Archive for February, 2012

“Mafan” or Chinese Hassles

by on Monday, February 27th, 2012

The original buildings at Xiamen University

Brian’s and Alice’s stories

In 1986, when Brian, his wife Alice and I were teaching at Xiamen University, he told me about a special lecture he gave as a part of his contract with the university. Later Alice shared a story about getting gifts shipped back home. Both stories are good illustrations of the how bizarre everyday life in China can be. The Bo Xue classroom building was a few blocks from The Number 2 Guesthouse where most of the foreigners were living.

Brian:  I was giving a special lecture on Saturday afternoon, and I was told that it would be at Bo Xue, one of the classroom buildings on campus where I teach.

“Fine. What time do you want me to be there?”

“No no no no. We’ll send a car for you.”

“What do you mean send a car to get me?  I can bike over there in two minutes.”

“Well, we’ll send a car.”

So they sent a car. It was one of the old cars, not one of the Toyota Crowns, one of these old Chinese cars. We got in—my minder, that is, the Chinese faculty member who looks after me, and myself and the driver. We rode along, but then instead of turning left at the gate in order to go down to Bo Xue, the driver made a right turn and left the university. I thought, Well, he could go down to the post office and come in the other gate down there past the administration building. He went down and made a turn down at the post office and turned into where the School of Economics is. My minder hollered at him, “Where are you going?” There was a discussion in Chinese, so I gather the driver was told, “This is not where we’re going. We’re going to Bo Xue.”

The driver backed out of there and went down the road and made a left turn to come in the university gate down by the printing factory. Only the gate keepers wouldn’t open the gate for him. The driver sat there, and he hollered at the gate keepers, and they hollered back at him, and pretty soon my keeper was hollering too. They wouldn’t open the gate even though this was a university car. When the gatekeepers saw the driver getting out of the car, all of a sudden they decided to open the gate. My minder turned to me and said, “A big mistake.”

We finally got down to Bo Xue, only the driver didn’t stop. He started driving back up toward the main road again. My minder hollered at him to stop. He stopped, and we got out and walked back down the road. I don’t know what the problem with the driver was, whether he didn’t know the names of the buildings or he only spoke local dialect or what, but he sure had a terrible time.

I had a bunch of overhead transparencies I was going to use. When we got into the lecture room, they said they couldn’t find a screen, so they were going to show them on the wall. The wall had all kinds of posters on it, so you couldn’t see much of anything. About eight guys ended up picking up this huge combination lectern and desk from the front of the room and hauling it across the room to put closer to the wall. In the meantime somebody had put the outline of my lecture up on the board in Chinese. My minder had been coming to see me for about two weeks. He had a copy of the complete published article that was the basis for the lecture, and he was going over it and asking me about each word. He was going to translate it. He had talked about whether he was going to translate it sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. We finally decided it would be better to do it paragraph by paragraph.

At the lecture, he introduced me to the audience, and he turned to me and said, “I sit down now.” He went and sat down. There I was with no translator. So I started talking, and I had just gotten a couple of sentences out when a couple of students showed up with a screen. They tried to figure out how to hook it up. The room had blackboards that slide up and down on vertical tracks. They hooked the screen on the top of one of the blackboards and shoved it up, and of course as soon as they got it up the blackboard and the screen came crashing down, and the screen fell on the floor. They hooked it on again and shoved it up, tried to get the blackboard to stay up, but it wouldn’t, it came loose and fell down again, and there was the screen on the floor. The third time they pushed it up they took an eraser and jammed it in the track to keep the blackboard up. That held. But now the screen covered up half of the blackboard where the lecture was outlined. Then I tried to put the overhead on the new screen, and you couldn’t see. I went back about five rows and couldn’t see a thing. This was an auditorium that must hold a hundred or a hundred and fifty people. I said, “Well, let’s forget about the projector. We can’t see it anyway.”

From there it was pretty uneventful. I used the outline in Chinese and I would point to the sections. It was a pretty detailed outline. So I think some of them were able to follow me as I was talking.

