“I never really cared for smells & bells” – an Interview with Jomon of the blog “Nothing to Attain”

Every so often, Nate over at the Precious Metal blog throws out a call for some sort of blog swap. This time we were tasked with interviewing the blogger we were paired up with. You can see a list of all those participating here. I was paired up with Jomon (Laura) from the wonderful blog “Nothing to Attain“. Update: my portion of the interview is up at Laura’s blog here. Here’s the interview:

In exactly 108 words, describe Laura to the world.

Hah!  I have really go to work on being too dang wordy!  108 words would be a great practice for the blog!

Speaking of transplanting (see her questions to me on her blog), what about it met your expectations? What about moving to the West Coast shocked you or failed to live up to your expectations? What is it that you miss about the Mid-West? What is it that you will never, ever miss?

I miss my parents and my mid-West friends but they now have a wonderful place to visit.  I seriously miss Major League Baseball.  Portland is tough for baseball fans, and worse for this third-generation Cardinals fan (my maternal grandmother used to take my mom out of school to watch games).  Not only does Portland not have a major league baseball team, we are losing our AAA team!  So my husband Patrick got the iPhone app that allows us to listen to all the MLB radio broadcasts.  We get to hear all the corny St Louis area car dealer commercials we grew up with.  And don’t hate me, but I still love Budweiser.  I know, seriously, I’m living in Beervana, and I still love Budweiser.  I tried, I really did.  I guess you can take the girl outta St Louis…

I do believe it is safe to say that I will never, ever miss pulling ticks off of my skin and clothing after hikes in the woods.  I continue to be shocked and awed by the beauty of the PNW.   That and the prevalence of Buddhism.  The midwest has pockets of teachers and practice centers, but not the wealth we have on the coasts, especially the number of retreat centers.  And Portland!  Throw a baseball in Southeast Portland and you’re likely to hit a Buddhist.

How do you balance your personal life with your practice/sangha?

Personal life has pretty much fused with practice / sangha.  My husband and I got married at Great Vow Zen Monastery.  We had a realization that spiritual practice needed to be at the center of our lives.  We didn’t need to be in the same tradition; we just happen to be lucky that we both managed to find our way onto the same path.

So now my husband is the president of the ZCO Board, and I’ve been the Portland Shuso for the past year, and serving on a few committees as well.  We both have held various service positions, like chant leader, and bell-ringer over the years.  I guess our center is benefitting from the fact that we don’t and probably won’t have children.  I feel something like motherly love towards our Sangha and temple.  Patrick and I sometimes look at each other, awestruck at whatever it is — luck, good karma — that brought us to such a place of deep, authentic practice.

Letsee, though, non-Buddhist stuff — dragonboating is a great activity — I’ve been taking a bunch of yoga classes, doing photography, going to basketball or baseball games.  We do our best to get out into the forests or camping on the coast.  And there may be another attempt at a dog this fall.  We are such dog people; it is painful to be without a dog for this long.

Do you have a favorite sutra, or one that speaks to you more than any others?

You mean like reading the Sutras?  Heretofore I have not done a lot of reading on Zen and Buddhism.  I know that is a bit backwards from many practitioners, who get inspired by reading then start practicing.  I have read some of the Vimilakirti Sutra.  Just reading Robert Thurman’s intro to his translation was enough for me to chew on for months!

We regularly chant the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra.  That is where the name of my blog comes from:  “With nothing to attain a Bodhisattva relies on Prajna paramita and thus the mind is without hindrance.  Without hindrance there is no fear.”

One of my biggest struggles in life and in practice is with attainment.  Getting somewhere.  Being somebody.  Improving.  Meeting goals and objectives.  It gets at the heart of a deep assumption that I am somebody and that there is something inherently wrong, or unworthy about that somebody.  The words “nothing to attain” serve as such a great reminder that this is not at all the case.

Same question kind of, but instead of sutra, whats the one koan that has spoken to you, or ‘shook’ you more than any other?

This is a good question — my experience with koan practice in general is that koan practice itself shakes me to the core, and then shakes that ‘core’ apart!  Koans lure out all our best strategies and then they reveal those strategies to us as completely ineffectual.  I suspect they are all pointing to something more than just our best thinking and strategies.  I have most recently worked on “the True Person of no rank,” and that one flirted with me, charmed me, and then it grabbed me and held on.

