I'm not complaining, but last night was a strange one at the Zen Center.
Those of you unfamiliar with Zen Buddhism might be under some impression that every night there is strange and mysterious, and while in a manner of speaking they are, or at least all unique and unparalleled, the services can actually be quite ordinary and normal. Just a bunch of people sitting on cushions, facing the wall.
A vicious thunderstorm had ripped through Atlanta earlier that afternoon, snarling traffic and flooding streets, so I suspected that attendance might be down as I drove over. My suspicions did not let me down. And to top it off, I already had some sort of sore throat, and the wet weather just made me feel worse.
A single, solitary person was waiting when I arrived. I did not recognize him, but he told me that he had been there before and did not need any beginner's instruction. Shortly afterwards, a young couple arrived and said that it was their first time visiting, and that they would appreciate an orientation.
No problem, I've done this before. My plan was to let them observe the start of the service, the chanting and the bows, give them a quick orientation during the first meditation period, and then have them join the rest in meditation for the second sitting period. It would keep me pretty busy and wouldn't allow me much time for my own meditation, but then again I'm there to be of service to others anyway, not for the sake of my own sitting.
By the way, the wife was a full nine months pregnant, and ready to deliver any day. Not that there's any trouble with that, but I had never really considered before how to give instruction on cross-legged sitting posture to someone so ripe she looked ready to burst. I told them to come on in to the meditation hall and join us in the chant, and when the first meditation period started not to sit down, but to wait for me to lead them out of the room for newcomer's instruction.
I usually don't give instructions on the chanting as it's pretty intuitive - the words are printed on a card and once the others join in on the chanting, newcomers usually pick it up and chant along. The problem was that once we got started, it was obvious that the other guy who had arrived was also a complete novice and had no idea of what to do. He didn't rise when the starting bell rang, so I had to announce, "Please rise and join us in the chanting of The Great Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra." (We generally try to maintain silence during our services and use bells, gongs and such as cues on what to do, but when the congregants are not responding properly, we have to resort to verbal instruction.)
So I had to tell the three of them every little detail of what to do - where to find the sutra cards, where to stand and so on, and after ringing the gong three times and invoking the title of the sutra, I instructed them, "All together now" as the sutra started, but no one joined in. I had to do the entire five minutes or so of the sutra solo, and with a sore throat at that.
After the chant, I said, "Please be seated for the first period of zazen" (I didn't even dare try to talk them through the prostration bows to the Three Treasures), hoping that the guy would then sit down and the couple remain standing like I had told them, but of course just the opposite happened - the couple tentatively took a seat while the guy just stood there, so I repeated, "Please take your seat on the zafu for the first period of meditation," and the guy finally got it and sat down and faced the wall, but the couple also thought I was talking to them, so they turned around and faced the wall as well.
No problem. After I saw that the guy had settled in, I arose and tapped the shoulders of the couple and waved for them to follow me. I escorted them to the newcomers room, and gave them the standard quickie orientation - when to bow, how to sit, remember to count your breath, and so on. The pregnant wife was a good sport and did her best at the posture. We didn't have time to get into any of the intellectual matter, and when she asked, "What's the point of doing all this, anyway?," I just told her to hold that question until after the service, and let's go back to the meditation hall now, since it's time for the end of the first period, and I need to let the guy sitting in there alone know that it's time to get up for walking meditation.
Except that as we headed back, we ran into the guy as he was leaving. He shot me a "You forgot about me and left me all alone in there" look, and I said "We were just coming back for you," but he had already crossed the point of no return and headed out the door.
It took me a few minutes in the meditation hall with the couple to realize that there was no longer a service in progress to join, and therefore we could continue their orientation and instruction. Which is what we did, and I even had them sit for a short 10 minute period just to get a feel for the experience.
After the sitting, they were full of questions, things like "What if there were two enlightened teachers and they both said opposite things, how would you know which one to believe?" I tried to explain that Zen emphasizes the here and now and that the question was hypothetical and imaginary (without saying that exactly that kind of thing happens all of the time), and not to worry about "what if?" scenarios, but instead look at how they were feeling, right there, right then. "Yes, but. . . " would come the replies, and sooner or later I started to get sucked into the hypothetical and theoretical too, and probably wound up confusing them more than I helped.
We stayed and talked for over an hour, until the wife was looking visibly uncomfortable and I suggested that it was perhaps time to go. She took me up on the offer, and the two left shortly afterwards.
After they were gone and I was closing up the zendo, I heard some noise in the backroom and went to investigate. It turns out that Terry, a senior teacher and head cook (a very important role) had been there the whole time, even though I had thought that we were alone. Terry and I talked for another hour or so, and I did not get home until almost 11:30.
Strange night. . . but again, I'm not complaining. Things don't always go the way that you had planned or even expected them to go, so the best that one can do is just observe and enjoy the show. There are no "typical" days, and every minute is exceptional and unprecedented - you just need the willingness to see it.
There are no ordinary moments.