Alice:  But they were reading it while you were giving the speech in English. They were reading it in Chinese.

Brian:  They were reading it from the blackboard.

Alice:  So why were you even there?

Brian: I don’t know. But I haven’t finished my story. I finished my speech, and there was a bunch of professors from my department on the front row asleep. The ones that were asleep didn’t understand any English at all. They were just sitting there. I found out later that it was either come to my lecture or go to a political meeting. They decided they’d rather come to my lecture and sleep than go to a political meeting and sleep. My minder said, “OK, now we go to the banquet.”

Fine. We started walking out to the door, only none of the other accounting professors came along. He kept hollering at them, “Come on. Come on. Let’s go.”

I started walking down the road with a couple of people from the computer science department who had some questions about my lecture, and my minder ran back and talked to the professors about why they weren’t coming, and he came back and told me that they all had bicycles and were going to ride over. They brought me over in a car, but when the lecture was over, I had to walk back. It’s a five minute walk—big deal—but it was funny. We got back to the guesthouse, I went to the room to get Alice, we waited for the other professors to show up, and then we went into the guesthouse dining room. There was no table set up for a banquet—no nothing.

My minder went into the kitchen with some other faculty members, and he came out and said, “A big mistake. They’re not expecting us. They have no banquet.”

They sat us down in the middle of the dining room—as you’re well aware, it’s a fairly large room—and got four chairs, and they had Alice and me sit in two chairs, and two Chinese professors sat in the two chairs facing us, and they brought some cokes. We talked. Everybody else disappeared. We didn’t know where they’d gone.

Alice:  We had just found out that one of the professors, who was probably in his late sixties, spoke English and was educated in a Western-style university for very rich families.

Brian:  His parents were landowners. He had a very classical education. He can sing Peking Opera. He knows about a lot of different areas, he’s much better educated than people today.

Alice:  A Renaissance man. I think there are some young students who are very bright, very competent, especially some who spent a couple of years in the West. But boy, between them and the sixty-year-olds you’ve got a real vacuum.

Brian:  We must have been there twenty or thirty minutes. Pretty soon my minder came back and said, “OK, the banquet’s ready. Follow me.”

Fine. We got up and followed him. There’s a little restaurant out there behind the Chinese guesthouse. They’d gone in there and ordered the banquet. So we went there, and we sat down, and somebody threw a plastic sack of those sweet hot dog buns on the table, and somebody else threw out a plastic sack of hamburger buns, I guess. Somebody had some wine. They had coke and beer. Then the restaurant started bringing out dishes.

As it turned out, it was about one of the nicest banquets we’ve had here, because the accounting people were very relaxed and very informal, and they jabbered away and had a great time. There were only a couple of people that spoke English. They had the professor sitting beside us and then my minder. The food was pretty good. It was kind of fun. But the whole afternoon seemed to be a comedy of errors.

At the end of the term, the university was preparing for a visit by very big potatoes from the Ministry of Education. So for about three weeks, from early morning until late at night, residents of the guesthouse had painting, repair work on plumbing and electricity, installation of color television sets, maintenance work of all sorts—all of which seemed to require incessant pounding and hoards of chain-smoking workmen charging into rooms without knocking. The hasty, last-minute repair of the guesthouse was underway when the Carters arrived for lunch in my partially repaired apartment. It was their last day at the university. Since the Carters were on a short-term contract, they had to bear the expense of shipping any freight themselves.

Alice: I don’t understand why those people at the waiban [foreign affairs] have absolutely no experience in shipping. I just cannot believe they know so little about it. The part that went smoothly was getting the box made. That they understood. They got a carpenter, they got the stuff measured, and they got the box. But then how to get it from here to the United States was just a complete mystery to them. The only thing they could think of was to take it to the post office and have it shipped by air.

I said, “That’s not possible. We can’t afford to do that.”

They were at a loss. Then they found out that there was a shipping company downtown. So they took me downtown to the shipping company, where the clerk said, “Well, if we take that box, they’ll get lost or broken.”

