The least of the Three Treasures

1118619_jewellery_boxWhen you become a Buddhist, you “take refuge” in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, which is the Buddha, of course, but also Buddha-nature that’s in all of us; the dharma, which means your responsibilities, the stuff you have to do; and the sangha, which is the community of people practicing with you. It’s the sangha I have trouble with.

The sangha at this zendo were never very warm and welcoming, which I found reassuring at first. I was nervous enough about the whole thing and it was good not to feel like I had 100 or so brand new best friends, like it’s a cult or something. I assumed that we’d get to know one another and I’d eventually find some friends there.

And when that didn’t happen, I thought maybe I needed to keep going for a while before they trusted me. Even in the first few months I saw how many people show up just a few times, then disappear. It’s a tough discipline and doesn’t necessarily show any results right away, maybe not for years.

I tried to be friendly, but something just wasn’t working. Apart from the core group who were almost always there, I found it hard to tell who was brand new and who was a regular. A lot of people there don’t speak English very well, and were even more shy than I am. And I’m never quite sure what I’m allowed to talk about.

We often have these informal teas after doing about two hours of zazen (I go on a regular night every week). I’m thrown into a group of people who really have nothing in common, aside from an interest in zen, but apparently you’re not supposed to talk about zen. Whenever I mention anything at all about zen, people literally turn away from me. I once, in a desperate attempt to start a conversation, asked the head monk about a couple of statues on the altar, having heard someone else do the same once. He gave me some brief answer, but with an expression of such – it seemed to me – hatred and fury, that I took an involuntary step backward. His teeth were literally clenched, and he glared. I am still bewildered by that.

I can do small talk, but only if I feel reasonably comfortable. Once you’ve asked someone what they do for a living, where they live, and if they’re reading any good books, where do you go from there? After three years, I can definitely say that most people do not help me out at all. They might stand and look at me for a moment, but won’t make the effort to keep the conversation going.

It’s hard not to take it personally. I know I’m not that socially retarded. I’m shy, but people generally like me. I can be charming, even. But not there.

I always blame myself in situations like these, though very often after a looong time, I realize it wasn’t me at all. But this, I don’t know.

In the past year, perhaps because of the chronic condition in my feet that leaves me in constant pain, I’ve slid into a pretty bad episode of depression, something I’ve suffered from all of my life. Doing zazen overall, I believe, is helping me; but when I do it with the group at the zendo, I am often left very depressed afterward. All I want to do is go home and sleep, but I have to attend these informal (infernal) teas, because I get “volunteered” to help out every single time. To have to make light conversation, through a minefield of things I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about, is hell at such a time. I’m absolutely sure it shows on my face. This is the only possible reason I can think of for the sangha’s cold and even rude behavior toward me.

But what kind of compassion is that? Some of these people have been sitting for over 20 years. Compassion is a huge thing in Buddhism, and it’s always been a biggie with me. One of the many issues I have with Other People is that I am not often treated with the same compassion I offer others.

If they’re trying to teach me something, I’m missing it. I can now count on being extremely depressed every Thursday, my zendo night. In the last few months, a few times I’ve been so depressed I couldn’t leave my apartment, so I missed a few nights. I also work so much that I can’t often make it to the weekend sesshins (all-day sits). I know they assume it’s because I’m lazy or I don’t care. I know this because the head monk once asked me if I was coming to that weekend’s sesshin, and when I said no, he actually followed me out of the room to say he hadn’t meant to make me feel guilty. Apparently something showed on my face. I didn’t tell him, and maybe I should have, that I wasn’t feeling guilty; I was feeling judged.

You can’t volunteer explanations for things, at least I can’t. It just sounds like you’re making excuses. And I know from having depression all of my life that despite how common it is, few people really understand it. The head monk has mentioned several times in talks he’s given, that you shouldn’t stay away from the zendo “just because” you’re depressed. Well, when I can’t stop crying long enough to get on a bus, or I can’t lift my head from the pillow, I stay home.

I wish there were another word for this kind of depression. It’s not a matter of “feeling a little down.”

I’ve been persistent – I’ve been going there for three years. I’ve tried not to be self-conscious, tried not to think of myself at all. It’s too hard to do that when I’m depressed and people are acting coldly towards me.

