A young Brazilian grad student showed up at the zendo this morning. She had sat elsewhere before, so I asked if she wanted to run through the format or would prefer just to sit. She said she would prefer the format, so we did that... how to enter the zendo, bow, cross the legs, what to do with the hands, how to straighten the spine, and how to count the exhalations from one to ten and begin again, etc.
I felt comfortable and I think she did too ... comfortable enough to laugh a bit ... comfortable enough so that tears welled up in her eyes once or twice. I never know what I'm going to say before it comes out, so there was general stuff about Zen Buddhism -- about plain old life -- spliced in here and there ... just the questions people ask themselves when nobody else is looking ... the stuff that feels secret or is kept secret but really is just par for the human course... and how Zen practice might fit in or be useful in that regard.
I probably talked too much (I usually do) but it felt easy and open to me. She seemed not to feel threatened or awed, so perhaps it was easy for her too. Isn't it possible to have a serious conversation without getting solemn? I don't know, but I think so. Solemn seems to be such a waste of energy, quite aside from the fact that it'll hogtie you in the end.
Later, after the Brazilian woman left, I came indoors and watched several YouTube videos of someone who might qualify as a "respected Zen teacher." He is an American living in Japan. He was talking about Zen practice in the videos and he employed that kind of sing-songy, soft-but-imperious tone that Americans can when dispensing deep Buddhist counsel. It is an extremely popular approach, one that is damned near demanded by devoted audiences ... you up there telling me down here what I claim not to know.
As I say, it is very popular and I realized, when watching the videos, that it purely made my teeth itch with irritation. Again ... isn't it possible to have a serious conversation without tipping over into solemnity? And the answer may be, "no it's not" and from that perspective, I will recuse myself from the world of Zen Buddhism. If you want to talk turkey, let's talk turkey, but let's not glaze it with self-imposed goo. What the Buddhists call "suffering" (dukkha, unsatisfactoriness) is turkey in anyone's life and the only question is which tools to employ when addressing that turkey. Love, anguish, anger, confusion, tears and laughter ... pick an approach.
Very popular -- the cadenced and quasi-serene deliveries ... seriously, very popular. And for all I know, effective. But as I watched the videos, I thought, "I can't do that." And then it came to me ...
Oh yes I can!
But I won't.
Once upon a time (and I'm not using this example as some slick-willy-teacher way of claiming to be either equal or unequal to the example), the Zen teacher Huang Po/Obaku stood before his monks and said, "There is no such thing as a Zen teacher." And when one of his monks pointed out the obvious -- that Huang Po was standing before the assembly, teaching -- Huang Po observed, "I said there was no such thing as a Zen teacher. I did not say there was no such thing as Zen."
What's the matter with having a serious conversation?