In the deepest snows, the path which I used from the highway to my house, about half a mile long, might have been represented by a meandering dotted line, with wide intervals between the dots. For a week of even weather I took exactly the same number of steps, and of the same length, coming and going, stepping deliberately and with the precision of a pair of dividers in my own deep tracks,—to such routine the winter reduces us,—yet often they were filled with heaven’s own blue.
I must be the kind of person who especially needs limitations—”a snake in bamboo,” as we say in Zen. I tend to be vague, general, transcendental. Like Thoreau, I’ve needed a narrow round of steps to bring me to the particular—the foot falling on this surface, blacktop or earth; the moment of lighting this candle. Reflecting on my spiritual map, crisscrossing through Catholicism, Zen, and Judaism, I hear one note repeated over and over in minute variations: that of repetition itself. Reciting a Buddhist sutra or a Latin Mass over and over, genuflecting or bowing for the thousandth time, coming back to cleaning the same altar year after year, taking up the zazen posture once more, or, as Thoreau, walking the same walk—I’ve been caught in rote and routine, I’ve been bored—but I’ve also glimpsed “heaven’s own blue” in my very tracks.
At thirteen I trained as an altar boy in the Catholic Church. In the beginning I relished the sanctimonious roll of Latin, the sheer esoteric accomplishment of memorizing strings of foreign syllables. The mantles and skirts of my office were a thrilling change from blue jeans and sweat shirts. Assisting the priest in the ceremony of changing bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ galvanized my attention as only one other ceremony—that of baseball—could.
As the months went by, the Latin lost its savor in mere mechanical rote, my costume lost its starch, I became jaded with incense. However, I did continue to enjoy lighting the tall white candles on the altar before Mass, and extinguishing them afterwards with an ornamented snuffer.
But it was in the “Mea Culpa” where the real mystery survived. At a certain point in the Mass we altar boys would stand shoulder to shoulder with the priest, together striking our breasts three times, while intoning, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” This was Latin I understood: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” In the crucifixion of adolescence, and the confusion of a disintegrating family, the incantation joined my blame with all humankind’s. This realization of universal blame took a very particular, personal and physical form—the neck bent at a precise angle of humility, the lightly held fist striking the breast on the beat of the words. The formality, far from being monotonous, took on the color of my own life’s drama with each enactment, the soft blows of self-mortification fell deeper, until they seemed to pass right through the ribs to knock on the heart itself. The sheer physicality of that touch cut through, for the moment, my troubles. I could be all atonement—at-one-moment—no blame.
In my early twenties, I spent a summer bumming around California, and at one point found myself for the space of a week in Berkeley, roaming the book stores and coffee shops of Telegraph Avenue by day, and crashing in a dumpster in the hills above campus by night. One evening I returned to my dumpster with a copy of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and in it came upon my first instructions on the practice of zazen. I don’t recall much of those first sittings, but I do recollect a moment walking back up from town one evening, when I felt in my feet the transition from blacktop to dirt road. I realized I had unconsciously registered the same impression each evening; furthermore, that there was something intimate in the familiarity. This road, of the many roads I had traveled that summer, had become mine through dint of sheer repetition. In the narrow track I had worn, other landmarks emerged: the brick-colored stone jutting out at a certain bend, the Indian paintbrush lingering in a shady hollow, the dead snake crisping day after day in the sun. With the Bay Area at my feet, the skyline of San Francisco on the horizon, career looming in one direction and the Vietnam War in the other—among all these possibilities this particular, actual road comforted me by its very limits: this stone, this paintbrush, this snake skin. One line of Suzuki Roshi’s came home to me through this experience: “Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread.” I’d had a taste of what it meant to become bread, to become path.
Since then there’ve been walks in other mountains and towns, and they all seem to crisscross over that hillside path—the path of repetition, the wearing of routine into one’s heart. At the core of that path has been zazen. The exacting posture—thumbs lightly touching, tongue on the roof of the mouth, nose in line with the navel and ears in line with the shoulders—and the relentless rhythm of the breath, together set the pattern for the numerous forms and rituals of the Zen tradition, the bows and bells, the recitation of sutras, the just-so arrangement of mats and cushions in the meditation hall.
The most circumscribed of these forms takes shape on the altar. Lately my designated job at my home temple, the Berkeley Zen Center, has been to take care of the altar. I’ve been away for years, in other zendos in other parts of the world, but in this narrow universe I instantly find home again. Altar work, I should explain, makes being particular into an art—or a maddening exercise in tedium. To dust the (already shining) surface you remove all the numerous objects, and then replace them in their precise alignments. To clean the incense bowls of a few unburnt stubs, you sift them spoon by spoon, and then settle them back to their original place. There have been times over the years when—under the pressure of time, or the allure of something more exciting—I’ve gone through the motions, wondering how an escaped Catholic like myself could have ended up again in the grind of ritualism. But lately I’m more aware of the heavenly blue in the bottom of the tracks.
As I go over the routine—sifting the ashes (ashes of the years), trimming the candle (the very same yellow candle all this time), polishing the brass bodhisattvas—I more surely put the fixtures of my life in order. As I tap the incense bowl, smartly, three times, on the floor, I settle my very own surface. As I shave the rind of unmelted wax from the candle wick, I prepare to be illuminated again. I see my own face reflected as I polish Manjusri and Avalokitesvara. Yes, once again: “Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread.”
In the last several years my wife (who’s Jewish) and I have been observing Friday night Shabbat, the ceremony opening the Sabbath. She sets the table with a her hand-crocheted cloth, the braided loaf of challah, the wine, the white candles. At sundown, she lights the candles, repeating the ancient Hebrew, “Baruch atah adonoi . . .” As the flame leaps up once again, she leans over it, hands to her brow. Three times she spreads her arms over the light, taking it in, sending it out. The movement seems ageless. Catching my breath from another hurried week, in this illumination I suddenly see her face, this face of my particular partner. By the light of the Shabbat candles, week after week, I more surely see it growing fresher with each wrinkle of time.