It’s not just the head monk I have a problem with, but I don’t want to spend time just bitching about people. He is supposed to be in charge of this zendo, though there is an abbot who lives at the monastery upstate. The abbot is awesome. He knows his shit, and talking to him is wonderful. But I seldom see him, as I can’t afford to go up there very often, and as he’s older he doesn’t come to the city very often.

I’ve been hanging on because of the abbot, actually. But after last Thursday, the only thing that made me stop feeling suicidal was the realization that, duh, I don’t have to go there. I can find another zendo. It’s a serious thing to ditch one’s teacher, and I don’t want to do that, but this situation at the zendo may in fact be a major cause of the depression I’ve fallen into this past year. If that’s the case, I need to fix it or get the fuck out.

I’m going to send an email to the head monk to ask if I’ve done something to offend the sangha. If I can’t work it out with him, I will only go when the abbot is there, several times a year. If people are really rude to me when I do show up, I’ll write to the abbot and tell him I want to look for another teacher for that reason. Maybe I’m not the only person who’s been treated this way. Maybe that’s why so many people stop coming.

7 Responses to “The least of the Three Treasures”

  1. Jenn H Says:

    Man, *I* feel uncomfortable there just from what you’ve written. In most cases, with most people, had this been the case, I would think, “This person just thinks everything hinges on them.” But I know you & I know you’re not self-centered. You’re like me; random people feel perfectly cozy exposing themselves to you instantly. You have a welcoming presence. So receiving an unwelcoming vibe back would have to be jarring. And depressing.

    I hope this all works out.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    Thank you for that validation! Yeah, it’s not like that at work or anywhere else, so there’s something going on there. And it is very jarring. Yet I am the common denominator.

    I think I got off on the wrong foot by being shy, and now that I’m depressed every time I go there, I’m putting off some heavy vibe. I need to find a new sangha.

  3. absurdbeats Says:

    Sounds like the teacher abandoned you—or never even bothered to take care of you in the first place.

    And by ‘take care’, I mean, pay attention, and respond to you, as a person.

    Which, it seems to me, is also what your sangha failed to do for you, as well. They’ve never been your refuge, even as you’ve tried to provide it to them.

    So find a new sangha, one which takes care of you, and allows you to take care of them.

  4. Courtney Says:

    Hmm… interesting. I’m recently found a zendo here in San Francisco where I’ll be starting attending zazen most mornings, and after reading your post, I am wondering what exactly I am in for!

    I hope these people warm up to you soon.

    Also, I’m a former NYC’er, by the way. Cheers 🙂

  5. soundofrain Says:

    Cheers, Courtney! I used to live in San Francisco, how funny!

    I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’m excited for you! Zazen works. Just don’t expect the people to be any different from other people!

  6. Professordave Says:

    I think this sangha sounds like a bunch of drips. Starts with the head monk and goes right on down (but I think the head monk sets the tone). There’s no excuse for this shit. I wouldn’t go there either. (Don’t know if you’ve read Ambivalent Zen, by Lawrence Shainberg, but he describes a similar group. Maybe you’ve wandered into his old zendo!)

    I can’t believe there isn’t someplace better than this in all of New York. I attend the Chapel Hill Zen Center in North Carolina, and we have a wonderful sangha of very helpful people. The Abbess sets the tone for that, and has taken real care to creat a welcoming atmosphere. I think that’s very important.

    I think that in a lot of cases people are just self-conscious in a situation like this. They don’t know quite how to act, so they act in a cold and offensive way. Also, zendos back in Japan often were cold harsh places on purpose, more like the military than a religious institution, and some of that may have carried over.

    But I wouldn’t put up with it. You were right to leave.

  7. soundofrain Says:

    Thank you! I’ll look for Ambivalent Zen, it sounds good. Have you read Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing? Another troubled zendo.

    A few months ago, I found out there’s been some pretty bad stuff going on at my former zendo and the associated monastery for years. When I get a chance, I’ll post about it. It made me doubly glad I’d stopped going.

    Your zendo sounds great! I’ve heard wonderful things about Chapel Hill in general.

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