I thought, Why should I pay them to ship it if they say it’ll get lost or broken? The interpreter couldn’t quite get it through his head that we needed to leave. He kept arguing with them. I said, “Let’s go. We really don’t want to use this company. If there’s no other shipping company, then the post office must be able to do it.”

“No, no. The post office will only take a box weighing one kilo.”

“We’re downtown, let’s go to the downtown post office and ask since we’re here.”

“No, let’s ask at the university post office.”

We asked at the university post office. One kilo.

“You’ll have to ship it from Hong Kong then.”

All along the waiban was trying to get us to take it on the boat with us to Hong Kong and ship it from there so they wouldn’t have to deal with it.

My standard argument was, “Look, in Hong Kong we don’t have an interpreter, we don’t know the name of a shipping company, we don’t know where customs is, we don’t know how to do anything. Also, we don’t want to have to haul it to Hong Kong. We don’t want to have to carry it. It weighs close to 40 pounds.”

“Let’s go back to the waiban office and call. There has got to be a way to send it through the post office.”

“No no no.”

“Please. I insist that you call the main post office. Here’s a list. We need to know everything on this list. How much will they charge, what are the limitations on the size and weight of the box, will they insure it?”

He called. “Well, that’s good. They can ship it.”

“That’s wonderful. How much will it cost?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“What about the weight and the size?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call back and ask them.”

He returned. “It’s 130¥ [$43 at the time] for twenty kilos.”

“Wonderful. What about the size of the box?  Can it be any size?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about insurance.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think they insure things.”

I said, “Well, we’ve got partial information. Let’s go with that.”  We had been at this now for three hours, and I was exhausted. “I understand that you can get customs to come here and inspect this.”

They started to yap. “Customs will not come here for a little box. They would only do that if you have a lot of articles. We must go there.”

“OK. We’ll go there.”

So that’s what we did today. Not knowing what would happen in the last few days, I had my schedule well planned out with every item on every hour carefully thought out. This morning at nine o’clock I had the car from the university, I had the driver, I had the interpreter, I had the box to go to customs.

The monitor from one of my classes came to my door and said, “Here, you must full out all these grade books.”

I didn’t know that was going to happen. He didn’t have all the grade books, but he had ninety percent of them. Then I had another student come to present me with a gift. He came with his camera and he wanted to take pictures. Then I had all these workmen who were coming in the door. Someone interpreted for the workmen and said, “Your heater’s going to be out for three days. Do you mind?”

I had all of my possessions laid out all over the bed and the box and the suitcases and everything organized according to what goes where. The workmen came in and said, “You have to move all this stuff because we’re going to do this work here, and we might break something.”

About that time I wanted to throw them all out because I couldn’t deal with it. So I told them we are moving out tomorrow and they could have the whole room then.

Actually, the customs office was not as bad as I had feared it would be. We were just the box and me and this official going through the stuff. I expected mobs of people and no place to get stuff out, and that didn’t happen. So that part was good. They looked at everything. They asked me for the value, and it was 400¥ [$133]. I didn’t know what was going on. I finally asked the interpreter what was happening.

“Because the value of the gifts is so high, I have to take this piece of paper to the university and get the university to verify that these are legitimate gifts.” At least that’s what I understand from him, though I don’t trust his English.

“Will there be any difficulty with this?”

“Well, he’s trusting me to mail him this form with the university seal on it.”

Maybe the box is sitting there waiting for someone to stamp the paper. I don’t know. We just nailed it shut. Then we went to a special shipping post office downtown by the docks. It’s not the main post office, it’s not the university post office, but a special shipping post office. Once we got there, then it was awful. Then it was the mobs of people and no place to work and many forms to fill out and all of that. Now it’s not clear to me whether the box will actually go or whether they’re going to wait for some special notification. I could not get that out of the interpreter. He assured me that I was all done, and they would take care of it—no problem.

