Friday, September 19, 2008

How my Cats Affect Buddhism in the Electronic Age

If you're doing long periods of formal Zazen (i.e. sitting meditation) in a zendo, you may feel that your focus is starting to wander. This is part of the experience: bereft of stimulation, your consciousness tends to flip out a bit during the first twenty minutes or so of sitting quietly and doing nothing. You wonder if you put enough money in the parking meter. You think about stopping by Starbucks after you leave the zendo. You think about your job, balancing your checkbook, what you'll have for dinner. And of course you beat yourself up for thinking about all this stuff while you should be meditating. The trick is to let your monkeymind do its thing without being totally tossed around by it. You pull back, settle in, watch your breathing, and eventually your mind starts to clear, the way silt settles out of a bowl of river water.

If your inner freakage is really unmanageable, or if on the other hand you find yourself nodding off, one of the duties of the attendant is to restore your focus by hitting your shoulders with a long, narrow paddle called a kyosaku. In the Soto tradition (which is what I've practiced) you request this yourself; in Rinzai Zen, it may be done at the discretion of your teacher. (Soto Zen Buddhists joke that the Rinzai school uses too much grandmotherly kindness.) The blows fall on acupuncture points on your upper trapezius; it really does call every cell in your body to attention.

Like most of the apparatus of the Zendo, the kyosaku has an important symbolic function as well. It's considered to be the direct transmission of the dharma. Sudden, immediate, beyond words. This is what Zen is for: waking you all the way up, jolting you out of your morbid preoccupations, blasting the crap and crud off your mind so you can behold (even if only for a fraction of a second) the ultimate nature of reality.

Which is why I named the freakier and more extroverted of my cats Kyosaku. She wakes me up.

The reason I'm telling you all this? Well, look what you get when you do a Google image search for "kyosaku." I'm so proud.


T said...

That is SUCH a hoot! I laughed out loud.

Rob said...

I know! Eleven out of the twenty images on the first page. My little girl is famous.

T said...

Indeed she is, and that's as it should be! But Ishi's still my favorite, so I'm glad she got a little blog time with the ladybug incident.

Anonymous said...

Even that one painting, with a somewhat title of "encouragement stick" looks like a cat curled up. :)