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…Just as a solid rock remains unshaken by the wind, even so, neither forms, nor sounds, nor odors, nor tastes, nor contacts of any kind, neither the desired, nor undesired, can cause one whose heart dwells in peace to waver. Steadfast is their mind and gained is deliverance. The Buddha (somewhat paraphrased)

Buddha in front of a fanIt’s late summer in Oregon and the days are hot. I arrive at the UUC of Salem for the Wednesday evening Zazen and find the hall has been transformed into a proper Zendo. Except tonight and for most of the evenings between now and the first rains two large fans will roar from opposing corners and only to be silenced during Sensei’s talk.

It was much the same when I lived in Southern California. The nearby Pacific generally spared us summer’s heat but by early August the fans would be drowning out the traffic in the street, and the games in the neighboring park. Even the aging air conditioner whose condenser unit was the size of an old Volkswagen bug was no match for their roar.

I don’t know how the other members of these Sangha’s feel about the fans with all their noise but I am sure that they, like myself appreciate the cooling air they provide as they cast pleasant breezes upon the sitting fellowship.

It is my lot to be afflicted with tinnitus and while for others so vexed the white noise generated by fans offers respite, in my head they are just another noise to contend with. So I sit and like a drunk not trying to think of pink elephants. I listen to the sound of the fan, the ringing in my head and woosh, my free range mind wanders off to some perceived sanctuary far distant from my body. Eventually the droning of the fans takes over and within a few sessions becomes integrated into the act of sitting. (More on meditating with tinnitus found here.)

Then, one evening in September or October, the fans disappear, a forgotten quiet settles over the room, the practice becomes easier – the wind subsides and once again this rock wannabee experiences peace.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

As noted in other posts, my brain is host to a bad case of tinnitus. Tinnitus is the result of neuroplasticity run amuck. In the United States it is estimated nearly 15% of the general public — over 50 million Americans — experience some form of tinnitus. Trauma, sickness, and age related hearing loss can bring it on. The brain senses that some essential part of the auditory spectrum is compromised so it tries to fill in for the missing bits by recreating the lost frequencies for itself. It turns out this adaptation is in no way positive but there is currently no way of calling the brain to a different course of action. So while I would prefer that it “give up and let go” this 4100 Hz banshee has been my constant waking companion for over 28 years.

fanPopular wisdom is that people with tinnitus can better cope with their tormentor if they have white noise around them and I am sure that many folks use white noise generators, like fans, to keep their tinnitus at bay. For me the only white noise that dampens the din in my brain is the noise my mind creates when it is thoroughly occupied. Work, study, play, movies, even the sound of birds and crickets are all good distractions and take my mind off the noteworthy scourge. The rest of the time I prefer things to be quiet because most “outside noise,” especially electrically generated white noise just seems to make things worse.

When it is quiet I can cocoon myself peacefully inside of, yet detached from, the noise that envelops my world. It is “within” this space that all my meditation and contemplation take place. It is from here that I have to be roused from when someone wishes to speak to me. It is from this deep well that I find solitude yet it is a principle source of the unconfined gushers of frustration and anger that can spring forth – for this place is both wellspring and geyser, sanctuary and prison. That said, fans, especially loud ones do not provide a respite from my tinnitus but are just another noise in an already noisy space.

The Fourth Ox Herding Picture

Print by Master Gyokusei Jikihara

Having tinnitus has made me more disciplined but far from being a good thing, my discipline is somehow austere, idiocentric. I don’t respond well to changes in my environment, especially where sound levels are concerned. I rarely turn on music or television just for the sake of hearing it in the background, and on bad days I can be irritable with others for a reason they can’t discern. Having tinnitus has not made me a better meditator. My waking/active mind long ago learned that distraction is the best way to escape the banshee’s grip but this defense mechanism fails miserably when I am concentrating, interacting with others, or trying to meditate. It’s a bit like the fourth image of the ten ox herding pictures. In my case a distracted wandering mind is like an ox that has never known a lead or halter. Like the herdsman in the picture l poses both items but every time I start to get them hitched the ox charges off in a new direction leaving me freshly distracted and the bell still ringing.

While I may not be a better meditator I have become a diligent one. It was a terrible shock when I finally realized that the ringing wasn’t going away and it impacted my meditation practice so completely that I stopped sitting for over two decades. Eventually I started meditating again and shortly after turned to Bhante Sutadhara Tapovanaye for help in meditating with tinnitus. He gave me some excellent advice and suggested I try employing mindfulness practice. He said I should ‘observe’ all my thoughts, including any worries about tinnitus and to use my mind to find out everything there was to know about the ringing in my ears. So I sat and observed every thought and listened to every tone. Often this effort was excruciating but I began to make discoveries. For instance, it wasn’t just one ringing there were several tones, a kind of Irish keening or wailing, five in my right ear and four in my left. Later I discovered Mandy Sutter’s excellent 2011 blog post, “Meditating with Tinnitus.” Here I found that I was not alone and people are still commenting on this article after all these years and she still responds to every one of them.