What’s up with Rinzai?  What made you choose Rinzai? It seems that the Soto school of Zen is the more popular one here in the US, so I’m wondering what it was that drew you there.

Our teachers come from the Yasutani-Maezumi lineage, which is really a fusion of Soto and Rinzai.  Currently their teacher is Shodo Harada Roshi, a Rinzai teacher, and his influence can be felt deeply.  I certainly didn’t research all the branches of Buddhism and then pick “The One” for me.  I just happened to trip over myself and land in the laps of some very amazing teachers who have come out of this / these lineages.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t go all researching about.  I would have developed a bunch of ideas about what Zen is, what Rinzai and Soto is, and it probably would have made a convincing argument to myself to stay the hell away from all of it!  Zen has such a macho rep, and there is some truth to that, I suppose.  I hear some of that from people who from the outside say Zen is “too disciplined”, “too regimented”, “too cold”.  I have been fortunate to practice in a woman-led Sangha, and with such skilled teachers, and such a mature Sangha, that in my experience, there is a really huge, warm heart in Zen!  Roshi Chozen has been doing a Metta Sesshin for many years.  It was controversial at first because Metta is not officially a Zen practice, but she acknowledges there was some need to warm it up a little.

More on Rinzai: how would you describe Rinzai to someone that knows next to nothing about it? What advice would you give to someone thinking about diving in to that particular school?

I have rewritten this answer until it is hash.  And I still do not feel adequate to really say something useful and I am not exactly sure that the following is not  a bunch of bullcrap.  I can pretty much just say some of the things I have heard our teachers say about the distinction, and I have felt the distinction when they have done more Rinzai-inspired sesshin, so please, add grain o’ salt here.

One of the differences is that of gradual (Soto) vs immediate (Rinzai) enlightenment.  The Soto school stresses that we are already Buddha.  The Rinzai school stresses pointed effort and the experience of kensho.  To me, when you put them together, it is like Suzuki Roshi’s comment that we are all fine just the way we are, and we need to do better.

This intensity of Rinzai appeals to me very deeply.  We don’t know if this is our last moment.  So to practice intensely is in alignment with that deep truth.  And it reminds me of the wholeheartedness of dragon boating.  A close friend of mine described my husband and me as “constitutionally incapable of phoning it in.”  This is not to say that a Soto practice is not intense; that shikantaza is not an all-consuming practice.  This is why I defer an answer to an actual teacher.  What the hell do I know about it?

Rinzai, Soto, Zen, Insight, Shambhala… regardless of where you practice, the advice I would give anybody about diving into any spiritual community would be the same — to show up.  More than once.  To take your time, to observe, to pay attention to your heart and your head in equal measure, to ask around about the reputation of the place, to observe the senior students, to see if the people at this Temple have something you want.

If I knew anything about anything before I started practicing, I swear I would have thought I’d have to be an Insight Meditation practitioner wearing layers of colorful drapey clothing, and purple scarves, not so much Buddha, more mindfulness.  I never really cared for smells & bells.  I had to come at it slowly.  It took me a year to really begin a regular practice with the community downtown.  There was never any pressure, just a constant, open-handed offering.   I found that for me, it’s not really about the forms.  It’s the relationships.  The Sangha.  Whatever form that takes is not so important I think. I mean, it is, but the important thing is to practice.  To show up.  That is the most important thing.

What sparked the moment when you said Yes! Buddhism is it for me! (or whatever)

It was after my first weekend meditation retreat.  This was a super-gentle, Vipassana-led, women-only, completely permissive retreat at a really nice hippie-run hot springs resort out here.  You can’t get a more gentle intro to retreat practice.  And even so, holy shit it was hard!  All that sitting with my bored, pained, dissatisfied, worried, judging, self-critical self.  And while things did smooth out a little bit by the end of the retreat, it wasn’t until a few days afterwards that my soon-to-be husband and I were having a VERY painful discussion about our relationship, which was in crisis.  And for the first time in my life, I could actually HAVE that discussion, and actually hear him, and really hold his feelings and experience before just reacting with my own defensiveness.  It was not just mind-boggling, but it turned out to be what saved our relationship.  Yes!  Buddhism is for me!

Does your extended family all practice? Or are you the black sheep? How do they feel about it? Has it caused any strife?

