Tuesday, October 29, 2013

spiritual yawwwwwning

I once heard that my Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa, then-abbot of Ryutaku monastery in Japan, had decided not to attend the chanting traditionally performed as part of morning services. He had done it for so many years and now he no longer would.

The tale, which I heard third-hand, aroused a bit of tch-tch'ing in my mind. Chanting was part of the job description, part of the format, part of the comme-il-faut of Zen discipline within the monastery walls. And Zen practice, like others, spends a good deal of overt and covert time bringing to heel the notion that although there is unfettered freedom, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want ... anything, like, perhaps, skipping morning chanting.

At the time I heard the story, Kyudo was getting along in years. He died in 2007 at the age of 80. He had accepted the role of abbot reluctantly several years earlier ... and I do not suspect him of playing the Japanese,  toe-in-the-sand, ask-three-times game that others play: I honestly believe he didn't much want to be abbot. Still, he took on the chore: He was stuck with the farm of having been a Zen monk most of his adult life... read 'em and weep... just like anyone else. But there was only so much he was willing to surrender to old habits ... so, perhaps, he stopped going to morning chanting.

Most of this is speculation on my part, but it came to mind after a young woman arrived here yesterday in pursuit of doing a paper for her religion class at Smith College, which is up the road from my house. The assignment seemed to have something to do with getting a feel for some spiritual center ... what were the rituals, what did it look like, were the members concerned with a wider community, what were the beliefs or leanings ... ? Somehow the young woman had gotten wind of the small zendo or meditation hall out in my backyard.

Ahead of her arrival, I tried to sharpen up my mind, to be prepared, to impute importance to this small spiritual adventure. Much of my life has included taking spiritual endeavor seriously and lending people a hand -- not convincing, just lending a hand -- is part and parcel of that seriousness. So ahead of the young woman's arrival, I brushed the mental dandruff from my shoulders, straightened my mental tie, and prepared to be 'helpful.'

She was a nice enough young woman and I suppose I was nice enough in return ... or at any rate she didn't call the cops or run screaming from my environs. But there was something needlessly heavy about it from my point of view. Crabby-making. I could do it, sure. And certainly my life had taken an interest in such things. But ...

And then I thought of Kyudo, or at any rate imagined him. Spiritual exercises are good practice and laden with potential fruit, but isn't it reasonable to think that old habits should run out of steam, that their juice and savor could be acknowledged without the bluster of energized action, that instead of chanting in the morning, an old man might reasonably sleep in and rise rested? Doesn't spiritual life, like any visitor, bid farewell after a pleasant visit? And isn't that as it should be? Holding on just because anyone might have held on in a long and sometimes energetic past ... isn't it time to get a little shut-eye?

Which is more important -- chanting the chants or getting some rest? Nothing saying you can't acknowledge the past that convened into this present and nothing saying you can't bounce up and down enthusiastically if that's the current circumstance, but doesn't spiritual life, like any friend who comes for a weekend visit, need to go home and concern itself with its own concerns?

I'm not trying to force or enforce anything here. Just humming a little morning music. Soon, I suspect, it will be time for a nap ... you know, one of those things that helps without 'helping.'

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of a story Kyudo Roshi told during one of his informal talks. Among other topics that night, he had a few things to say about chanting. He told how he initially learned to chant. His grandmother taught him. She sat next to him with a chopstick and struck his head with the chopstick like his head was a makugyo. It was clear that he did not like the lessons, but he accepted it.

    Now it is easy to speculate was to why Kyudo stopped attending chanting services. Did he just decide to stop "enough already!" perhaps as a delayed reaction to grandma's methods? Was he actually too sick or weak to attend? Or did he see it as a way to ease in his heir apparent, Eizan Goto? Could it have been something else?

    Perhaps someone knows something a little more definitive
    about this. I wonder if he instituted other changes as well during his tenure as abbot. Why did he make the change(s). Would I have liked the change? Would you? Would it matter?