Several years have passed since I rebooted my daily meditation activities and as you have surmised I was not immediately cured by mindfulness practices. Most of the time I feel unaffected by the ringing but it seems a long path to accepting that tinnitus is part of who I am, that it doesn’t have to rule my life, and that I can just let it be. It hasn’t been easy. I still display plenty of idiocentric behavior. I still have bad days and find myself obsessing about it and in so doing, fearing and hating it rather than observing it for what it is, a bell ringing in an empty sky.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Taken literally a zazenkai (座禅会?), means “to come together for meditation” and refers to a Zen Buddhist retreat that is usually less intensive and of shorter duration than sesshin. The purpose of zazenkai, is to separate oneself from daily affairs and sink deeply into ones practice – even if for just a few hours. The Salem Zen Center (SZC) holds a zazenkai every quarter. They last for 6 ½ hours, including lunch and it is lunch that I wish to write about.

wash-your-bowlOur Sensei tells us that in other groups the meal break is either handled by participants bringing a bag lunch or a cook preparing a simple meal for all. I myself have experienced the latter wherein the Tenzo’s (cook’s) meal was served in the Soto and we ate while sitting on our cushions in style I know as three bowl oryoki. The style at SZC is potluck and being such the Sangha has added a distinctly western touch to this eastern tradition. One advantage to this is that if you can find nothing else to “work”on during the sitting periods you can consider the effects of craving after delicious dishes of food as a distraction to practice.

Craving lunch is not the only source of discomfort one will experience at a zazenkai. Being haunted by life’s experiences, aching legs, and a sore tailbone are all discomforts that come with sitting Zazen for an extended period of time. My own discomfort came upon me early this day and from an unexpected source. But first a bit of background.

My contribution to the potluck was a chilled corn and cauliflower bisque. It was a hot summer day and there would be no unsweetened rice porridge coming from my kitchen. Because of its sweetness the dish it is best served with a freshly pickled combination of jalapeño peppers and radishes.

Freshly pickled means that the vegetables have to be thinly sliced and put in the vinegar and sugar mixture about three hours before they are consumed. So I worked the morning of the zazenkai and sliced the radishes and the peppers. Not wanting to turn the zazenkai al caliente I carefully removed the seeds that clung to each of the jalapeño slices, before adding them to the rest of the pickle ingredients and flying out the door. Forty minutes later I was gathering myself on my zafu and listening to the densho bell in the hall when I rubbed my eye with one of my fingertips.

The burning pain was immediate and intense, each blink or eye movement brought a renewed wave of capsaicin and this just as all thoughts of escape were being thwarted by the Tanto beginning the ceremony that closes the container and blesses the Zendo in each of the four directions. I was left with no choice but to sit there, accept this burning (pot) luck, and observe it’s slow passing over the next 90 minutes or so.

Case 39, The Book of Equanimity

A monk told Joshu: ‘I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.’
Joshu asked: ‘Have you eaten your rice porridge?’
The monk replied: ‘I have eaten.’
Joshu said: ‘Then you had better wash your bowl.’

The instruction for this koan by the 13th century Chinese master Wumen Hui-k’ai reads:

When food comes, you open your mouth;
When sleep comes, you close your eyes.
When you wash your face, you find your nose;
When you take off your shoes, you feel your feet.
At those times, if you miss what is being said, take a burning light and make a special search in the deep night.
How can you find the right correspondence [with your true self]?

Pain can be an excellent teacher and I think I got the burning light part down but in my case the koan will always be, have you prepared your lunch? Then wash your hands before you partake. Have you finished your meal? Then wash your bowl and wipe the counter. When working with chillies, expect some heat.

When I get caught up in what I will be doing later I fail to notice what the present is telling me. The present is where I can find every answer and correspond with my true self.  This is the essence of mindfulness and the lesson I’ll take from this zazenkai.


Postscript:
l am sure this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he spoke of developing the Dharma Eye but perhaps the peppers furthered my practice a skosh.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Sources: Zazenkai definition from Wikipedia and Yamada Ko’un Rōshi (1907 – 1989). Case 39 translation mostly from a translation by Thomas Cleary. Oh and I discovered the word skosh is from the Japanese word “sukoshi” meaning a small amount of something.