My parents do not understand it at all.  I think they might worry a little bit.  They’re a bit old school Christians, and I know they’re a bit uncomfortable with the “graven images” of Buddha.  I get that.  But we can and do talk about it, and I think they have been reassured to some degree that there is no worship of an idol going on here.  There is nothing I could do to diminish my parents’ love for me.  They are worriers, though. As far as extended family Buddhists, I am apparently related to Jimmie Dale Gilmore by marriage.  It’s a fairly remote connection, but if you count my extended family out that far, then I’m not alone in practicing Buddhism.  Otherwise, yeah.  Becoming a Buddhist came totally outta left field for my family, but it’s not much of a struggle with them.  My dad isn’t interested.  I don’t talk about it much to them.  They really don’t get how we can take so much time off to attend retreats.  That is just so not in their Protestant Work Ethic frame of reference.  It’s become such a clear priority for our lives.  And our lives have been gradually reflecting more of this priority all the time. They just want me to be happy, and I think they can see a lot of the contentment and satisfaction, the fruits of practice, so that is reassuring to them.

What is it in life that you struggle with most?

Confidence.

What is it in your practice that you struggle with most?

Confidence.

What do you tell people who are unfamiliar with Buddhism when they ask you about it?

I think most people who are unfamiliar with Buddhism are surprised that all Buddhists are not necessarily vegetarians.  That and the Buddha is not worshipped as a God.

Why blog?

I have no idea!  Seriously!  I thought it would be for my Illinois friends and others.  I thought this would be how we could kind of stay in touch.  But they don’t really read my blog.  They’re always, “oh yeah.  What’s the address for that again?”  But now I have made a few connections through the blog that really does feel like community.  I am happy to be so focused on my own practice and the temple and all, but it is also really nice to have this broad sense of Sangha.  I think it’s a real connector for Gen X practitioners, too.  Our brick-and-mortar Sangha is comparatively well-dispersed generationally, but I know that is not really the case around the country, and there is some understandable concern about what will happen when the Boomer generation has gone.  Buddhist blogging can be a doorway into practice, I think.

What types of changes have you noticed in yourself/not-self since you began practicing?

Heh heh!  Not-self…  Yeah, that cookie keeps trying to crumble, which has not been a real comfy experience I tellya.  I am a lot less wound up and a lot less of a perfectionist.  My standards for myself and my surroundings have gotten a little more relaxed.  I was pretty hyper-organized, always 5 or 10 minutes early for everything, and while not a clean freak, there was a bit more of a tendency to lose the forest for the trees sometimes.  There was a point in my practice when all of that just kind of started melting down.  It was awful!  It was definitely against my will, and I just had to deal with it.  It seemed like there was a big part of self-identity that was held together by this anxiety, and once that started letting go, it all just started falling apart, and I would forget really important things, I would double-book appointments then forget both of them.  Missed appointments, forgotten promises dramatic screw-ups.  My old strategies just stopped working, and it was really disturbing.  And yet, I found that the world didn’t end.  My friends and colleagues still cared about me, even if I dropped the ball on some really important things.  This is similar to the lessons from being the chant leader.  The experience of making mistakes in front of the community.  Not only have I lived to tell, but the community still accepts me!  And that acceptance is not based upon being perfect at anything.  It’s not about a me that is doing.  It’s about just being.  I have observed practice having a balancing effect on others, too.  It is amazing, really.

What do you care about now that you may not have paid much attention to before?

I think before, my spiritual practice (probably universally), was about feeling better, or feeling more in control of my life.  I don’t know that that is necessarily changed,but now, in addition to continually being treated to the reality of no control, there is a deeper question: “What is TRUE?”  Which can just be there, control or no control, feeling better or feeling worse.  What is TRUE?

Thank you for taking the time for this interview/swap! It has been fun and informative!

4 Comments

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4 responses to ““I never really cared for smells & bells” – an Interview with Jomon of the blog “Nothing to Attain”

  1. Oh man, I guess I never really thought about what it would be like to confess my love of Budweiser to everybody! And now a picture!!!

  2. Pingback: Article Swap: The Interviews « Precious Metal: the blog

  3. You guys seemed to do a bit of work to incorporate one another’s interviews, I love the interaction!

  4. What other Beer would a Buddhist love if not a Budd…?

    I really like the energy between the two interviews. You both asked tough questions and were totally trusting with the answers. Really walking the talk – which is inspiring for all of us to read.