Japanese-style Meditation Practice

by on Monday, February 13th, 2012

On one of my trips to Japan I interviewed an American teaching English in a private university. He showed me the little Buddhist shrine in his apartment, but he talked mostly about the meditation as he had practiced it in and around San Francisco. In Japan he has gone  to the headquarters of the Sotoshu Zen sect, to connect with like-minded people and does some meditation with people in his area.


Tassajara Zen Mountain Center <>

San Francisco Zen Center <>

Staying at Tassajara <,19&pageid=2643>

Independent Meditation Center Guide <>

Tracy’s story

My reason for coming to Japan was that I couldn’t grow professionally in the Bay Area.  You can’t get work in one institution full-time, which means you’re commuting between different schools, and that was a recipe for burnout.  I was very grateful to be able to come here. At that time my wife Umiko and I had started seeing each other, and she was going back to Japan, and there seemed to be a convergence happening in our lives, both of us moving in the same direction.

In the Bay Area there are so many traditions, so alive. In fact, Suzuki Rochi, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said, “I want to go to America because I like the attitude, I like the energy.” He was invited as the head of the Sotoshu Mission in San Francisco serving the Japanese-American community. After a couple of years, he was basically serving the role of your standard Buddhist priest, filling ceremonial functions. But more and more people were coming to the temple to sit zazen [Zen Buddhist meditation], and eventually the Japanese community said, “It looks as if they need you more than we do.” He said, “You’re right. This is where this practice is coming to life. It’s with these people because of their motivation and enthusiasm and willingness to try new things, and I like being around people like that, stumbling their way toward finding out what’s happening in the world.”

For me Buddhism is fresh. As it’s presented to us, it doesn’t have a rigid dogma that you have to accept before you can grow or be a part of the religion or the practice. It’s like religion without God. Westerners weren’t born into it, so it doesn’t carry all the baggage. The Buddha said, “Don’t believe anything I say. Just check it out for yourself.” It’s your own experience that verifies it. In the sutras there’s a lot about transcendence and cosmic psychedelia that’s very appealing, but what draws people is the suffering.

A lot of young people come to the Zen center because something in their hearts is calling them or because they find it philosophically appealing. There’s so much convergence with our understanding now of how the universe is constructed. There’s no separation between the observed and the observer and all. But certainly the people I’ve met in their thirties through their seventies all come to Buddhism because nothing else is working. I’ve been through it all, and I want to get to the root cause of suffering, which as I am finding out is also the cause of everyone else’s suffering.

Often there are elements of religion people liked as child: being in church, the smells, the bells, the chanting, the community. Then for whatever reason—getting fed up with the idea of original sin or the hypocrisy they saw around them—they grew out of it. But they still have a lot of affection for people coming together and as a group and expressing gratitude for things as they are.

I practiced meditation full-time for about six years, pretty intensely, and for eight years a little less so. I was actually at the monastery for two years and then working part-time and living in communities or in the city center and working in the communities, in the garden or the farm or in the kitchen.

The city center, the country center, the mountain center were all different. You could even say they were increasing in levels of intensity from the city to the country to the mountains. Some people would say that the mountains are the toughest because that’s where the practice is the most demanding and rigorous, getting up at 3:45 in the morning and having a couple of periods of zazen before breakfast. At the same time you’re doing stuff in the zendo [meditation hall]. It’s freezing cold outside although they’ve got heat in the center now, not like the good old days. Then more zazen all morning long, and then there’s a class and a few hours of work in the afternoon, and then you get to take a bath, and you have an hour and a half of free time. Then you’re back in the zendo and then there’s more of that and then you’re in bed by nine o’clock. You get up six and a half hours later. You’re physically exhausted, your body’s a wreak, you’re out of your element and you don’t have any of your comfort foods.

It’s often pretty grueling. Practice is great. Lunch is great. Whatever’s left over from lunch is all thrown together for the evening meal. Sometimes even the cold salad is thrown in with the sticky rice. It’s baked a couple of hours, and it comes out so that you have to scrape it off the spoon to your bowl. But then technically, there’s no meal at night. What you eat is like a warm stone in the stomach because it’s freezing cold in your cabin. The food keeps your energy up. Sometimes people would find the life very demanding, and certainly at the beginning it is.

