With the ensuing birth of my second daughter, Persephone, I am brought back to the reason why I started sitting with a brick and mortar sangha – the birth of my first daughter, Eliza, more than 2 years ago. During my wife’s pregnancy I felt a sudden urgency to connect with my practice in a more structured way; to find people around me that I could practice with on a different, albeit, an emerging level. This wasn’t any stellar event – there wasn’t a massive realization. No fireworks or choir of angels, no screach of demons or welcoming affirmation of Bodhisattvic compassion. There was neither Zen wit nor pithy commentary. There was simply the conclusion that a different atmosphere and venue was needed to progress – the need to substantiate my practice – to reflect it against the mirror of a sangha and to see if it gives off light or just a dusky, contorted reflection of my self.
Practice, whether at home alone or in a group, can begin to melt into the background. Rather than becoming internalized and manifesting itself in daily life; it becomes background noise – static – meaningless repetitive clutter from which an occasional voice is discerned.
My research began online and in the local newspaper with cups of coffee and a notepad. Eventually I located some area sanghas – one Vajrayana, one Theravada and one Zen. I made the requisite phone calls asking about each group’s approach to practice. Was it on a regular schedule? Lay or monastic? Was it completely independent or associated with a larger institution? Mostly meditation or mostly devotional? Large or small group? Cost and Fees? The small niceties were exchanged, the spiel was given and I continued on.
More important, though. was how the people felt to me when I spoke to them. Lucky for me, each group was in the range of what I was looking for. Small, personal and inclusive with only loose affiliations to larger centers or organizations. They were donation-based with no fees. Offered occasional sesshin and community trips. I was taking my time, enjoying this exploration and feeling out each group. I still consider myself lucky in finding so many small, independant sanghas in my area (since that search, two of the three groups have disbanded, leaving the Soto/Rinzai fusion Zen group I sit with the last one standing. Plenty has changed with that sangha, as well; it has since grown and now has a tighter affiliation with a larger center in Colorado).
This search changed in urgency, though, when I heard some shocking news. A local father threw his 18 month year old across a room due, reportedly, to the child’s constant crying. The boy hit a wall and bounced into its crib. (“bounced” gives it almost a cartoon-like effect). Suffering massive head injuries and eventually falling into a coma, the child was rushed to the hospital.
What brought this into rigid and blaring clarity was that this child was in foster care for most of his eary life while the birth parents were in and out of rehab and jail. I knew the foster family (I worked with the foster mother) that previously took care of the child and his older siblings. It was just recently that they were required to relinquish the child back into the custody of the birth parents. To witness the emotions that came with the relinguishing of those children was eye-opening (actually more like wound opening and not an old wound that was reopened but a fresh gash). When not two months later this tragedy occured, bearing witness to the pain that ensued completely shattered my perceptions of compassion and pain (then the wound was re-opened). The foster family cared deeply about the children under their care and repeatedly told authorities that they believed the children would be in danger if returned this early after the parent’s release.
At this point, four things became apparent to me: 1) My own emerging fatherhood 2) My own laissez-faire search to prepare myself emotionally and mentally for it 3) My inherit anger 4) The trifecta of the injury of the young boy, the actions of the father and the reactions of those that were affected deeply by it.
I don’t think too many people realized how much this affected me when it occurred. I couldn’t stop thinking that it could easily have been me as that father. The specifics aren’t really that similar since that father was an addict and just recently out of jail and I am neither an addict nor abusive. Rather, I felt a connection to a father that could lose control. Any of us could possible lose control. We all hope that we are not the one that gets frustrated and in a moment of stupidity – does something horrible. Let me be clear, I was never a violent person. I never got into fights or started altercations with people but I always felt that I had an angry and intense edge. In a moment of anger or frustration would it really be that much of a leap from rational to irrational?
The next day when I walked into that little street-side zendo I felt a different approach to my practice. It would require a mental and fearful push to get me through those doors again. I walked in scared, shaken and trying to come to terms with my own responsibilities and the actions of others. It was (and still is) difficult to approach strangers about something as personal as my practice. But the fact that I would soon be walking into fatherhood – a situation that was completely unknown to me at the time and with which I had no previous experience – pushed me through those doors. I started to sit again, focus, chant and engage others around me for support. I also started to blog.
The first time I walked into that small strip-mall zendo, one of the lay-ordained members walked up to me and we started to idly chat about why I was interested in starting my practice there. I told her that I would be having a daughter soon and I wanted to prepare myself for the challenges that would soon be emerging. To myself, however, I told the truth. The truth that I wanted to start out of compassion for my daughter out of compassion for that poor child in the hospital. I wanted to start out of the fear that I would be (or could be) as horrible as that man who harmed his child. Even now, years later, that newspaper story haunts me – When I picture the events described in the story, the location looks shockingly similar to my own house. That day I felt as if I were sitting in order to save lives. That day the importance of compassion hit home.
When people liken Buddhist practice to a specific image, you are awash in a torrent of lotus blooms, Himalayan plateaus, somber Zen monasteries and beautiful cultural relics. A river of Chinese mountains, raisin-faced old mystics and venerable nuns pass in a blur. Flapping prayer flags lose their momentum and gold loses its luster when my image is presented – the contorted snarl of momentary rage and the vulgar snapshot of impact as that child hit the wall and fell limp into his crib.
Now that is my fucking koan. That is why I practice. I shit out Dogen’s words and crumble Hakuin’s koans into a small balls and arc them into waste-paper baskets.
Ironically, as I was just beginning to sit that day, a lady mentioned that she heard that the little boy in the news had just died from his injuries. Shocked, I sat that day with an intensity than I have not experienced before or since – completely open, sad, vunerable, horrified and angry. In between my sore ankles, burning thighs and weeping mind; I sat for the benefit of one sentient being that morning and have been striving with it ever since.
When I walked out the lady came up to me and commented that she “wished more fathers would sit”. I agreed. The whole concept of “sitting for the benefit of all sentient beings” had a slightly less esoteric ring since that morning.
I wish that other father had sat. It doesn’t matter where or how. It doesn’t matter if he was Buddhist or not. I just wish that father had sat.
But he didn’t and instead he passed this koan over to me.
This horrible, horrible koan.
Swaddled like an infant.