“Temple ailment”

Too many long retreats. Too many years of dumb-ass intensive sitting — three crazy 100-day retreats in the mountains of South Korea, something like forty-five 90-day retreats, five or seven 30-day retreats, and three years now of monthly 3-day retreats. I never thought it would be necessary to say this, but all that time sitting on the ass, keeping a rigid schedule, all the while systematically denying myself long periods of sleep seem to have cumulatively taken a huge toll on the health. All signs indicate that those days are pretty much over. Got to shift into another mode of teaching. The left knee suffers from torn meniscus — 108 bows are a thing of the past, and even long periods of sitting become painful. I need a little pillow to prop up the knee, and cannot do a deep half-bow in that position while seated cross-legged; the right knee is showing signs of the same problem appearing there. It seems to be only a matter of time before I have two torn-meniscus knees.

Inconvenient though they may be, however, those sorts of joint problems can maybe be worked around. But now I am living with a serious affliction of the bleeding butt. Whereas hemorrhoid problems would occasionally appear only for a day or two during the most intensive retreats in Korean traditional temple-style training, now it is just a daily feature of life in retreat. I’m streaming so much now, it feels like one long menstruation without end. Even sitting on a chair produces the same result.

Doing some internet research lately on my worsening condition, I discovered something really fascinating that makes utter sense. The Chinese character for “hemorrhoid” is actually a compound character of two radicals, which means it is the combination of two separate radicals which give a new meaning. The compound character for “hemorrhoid” is:

Anyone who has spent any time in Northeast Asia will recognize, at the heart of the character for “hemorrhoid,” the character that is used for “temple” — Buddhist temple.


And the radical which surrounds it, almost like a house, is the radical for “illness,” or “ailment.”

“Sickness,” “ailment”

So, the Chinese character for “hemorrhoid” means “temple ailment.” Too much meditation with legs crossed causes stagnation of the blood, much less lots of venous pressure. Hemorrhoids are an ailment of life in the (Zen) temple. I already saw lots of that stuff, but thought it was people with bad living habits on top of all the sitting. Maybe too much white rice and fermented veggies. Since I do a vigorous Ashtanga training most days of the week, and eat so much fiber, and even live by constant intermittent fasting, it could not possibly happen to me, right?

“Got so much blood coming out, it’s filling my eyes. Grip them fists harder!”

I’ve been to some doctors recently. They go through their usual checklist for the possible causes of my ambitiously streaming ass. All the usual suspects are tossed out at me: “Not enough fiber?” (no — I eat once of the most fiber-rich meals possible, every day). “Too much red meat?” (I am pretty much full-time veggie, except for unavoidable situations). “Stress?” (well, running a Zen community as a single teacher…), etc etc. Not obese, and I don’t ever strain on the toilet, whatsoever: constipation has never ever been a problem for me. “Sedentary lifestyle?” Yes, I sit a lot. “How much?” Um, QUITE a lot. When I tell the doctors that I’ve done “a number” of 90-day retreats, sometimes sitting from 2:00 am until 22:00, ninety days without a break, their jaws hit the floor. It’s not exactly a condition they have been taught to deal with in medical school, I suppose.

 Ibn Sina studies medicine (11th C) Image: “Surgical Instruments for Treating Hemorrhoids”
Let’s hope that spout is for drinking, not inserting.

The doctor has told me I need to cut down on all this ass-time. If I do not change this, I am going to need a serious reparative operation. It’s not fun. I once sat a retreat with a Western monk who had to leave because he ignored the warning signs, let his hemorrhoid condition grow extremely inflamed, he bled out through his pants onto the cushion, and ended up having his ass cut open and restitched. He had to drop out of the retreat. His stories of the agony of being stitched there — and then UNstitched — put the fear of god in me.

The doctors say that, now that this condition has gone from infrequent to constant, it will possibly never recover without invasive surgery. And even THEN, surgery never “solves” it forever. It merely increases the chance that the problem just moves to another part of the rectum, and I’ll need more surgery another couple of years down the line.

For the last year, I have been ruminating deeply on this. It looks like I am going to have to reconsider things and give up the long-term retreats. That’s especially hard because I have evolved (devolved) into a teacher who relishes being on the cushion for every sitting with my students, closely sensing their practice, taking the pulse of the energy of the room and intervening — sparingly, but where necessary — to drive the group when I feel the verve is flagging, especially after meals.

But, for the first time, I may need to take a year off leading the 90-day Winter Kool Che, in order to let this thing heal. For the long haul. Stay tuned.

“Temple ailment!”