There are seven periods of zazen. The meals and classes are in the zendo, and you sit in the same posture except that instead of facing the wall you’re facing outward. The meals are all ritualized, right up until the moment when you bow and get to start shoveling the food into your mouth. It’s all over quick. You agreed to be under their control, but very soon you’re going to be on the controlling side. That’s the beauty of the training: everybody slides through every position, even the abbots are cycled in and out. It’s a kindness machine.  You have to give up. If you fight it you’ll be really miserable. People’s hearts just open up.  They give up because they’re so exhausted. It’s classic brainwashing.

Why do it? Basically, the idea is that, if clinging to the ego is the essential cause of our suffering, if you remove all of your ordinary distractions you’re forced to face the operation of your own ego. You’ve made a commitment that for these next few months you’re really going to try. As Dogen said, “To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be realized by all things.” Then compassion and wisdom are born. So if you’re forced to sit there, and you’ve made this commitment to yourself to sit there, you can’t see anything else but your mind basically screaming to get the hell out. Why the hell am I doing this? You start to see how your mind works when it’s faced with what’s unpleasant.  At the beginning nobody likes to get up at four o’clock in the morning.

Actually, after a while many people really start to dig it. When you start sitting long enough there’s a shift of consciousness going on, and you’re experiencing various bliss states. That in itself is very appealing and very addictive.  But for most of us it passes after a few days and you’re back in your suffering again.

So why would somebody do that?  As I was saying before, people are very often at a point where they’ve tried everything, and they know deep-down they are hurting, and the only way they’re going to get to the root of that is by facing that suffering. Then they see it’s not the pain that’s so horrible, it’s trying to avoid the pain that’s so horrible. That’s what’s causing the suffering. How you put the blame on everyone else, not taking responsibility for your own actions, not seeing the consequences of your own actions, not being aware of the karma that’s being produced. Also, how you’re living out your habits and you’re living out your parents’ history.

In my case, I had a history of depression—still do, but it’s largely diminished now. Certainly for me there’s a biological component, but there’s also a part that came out of shutting down at an early age to avoid the pain of the disconnect I felt from my parents. When I was doing zazen I could go into foggy-grey zones for days. I’d break out of it now and then.

For a lot of people, the only outlet they have is food, and even that’s regulated. You can go crazy over food because there’s nothing else to get worked up about. You could gripe about the schedule, but you agreed to that. So you complain that you’re not getting enough food or it’s not the right balance. Every fifth day you get sort of a day off.  You can have home-baked cookies if you want. People go berserk, and there’s a gorge fest to compensate for all the deprivation of the previous four days. I saw huge amounts of anger arising within me. We would get this great breakfast of fresh-roasted cashews and buttermilk and bananas. We could actually put the cashews and buttermilk and bananas in the bowl and mix them, which is verboten unless the cook invites you to do that. Sometimes the head cook would forget to invite people to mix. For me it was essential to have it all together. The only thing in your universe that you can control is adding the cashews in order to have a good taste for ten minutes. All the rest of the day you’re doing what somebody else is telling you to do. So I’d be raging inside that I couldn’t mix the food together, and I’d have a resentment, and I’d be forced to deceive everyone by putting  the cashews in my mouth and then putting the bananas and buttermilk in my mouth so I could chew them together.

Also, when the buttermilk and bananas was being served and the pot was coming around the zendo, I could tell from the sound of the metal ladle scraping the bottom that it was running out. So I’d be thinking, “Those idiots in the kitchen, can’t they plan anything correctly? Don’t they know that we’re all in here suffering and this is our only relief?” I’d have massive amounts of rage. Because of my history of repressing strong emotion, which gives rise to the depression, my energy would go into holding those emotions in.  But then I’d practice breathing in every bit of pain that’s in my knees during the rest of the day, breathing in and out that anger. It produced these breakthroughs, these flowerings. Sometimes I’d go into bliss states for days at a time, what they call “the reward body.” It’s kind of innocent, but it’s what happens when you get with the way things are.

