April 5th, 2020
“I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now, who see things as they really are.” – Thomas Merton
In many ways I am a Luddite. I embrace technology with extreme reluctance. It’s not that I am averse to learning new things; it is that sometimes I don’t see the point in doing so. I am often comfortable with old ways (e.g. I like to write snail mail letters). I have never used Twitter or Instagram. I used to be on Facebook, but then I gave that up because I got tired of reading stupid political commentary and looking at pictures of cute puppies. I generally restrict my self to emails, online news articles, and this blog.
Yesterday I was wrenched into our Brave New World, and I participated in a Zoom meeting. Since nobody on the planet wants to get any closer than six feet to anyone else, Zoom is how we have to gather together. I had been a member of a Zoom conference a few months ago. I was underwhelmed by the experience. I think that part of the problem then was that most people were unfamiliar with the system. Some folks were too loud, some too quiet. Some were hard to see because they were far away, others had their faces right up in the camera. The meeting eventually degenerated into frustration and angry chaos. Some of the confusion can be blamed on the actual subject matter of the meeting. Some of the unpleasantness was due to the group’s inexperience with operating Zoom.
Yesterday I was part of a virtual Zen practice. For those of you who do not know what Zen practice is, let me try to explain. There are different schools of Zen, each of which has its own quirky kind of meditation practice. I am only familiar with the Kwan Um School, which comes from Korea. Typical, in the Kwan Um practice, we chant together for maybe twenty minutes (in Korean/Chinese, mostly). Then we sit on a cushion, and stare at a fucking wall in silence for half an hour. After that, the dharma teacher reads a passage from a book about and/or by the founding Zen Master, Seung San.
Now, one might think that this sort of meeting would be perfect for Zoom. Um, kinda. There were some issues that came up.
Apparently, there is a momentary delay in transmission when somebody speaks (or chants). This means that when a group of people attempt to chant together, the system goes crazy rather quickly. What happened at our practice was that one person in the group, Jorge, tapped the moktak (wooden percussion instrument) and chanted “kwan seum bosal”, while everyone else was placed on mute. So, actually only Jorge was chanting to the group, while the rest of us were chanting privately.
Zen puts a huge emphasis on “together action”. As the phrase implies, we need to do things together, like chanting. Were we chanting together at yesterday’s meeting? Not so much.
We sat silently and meditated after that. That was weird. I could see the picture gallery at the top of my screen, and I noticed everybody else sitting at home with their eyes closed. We were trying to meditate together separately. Does that make any sense? Maybe. It might have been better to just stop the meeting for twenty minutes, let everyone meditate privately, and then regroup. The truth is that, when we sit silently in the same room, we are united. It is hard to explain, but when I sit on the cushion and face the wall during a normal practice, I still feel the presence of the others who meditate with me. We are one. There is an energy when we are physically together that does not exist in cyberspace.
After meditation, Peter, our dharma teacher and Zoom host, read a story about a Zen Master who gained enlightenment after walking through a village that had been decimated by a cholera epidemic. That seemed appropriate. I don’t think that Peter pick that passage by chance. We discussed the reading, as we usually do. That was a bit awkward. Once again, I think that was a result of us being new to Zoom. Fortunately, the eight of us took turns speaking. There is a tendendacy with Zoom for people to talk over each other, and that gets messy. Everybody in our group was courteous and polite. so the conversation went well.
Peter said, “This can’t substitute for an actual meeting.” Then he laughed and said, “Well, it’s going have to substitute for an actual meeting.”
He’s right. Zoom will have to substitute. It’s all we got, but somehow it makes me feel more lonely.
Zen practice is there to help a person to see the world clearly. During meditation, something should be learned.
I learned that I miss my friends.