I lived in El Cerrito for most of 2015. While I was there, I made an effort to attend some of the sittings at the Berkeley Zen Center, and likewise to attend some of the weekend lectures.
At one of the lectures, I signed up for a one-day sitting.
When the day came, I got to the zendo on time, and found an empty mat at the back. One day sittings can be rigorous, and always seem odd to me in contrast with the “normal” life before and after all the sitting periods. I was very aware of the oddity of sitting zazen in the middle of Berkeley, that day.
In the late afternoon, at the close of the sitting periods, Mel invited the new faces at the zendo to interview with him. I was actually not that keen to interview with Mel, but I felt obliged to, as a matter of zendo etiquette.
I think I didn’t make a good impression on Mel, especially when I asked him twice whether he thought it was a good idea to teach zazen to everyone (he insisted that it was).
My sitting posture has never been that good. I recall him saying that if he continued to see me around the zendo, he would be coming around to correct my posture.
Let me say that when I was in high school and again in college, I practiced judo. Especially in college, I had the opportunity to study with different teachers, and with individuals holding many different ranks of black belt (I was a second-degree brown belt, myself). I came to understand that every black belt taught the form of a throw slightly differently.
My posture in the zendo has inspired many Zen teachers to make adjustments to my form, but I’ve never been able to sustain their corrections for very long. I’m grateful for their efforts on my behalf–nevertheless, I’m convinced that in the end, I will have to work out the form for myself.
Mel closed the interview by saying that the kind of talk I had been offering him could go on forever. I immediately bowed, and left the interview room.
I can remember occasions when some judo teacher or other would decide to teach me respect by wiping up the mat with me. I probably deserved it. I had been spoiled by my first teacher, who emphasized the gentle aspect of the art, and I think sometimes my lack of appreciation for the use of strength by other teachers showed.
The first Zen teacher I encountered was a lot like my first judo teacher, in that he emphasized a gentle approach to zazen. I will never forget his advice to “take your time with the lotus”, nor will I forget the way he seemed to pull such advice out of the air at just the appropriate moment. I never did undertake a formal relationship with him–the best I could manage was to attend some of his lectures, and sit a couple of days with him at the close of a sesshin.
I realize now that I brought a certain resentment with me to the interview with Mel. I felt that I was not ready to talk to him, and that he had forced the issue.
Perhaps the history of the Berkeley Zen Center made a close scrutiny of those attending events seem necessary. I know Zen centers sometimes have problems with odd characters who show up, and Berkeley is no stranger to those who choose to live outside the norms of society. In fact, many times I had wondered how the Berkeley Zen Center could keep an open meditation schedule in such a community.
In judo, the standard practice is that the head master of the school works out with any new student. However, in Soto Zen Centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had only been asked to an interview three times before in thirty years.
I would have to say that it’s fair to characterize attendees at a judo dojo who are not black belts as students, but I’m not sure the same is true at Zen centers, even during sesshin. People attend for a variety of reasons. I think the same instinct that caused Mel to answer twice that it was right to teach zazen to anybody may have caused him to feel that he was obligated to perform as a teacher on my behalf.
A month or so after my interview with Mel, I attended one of his lectures. I could see why people liked him. I think that was the last time I made it to the Berkeley Zen Center.