You’re angry—don’t—it’s not your parents. Okay, it is your parents, but breathe that.  It’s not the cook. Okay, well, it is the cook.  Breathe that.  The bottom line is your reaction: okay, this is mine. People open up in ways that are incredible.

The abbot used to say, “You know, you guys are only here for a short time or maybe only a few years. When you leave, of course you’re sad. You know you won’t be able to sustain this sensitivity, this openness. It’s a physical impossibility. The heart opens, the heart closes. This is the way it is. In the city it’s going to be really loud, and your heart’s going to close down. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. You have been changed by this experience. You don’t know it necessarily, but deep down, at the cellular level maybe, you’ll remember. Whether you know it or not, our nature is Buddha-nature. You’re planting seeds in others even though you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t even begin to fathom what you’re doing. It’s incomprehensible.”

That was just one center. The vast majority of people who consider themselves a part of the sangha [community] don’t live there. They have busy lives. They’ve got families and careers.  Or they’re really messed up, with addictions and other problems, but they know this is speaking truth to them, and they want it.

When I was in Tassajara in the mountains, guests would come, people who’d volunteered in the work period, and referring to all fifty of us students who lived there year-round, they’d say, “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you’re here doing this practice.” Now that I’m out I understand. When people do this practice, it’s a touchstone. It’s a reminder. It’s hope. It’s also that people are healing. I’ve forgotten all the words that used to come easily when talking about these kinds of things. The monks are doing healing work for the planet and for everyone else. They’re the shamans, the medicine men and women whose cultivation of selflessness is having an effect on everything else, helping everything else be a little less attached and stressed out about what’s mine and what’s yours. So even for the people who have no idea what’s going on, who haven’t thought about things other than mowing the lawn or trying to pay bills, I think they’re being helped too. The people who are aware that this is what’s going on and who aren’t actively taking part, like me now, would volunteer during the work periods or come as guests during the guest season. They’d say, “Yes, you’re actually helping me because I know this to be true, what you’re doing. It reminds me of how I want to be in my life—but I’m in the city.”

Dogen, the founder of the Sotoshu Mission, used to say, “In the beginning, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. You go to the mountains, and you practice, and then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. You come down from the mountains after your years of practice and return to the city, and then mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers again.”

What he meant was every day in conventional reality we say that this is a table and that’s a plant. Then we practice in the mountains or in our rooms, and we get a sense or maybe even a taste of the rise and fall of everything, all the time and at the same time. That everything is interdependent and nothing is happening without everything else taking part in bringing that event to life. So in that ultimate sense there is no ego, there is no self, there isn’t even clinging. Everything’s flowing. That mountain’s a part of that cloud, and this feeling of anger toward whatever is a part of an event in my life twenty years ago, and then a part of a series of events in my parents’ lives thirty years before that. You can’t point to any one thing as saying this is that without getting an incomplete picture.

Most of us can’t live in ultimate reality all the time with it’s constant sense of awareness. In a conventional world, children have to learn when they put a finger on a hot stove it’s going to burn. There are immediate consequences from their actions and behavior.

The universe doesn’t give rise to my sticking my finger in the flame. I have to take responsibility and ownership for my own feelings. Some people would say that “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers” is an illusion, it’s separating reality into constituents that ultimately don’t exist as separate constituents. There’s an interdependence of everything and a selflessness of everything. But you have to be able to connect that with the fact that we all live in an everyday world where there are very direct consequences for our behavior.

Hopefully, when we come down from the mountains we bring that sense of interdependence with us to our relationships, to everything. They say that city practice is the toughest practice. That’s where the world is. You see people being thoughtless and cruel and everybody’s wrecking the world and hurting each other. It’s tough. But if you’re privileged enough or lucky enough to be able to do get away to practice, they say you’ve taken on a responsibility. Not in the missionary sense or evangelical sense, but just by living in a way that’s consistent with and comes from the experience of interdependence.  So that others can benefit.  That’s the bodhisattva. That’s the Lotus Sutra.