Procrustean Bed

There is a Greek myth about a man named Procrustes. He invites travellers in for a good meal, and a restful night’s sleep, in his special bed which he claims exactly fits whoever sleeps in it. However, the bed is a trap. If the person is too small for the bed, Procrustes stretches him on a rack until he fits. If he is too large, Procrustes lops off the hands and feet that extend past the frame.

A Procrustean bed is a metaphor for making a person fit the form, instead of finding a form to fit the person. Zen, of course, is filled with forms: the proper way to sit, the bows, the chanting in service. But blindly adhering to the forms for form’s sake is not Zen, I don’t think. Each one of us is an individual, and we bring our own needs, desires, weaknesses, strengths to the practice.

One of the things I love about the teachings at Russian River Zendo is the permission to do zazen as it works for you. If you cannot sit in lotus position, sit cross legged. If you cannot sit on the floor, use a chair. If your back will not permit sitting in a chair, then lie down. No matter how different each person’s “sitting” may look, it is still zazen, as long as the intention is clear.

But having some forms, some guidelines, keeps us centered, so we can find that self expression. Suzuki-roshi talks about expressing yourself fully in Not Always So. He says:

It is a big mistake to think that the best way to express yourself is to do whatever you want, acting however you please. This is not expressing yourself…If you know what to do exactly, and you do it, you can express yourself fully.

That is why we follow forms. You may think that you cannot express yourself within a particular form, but when we are all practicing together, strong people will express themselves in a strong way and kind people will express themselves kindly…The differences among you are easy to see because the form is the same.

Later in the same book, Suzuki-roshi continues:

Zazen will become your own zazen, and as you are Buddha, you will express your true nature in various ways. That is freedom from the forms of practice. Whatever you do, you will really be you. You will be Buddha, in its true sense.

This is what initially drew me to Zen practice: the sense that here was a place that had room, a place where I could be myself. I love the forms. I love chanting, and full bows, and lighting incense. I love the sound of the bells and the drums. But I also love that no one has to do anything they’re not comfortable with, and that anyone can modify their own participation to fit where they are at that particular moment. I love the fact that Zen teachers say, “You know your own truth better than anyone else.”

Zen is no Procrustean bed. Instead, it is a way station for the weary traveller that offers beds of every possible size, a unique resting spot for each individual. And there is always room.


To anyone out there reading: Comments are welcome! I’d love to have your input, either responding to topics I have brought up, or sharing your own experiences with Zen and Buddhism. Write!


No Self, No Other

At Russian River Zendo today, Darlene gave a dharma talk about interconnectedness, the most basic of Buddhist principles. When Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and suddenly saw the world as it really was, the moment of enlightenment that was the foundation of Buddhism centered on his insight that there is no separation, no self and no other. This transformative “seeing” forever changes the way one perceives everything.

In Zen, it is expressed in terms of “form” (separateness, definition, differentiation) and “emptiness” (all things united without boundaries, nothing but everything, one is two and two is one).

To explore this point, Darlene spoke about a Deepak Chopra article in a recent edition of the San Franciso Chronicle which dealt with the concept of “social contagion.” Harvard researchers have found something interesting: if Person A is overweight, smokes or gets sick, his or her family and friends (Persons B) have a 50 percent chance of exhibiting the same behavior. Not too surprising; we all know how peer pressure and social environment works. But here’s where it gets trickier: Person C, who knows Person B but not Person A, also has an increased chance of showing those behaviors, about 20 percent. So it can skip a link. According to the data, a friend of a friend can influence your health habits. Chopra claims this is suggestive of invisible connectors, showing we are affected by people we don’t even know.

I must admit, I immediately want to punch holes in this argument. A statistical trend only shows how many people and which people this holds true for. It does not supply that most critical piece of data: what causes it? I can think of one explanation that completely takes the “wow, that’s eerie” element out of the equation. Let’s say I’m Person A, and I am overweight. Now, supposedly, everyone I know has a 50 percent greater likelihood to be overweight. Okay so far. But remove that one step – everyone who knows my friends and family (but not me) has a 20 percent greater chance of becoming or being overweight. It seems to me there is a simple rationale here. People who are my friends and family, through their relationship with me, have exposure to someone who is overweight, and so are more likely to tolerate that condition in someone else in their lives. So, the chances they will have other friends who are overweight is slightly elevated (that 20 percent).

In other words, there is no mysterious link between overweight Person A and possibly overweight Person C. It might simply be that Person A’s friends and family, because they’re used to accepting him or her in their lives despite weight issues, will not shun another potential friend because they are heavy. The Harvard researchers may have stumbled upon something, but I’m not sure it will help them deal very effectively with troubling health behaviors.

But, leaving that aside for the moment, let’s get back to the Bodhi tree. Even my new explanation about the behaviors reinforces the principle of interconnectedness. Instead of explaining health behaviors, it suggests our attitudes towards each other can have far-reaching ramifications in terms of options and choices we consider. That I find very comforting. Maybe “doing the right thing” for the environment, or social justice, does actually affect the rest of the world, even though it doesn’t feel like that on most days.

There is something that runs through all of us, through all of nature, through every thought and feeling and sensation we have, that ties us together. I do believe that my behavior at any given moment sends a ripple undulating through everything around me, animate and inanimate. That never changes. The only thing that fluctuates is whether or not I notice it – whether or not I am paying attention.


Wild Strawberries

You’ve heard the Zen story about being chased by a ravenous tiger? You’re running away, and the tiger is right behind you, and you come to a cliff. The only way to escape is to lower yourself off the side of the cliff, and hang from a vine. So you’re hanging there, and you look below into the valley, and two more ravenous tigers are waiting. And then a little mouse comes along, and begins gnawing at your vine. Just at that moment, you notice a wild strawberry growing near by. You reach out, and pop it into your mouth. How delicious!

And that’s what life is. Learning to appreciate the strawberry, even though we’re all hanging from a vine that’s about to give way, sending us tumbling down to the hungry tigers.

One of my favorite authors is Marilynne Robinson. Her first novel was “Housekeeping,” the story of two young girls who are orphaned when their mother commits suicide. They are then raised by an eccentric aunt, who would rather be hopping a train. It’s fabulous.

There is one scene from the novel that has always remained in my mind. Early on, the girls’ mother leaves them with their grandmother, and goes for a drive, not to return. Here are Robinson’s words:

They searched for her. Word was sent out a hundred miles in every direction to watch for a young woman in a car which I said was blue and Lucille said was green. Some boys who had been fishing and knew nothing about the search had come across her sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car, which had bogged down in the meadow between the road and the cliff. They said she was gazing at the lake and eating wild strawberries, which were prodigiously large and abundant that year. She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff.

For a moment, if you can, set aside your judgments about committing suicide. Because I have been in my own moments of great darkness, I know only too well what it is like to consider that option. What strikes me about this passage is the incredible beauty of that moment: a young woman sitting on the roof of her car looking out over the lake eating strawberries. She knows she is about to die. The fact that her death is of her own choosing is irrelevant. It is a purely Zen moment. When it is the last thing that you are going to experience in this life, sit with the wind in your hair, spray from the lake moistening your face, imagine how exquisite those strawberries must taste.

Whenever I remember this scene, it makes me hold my breath. To live each moment as if it was my last. Each taste, each smell, each sound, each touch…fully present. Ah, yes. The strawberries!

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