expressing regrets suggested there would not be anyone attending but we went ahead anyway. One person did come – in fact he came twice: the day before, thinking it was Sunday, and again on Sunday. Now that is dedication! K. walked in and said, “Oh, is no one coming today?” And for the first time, I truly felt the paradox in our thinking. I replied, “There will be three of us today.”
I have wondered where this need for a body count comes from, especially in the sanghas I’ve attended. One dharma teacher would send out anxious and angry emails railing at the community for not showing up. Another would become furious when other communities formed because it threatened to take people away from his group. A third, greatly beloved by all and sundry, took strips off Frank and me because we had only brought 11 people to his retreat (final body count 35) and refused to give talks at our budding sangha until we had over 30 people attending regularly for at least two years.
Looking back, I can see this as a subtle training in sensitivity to lack, to not having enough, to the Other as a threat to acquiring more. Sadly, it reduces the spiritual path to just another form of desperate consumerism. Interestingly, the talk I chose for our DoM yesterday was given by Sensei Beate Stolte at Upaya ZC: Exploring the Self. In it, Sensei Beate goes on a bit of a tangent but an important one. She describes the subtle ways in which we foster our fear of not getting what we deserve, not having enough.
She used the example of a child’s game, musical chairs. You know the game. It starts out with much laughter and fun as the music plays, children run around the chairs, and squeal as they try to find a chair when the music stops. Quickly though, the implications of the music starting and stopping sink in. Now it’s become a full contact sport. Has it ever become again just a game for us since those days of birthday parties and summer picnics? Was this part of the early seeding of our competitive, driven nature? Do we still walk into a room, a situation and scan it for the potential of “one-less-chair-than-bodies?”
I had hoped it would not be that way in communities given to mindful consumption or dedicated to the uprooting of greed. Apparently it is not and this is distressingly so. The marker of a community dedicated to practice cannot be the number of bodies sitting in rows. Admittedly, if we’ve got to support temples and structures which necessitate an accounting at the end of the day, bodies count. And perhaps, that’s a morality tale in itself about tails wagging dogs. At the same time, I won’t say I’m not concerned by the low body count in sangha-building but it’s more a concern about people not taking advantage of the dharmic riches available.
But yesterday, it was different for me. Whatever it was, however many we were, it was enough. In my striving to be homeless, free of attachments, I noticed that three of us shared a wonderful morning of meditation, followed by a lunch of roasted squash soup, fresh-baked bread, spinach salad, tea, a walk in the woods, and then a gentle sharing about our practice. There were two chairs and a zafu leftover and no one had to fight for their seat in the circle.
Thank you for practising,