I strike the heavy temple bell to begin the sessions and signal the breaks. At the hour’s end I chime the chubby brass handbell called the inkin with a little brass stick, two timesâ€”ting! ting! Everybody bobs down and back up to the tings like a flock of waterglass drinky birds and then they solemnly file out to dinner. Usually during the mid-zazen break there is kinhin (walking meditation), and then I get to sound the wood clackers to signal when to bow and walk. The clackers and inkin are easy, but the big bell is tough. Hitting it with the padded striker just exactly in the sweet spot, so it doesn’t jangle but resonates cleanly â€” neither too loud nor too quiet, even intervals with uniform volumeâ€”is a bitch. Sometimes I get it right but more often it is, well, it’s a bit of a gong show. The things my mama never taught me.
I was standing by the door in shashu (elbows up and hands folded just so), when Keizan the temple manager glided over and whispered: “don’t make the woman in the beanie take off her hat.” I nodded and bowed assent.
I was going to ignore the hat anyway, since we were hosting a big retreat and many of the guests were not familiar with temple etiquette. We residents are generally expected to follow the Zen dress codeâ€”dark clothes, no hats or socksâ€”but guests get lots of leeway. But then I figured that, since Keizan had singled out the woman in the beanie, he meant that I should remind other guests to remove their hats. I inferred that the beanie lady was probably a cancer patient who wore a hat to conceal her balding head, and that sensitivity was required. I filed that for future reference, bowed, fluffed my cushion, and bonged the bell to begin zazen.
The next night, as I stood by the door, I looked out into the dimly lit zendo and saw a woman sitting comfortably in a knit beanie. Another woman entered softly, a frail woman with a brightly patterned scarf around her head. I touched her shoulder and whispered, “we usually don’t wear hats in the zendo.” She turned and looked at me with wide blue eyes and said haltingly, “oh…but…I really can’t take off my hat, I…can’t,” and I saw that it was the chemo lady, in a different headwear. The seated woman in the beanie was actually someone else, who I had mistaken for her. I quickly apologized and said that was fine, no problem, she was welcome to stay. But it was too late. Looking mortified she walked uncertainly to a chair, sat, and then rose, turned around, and left the zendo. I followed her out the door and tried to invite her back, to somehow assure her that no one really cared what she had on her head (which was true). Doshin, the ultra-perceptive Upaya service coordinator, saw the incident and also rushed out to reassure her. The headscarfed woman allowed herself to be led back inside and to her chair. The wooden gong rolled down to announce the closing of the doors. I bowed and turned and sat down to strike the bell.
The first strike bounced off the bell in a loud, rattling double-bong, followed by a second almost imperceptible bong, and then the third bong, too quick and too loud. Ouch.
The room settled into meditation but my mind was churning. All I could see were the blue eyes of the chemo lady, and her colourful socks as she turned and walked outside. I ached for her, and I berated myself for being such an idiot. A storm of self-accusation was howling in my mind, this mind that Sensei had told me must be like a still pond. Some great meditator, me. My jaw clenched as my mind chewed over the incident, wondering what I could possibly do or say to help the situation. Clearly, there was nothing I could do, since I was tied to a cushion for the next hour. And I had to keep ringing that bloody bell.
Telling yourself that there is no point thinking about this problem now, just put it aside and MEDITATE GODDAMMIT, is about as useless a thing as a person can do. Knowing it was an unintentional blunder did not make it any easier. What to do, what to do…as my pulse beat hard in my temples. OK.
Suddenly I realized that what I was really fighting, beyond my own feeling of guilt, was the horrible pain I had glimpsed in the chemo lady’s eyes. That pain seemed so much more than I could bear. But I had to bear it. I had to be with it. There was no other option.
I pulled out a tool I had never consciously used before in a real situation. A tool I had studied in Lo Jong (Tibetan mind-training). The method called tonglenâ€”taking and sendingâ€”the technique of exchanging self for other, admitting suffering and physically transforming it to ease. I stopped fending off the woman’s eyes, stopped blaming myself for her pain. I began to slowly open myself to her desperation and fear. I breathed it in as dark smoke. Feeling disappointment, shame, constriction, nausea. Feeling fear. I let it be there. And then when I felt like I could take in no more I exhaled to her, pink light, expansion and ease.
I did this a few times. It was difficult. But interestingly, unexpectedly, my own frantic mind started to calm and ease began to fill my body.
When I struck the bell for the break it rang twice, clear and true.
I saw the chemo lady in the headscarf later, eating dinner with friends. As I passed her table I bowed, gassho, and smiled at her. She bowed, and smiled back.