I pledge myself to you!
I have committed myself to Tangaryo. It may sound like I’m entering into a relationship with some Manga hero, but no, it actually means I’m going to be sitting around a whole lot.
Tangaryo is a Zen tradition based on the ancient practice of demonstrating your extreme desire for a Buddhist life by sitting outside the temple walls and meditating day and night until the priests decide you are worthy and accept you into the sangha. At the Zen Center I attend they have a day of Tangaryo twice a year— a long, formless period of sitting meditation from 9-4. What makes it different from daily meditation practice or even the meditation retreats I’ve attended is that there is no structure. No bells to tell you how long you’ve been sitting, no formal periods of walking around, no dharma talks or chanting. Just. Sitting. 9-4.
You might understand why I’d be so terrified.
Why do it at all, you might ask? Well, I’ve been sitting every morning (or trying to) before the day begins, an extremely helpful practice, and I thought I’d test my endurance. It’s kind of the same reason why I’m climbing 75 flights of stairs later this month (there’s still time to donate, by the way). Tangaryo is like a meditation marathon. I’m not saying it’s the right reason to do it, but hey, whatever gets you on the mat. And I would like to go deeper into my meditation practice. Also, it gets me out of the house.
|It’s gay pride, martial arts-style!|
Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Benjamin had his XMA (Xtreme Martial Arts) graduation ceremony
the same afternoon. He was graduating to Green Belt. This, however, was not a big deal, I thought. The studio seemed to be holding graduations every other month, and I’d been there for the procession of white-orange-yellow-yellow-with-a-stripe belts. So if I missed a color, what could be the harm in that?
I prepped him about me not coming the day before.
“Is it that important to you?” he asked. I told him I thought it was, since I had signed up. Follow-through! I’m modeling follow-through!
In the morning, before leaving for the Zen Center, I found him awake in his room and went in to kiss him good-bye. I told him that I’m nervous, that I thought it was going to be hard. “You know what you should do?” he said tenderly from his bed.
“What?” I asked, fully expecting the “perseverance” speech I’ve been doling out to him these past four years.
“You should not do it!” he said. “Your only son is graduating today! You should be at XMA!”
Touché. I go anyway, mumbling something about how important it is to “Do what scares you.”
He didn’t seem to buy it.
I arrived at the Zen Center, apprehensions intact, but it seemed a pleasant enough bunch I’d be with in the zendo, only eight sitters. The Tangaryo leader is Gessho, a woman perhaps a little older than I am, with a bad back and an affinity for crossword puzzles. I liked her immediately. She went over the history of Tangaryo, about the apocryphal tales of people sitting in the rain and snow, slicing their arms off to prove their devotion. We won’t be having to do that, fortunately. Three hours of sitting, a lunch break, and three more hours of sitting. She advised us not to take breaks in our car, to listen to music or check our phones. Use the bathroom, walk in the space if need be, but other than that, just sit. Nothing to it, literally.
Before we commenced, I told Gessho of my conflict, my son’s graduation that afternoon. She listened, nodded. There was no finger-shaking, no pursed lips and disappointed sighs. “Well, if you need to go early, you should go,” she said. “We believe very strongly in upholding personal commitments. Of course,” she says with a smile, “you won’t really have done Tangaryo, but you can… do it another time.”
And so we began. What can be said about my first three hours? I’m afraid there was no insight. Those moments of stillness, pushing through the thicket of thoughts into an open, clear spaciousness, eluded me. Instead, a fuzziness drifted onto my brain that I found hard to shake. And, as I shifted, trying to find comfort on my kneeling bench, thoughts kept returning to myself as a child, kneeling upright on the plush blue carpeting of the living room, a punishment. This particular agony was meted out by my father when he wanted us to confess, or as retribution for having confessed. How many times did he employ this method, as opposed to the other, hotter extreme? I don’t recall. All I remember is the shame of it, kneeling alone in the open space, a pillory without the wood, and how the warm room (much like the temperature in the zendo) would cause a stupor to descend, until it seemed as though you were always and ever kneeling there, time dissolving into motes of dust in the shafts of sunlight heating the room, never knowing when your penance would end. And here I was, forty years later, facing the wall, kneeling again, only this time it was of my own volition. And I controlled the time.
I imagine that the second block of meditation, after lunch, was when all the clarity would start to kick in. Peace and calm would envelop me at last. Or maybe not. Alas, I’m not able to report either way, because after lunch I was in my car, driving fast down the highway, to get to my son’s XMA graduation in time. I made it. He kicked, he swung his bo staff, he got his green belt. I got to drive my kid home. It was a good day for follow-through.