December -14 2019 Barry Magid December 14th 2019

Download Talk

It’s good to see all of you today, particularly those who’ve come from out of town to be here. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that a party is a better draw than a sesshin. I actually want to talk about the party a little bit because like so many other things that we do here, what we do it for and what it is, is actually a work in progress, and not at all self-evident. What role or function does that kind of activity have in the sangha? It actually has a somewhat complicated history in Zen communities. I thought I’d talk about that a little bit.

Actually, this week I heard from a couple of different people about how they were going to Christmas parties at local churches, and in general how much more engaged and friendlier everybody was at church than they were at the zendo here. The role of the church in the community was very different from the role of the zendo in their lives, particularly the family lives of the people who practice here. Traditionally the church can be a center of community that involves family and children and things like Sunday School and many kinds of ceremonies. In the Jewish community, there are things like bar mitzvahs and weddings and funerals. Buddhist centers generally don’t have that role in their community, and certainly a place like this, which is more strictly a zendo, a place for practice in meditation and not a temple, has an even more narrow range of activities.

I think in my generation a few of the big Zen centers, like San Francisco, attempted to see if they could develop a kind of presence in the community analogous to the church or more analogous to the role they had in Japan. I think those kinds of efforts met with mixed successes. I’m not sure, for instance, that my son’s generation is likely to be raised Buddhist and become identified as Buddhist. It wasn’t really a convert community, where everyone in their families felt -- Now we’ve all converted to Buddhism and we’ll celebrate all our rituals and holidays as Buddhists in this Buddhist temple structure. As I’ve said, when people asked me if I was teaching my son Zen, or raising him to be a Buddhist, I used to reply, I teach him to make his bed every morning. That’s the core of what this was that I was transmitting, when I didn’t bring him to church on weekends. He wasn’t raised in that kind of Buddhist community to think of himself as a Buddhist.

Of course, even in Japan, Zen temples have a restricted kind of function. Their connection to the community is primarily through funerals, although I gather also a number of Zen teachers also ran kindergartens. I believe Shunryu Suzuki and also Yasutani Roshi ran kindergartens at one point. It’s very hard for me to picture Yasutani running a kindergarten: Bootcamp for four year olds. It’s just one of the ways in which the forms of the communities, the role of the temple, were in very many ways commensurable. We’re not doing here what they were doing there.

When it came to parties, the funny ways in which Japanese models carried over into the social life of early Zen communities here, from what I hear from my friends who used to go out drinking with Maezumi Roshi, was probably a kind of problem like the after-work drinking of Japanese businessmen. Your day job was over and now you go out at night with your co-workers, all men of course, and drink yourself senseless as a way to bond and to let off steam from the day. I think there was that kind of quality of partying that went on in some of these centers. In a lot of places we developed the habit of having what they used to call a no-talent talent show. Everybody just got up to sing a song or perform something in front of the group. This was really, initially, consciously, an extension of practice and probably most analogous to what happens in
Japanese corporations where you have a thousand people in a company auditorium and the new manager is made to get up in front of them all and sing the company song at the top of his lungs, and demonstrate whole-hearted enthusiasm in his singing, in a kind of shamelessness and imperviousness to embarrassment in getting up in front of a crowd.

I think there was a lot of that in the way we used to think of the skits, songs that we performed in our parties. It was sort of a model of being free of embarrassment, of just whole-heartedness, you’d get up there and do it regardless of whether you could sing on key or not. Getting the teacher up there to do it was some kind of model of just complete lack of embarrassment, being able to be in public like that.

I think there was also an element of left-over koan study, which was often about miming or performing something, so it was a way in which you got up in front of everybody and just sort of did your thing. I think that what we’ve tried to do over the years is become more and more conscious of the sangha as a community in which it’s important that people know and support each other, and not be in the kind of situation where the only thing everyone has in common is their relationship to me, where the sangha is like a wheel and I’m at the center of it and everything just points to the teacher.

Part of what we’ve tried to develop over the years is a kind of situation where there are more and more ways people look to each other and not just to me for models of what practice is. I think especially since we’ve had this place and we’ve had a resident here, when there was first Claire and then Chris and now Hope, the resident models the practice for people the way in traditional communities the teacher used to. I know many teachers who talked about the old days where essentially the teacher lived in the community with everybody, and the teaching was watching how the teacher did stuff. They just watched how he or she handled themselves, with what kind of poise and decorum or attention or even grace, doing all those ordinary little tasks that we might otherwise do in less than mindful fashion.

But here, it’s more you get to see Hope with her thousand eyes and hands take care of all the things that need to be done and deal with all the people who come the first time. She becomes our daily model of practice.

I think that when we have a party, it’s also in some ways colored by the fact that many of the people who come have an additional relationship to me as patients in analysis, so there are patients as well as students. It sometimes seems like it might be an odd thing to do, to socialize that way. But it’s much more reminiscent of my experience as part of an analytic training community, where you’d have these kinds of annual parties, the one time where you got to see your analyst outside the office, or the supervisor, or the people who were teaching the classes. There would be this kind of opportunity to see these people in real life, so to speak. This was always a mixture of thrill and embarrassment and awkwardness. I’m sure sometimes people can come see me in my natural habitat at home and it can be too much information. They don’t want to see all that. They’d prefer to see me up here or in the office, but in a way, that’s also part of the practice, trying to come to terms with the real life of the teacher.

I’m very happy so many people have volunteered to cook and bring dishes to the party. I think it’s one of the ways you get to know each other, get to see what you can do, what you like, what you want to share. I do hope that becomes a way that you all get to know each other much better and in a different way. It extends beyond some of the ordinary chit-chat that we get to engage in here. But to do it at all is in itself a new innovation, yet another thing that’s just a little bit different about Western Zen, so be conscious of it and see what you make of it and what you want to have come out of it all. I hope to see you all there tomorrow.

Next Talk

Barry Magid December 21st 2019 December -21 2019

Previous Talk

Barry Magid December 7th 2019 December -07 2019

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.