(Special thanks to https://triangulations.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/buddhist-hemmorhoids/)

Memento Mori

The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash. — Lalitavistara Sūtra

Lots of thoughts about death these days: the slow-motion/fast-motion death of the climate I once new, the everyday-deaths of numberless migrants swallowed in the seas between Africa and Europe (and the countless more to come), the death in the last 10 years of so many monks and nuns I have practiced with. My own body falls apart in bits and pieces. Nothing serious yet, just the intimation of the inevitable slow cascade I witnessed in the older Sunim’s: in a torn-meniscus knee which will never permit me to do 108 bows ever again, or sit without a cushioning brace (and a second knee showing first signs of the same), the dwindling of eyesight in one eye, and now every intensive retreat sending blood streaming out of an ass which has cushioned far far too many thousands of hours of immobile sitting). My Father’s passing is not yet two years, and Mom’s is just over four: both genetic roots recently severed. No turning back.

Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “Temple Rules” end with an old poem, “In the great work of Life and Death, time will not wait for you. If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get? Is not all of this of great importance? Hurry up! Hurry up!” These lines first impacted me from the first days practicing in his lineage.

Some of Dogen Zenji’s first and most impactful writings urged us to consider the matter of impermanence as inspiration for why we must practice:

“Impermanence is swift; life-and-death is a matter of utmost urgency. For the short while you are alive, if you wish to study or practice some activity, just practice the Buddha-Way and study the buddha-dharma. Since literature and poetry are useless, you should give them up. Even when you study the buddha-dharma and practice the Buddha-Way, do not study extensively. Needless to say, refrain from learning the Exoteric and Esoteric scriptures of the teaching-schools. Do not be fond of learning on a large scale, even the sayings of the buddhas and patriarchs. It is difficult for us untalented and inferior people to concentrate on and complete even one thing. It is no good at all to do many things at the same time and lose steadiness of mind.” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1)

To maintain this inspiration, the Buddha’s students practiced meditation on cremation grounds. In the Christian tradition, monks practiced in cold caves with skulls and withered bones to remind them of the impermanence of this bodily life, and the fast approach of physical annihilation in death.

The Lalitavistara Sūtra says,

अध्रुवं त्रिभवं शरदभ्रनिभं नटरङ्गसमा जगिर् ऊर्मिच्युती। गिरिनद्यसमं लघुशीघ्रजवं व्रजतायु जगे यथ विद्यु नभे॥ The three worlds are fleeting like autumn clouds. Like a staged performance, beings come and go. In tumultuous waves, rushing by, like rapids over a cliff. Like lightning, wanderers in samsara burst into existence, and are gone in a flash.

ज्वलितं त्रिभवं जरव्याधिदुखैः मरणाग्निप्रदीप्तमनाथमिदम्। भवनि शरणे सद मूढ जगत् भ्रमती भ्रमरो यथ कुम्भगतो॥ Sentient beings are ablaze with the sufferings of sickness and old age, And with no defense against the conflagration of Death. The bewildered, seeking refuge in worldly existence, Spin round and round, like bees trapped in a jar.

Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanitas” (1671): there is only life, death, and time.

The bust of Socrates watches over our practice, as well, for wasn’t it he who said (in the Phaedo), “Other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing.” When Socrates says “philosophy” here, he means — for us — practice. “Those who practice correctly study nothing but dying and being dead.” Or, as Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say, “You’re already dead.”

So, whether Greek, Buddhist, or Christian, the admonition is clear: We must always strive to do correct practice, in this short span of life given to us, almost as if by lucky chance.

Hard to do that in a prosperous Bavarian city, wafting with the scents of finely-gebraten meats, finely roasted gourmet coffee, and delicious beers. The childhood aroma of my own long-dead German grandmother’s home-cooked old-country meals sometimes blooms to fill our Dharma Room when the Regensburg Weißbräuhaus serves up lunches in the summer sun, just two doors down. The sound of glasses raised is heard during our meditation. There is the even purr of finely-tuned German engines slowly turning the corner on our narrow “Gasse.” Life is good. Things will go on like this, it seems.

So, a little redesign of our altar has appeared, to keep Dogen’s admonitions nearer at hand: in the Christian tradition in which I was raised, it’s memento mori.

“In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you…”

This reminder is not a depressing symbolism, but one which urges me on with greater seriousness in practice. It reminds me of the preciousness of this opportunity to wake up, to make utterly stable this attainment of True Nature, for the good of others. I am reminded of these extraordinary words by the great Richard Dawkins, one of my greatest intellectual heroes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

So, rather than despair, there is a greater joy in this, in the face of inescapable death, to practice awakening. So burdened with this receiving this life, how fortunate I have been to have encountered these teachings of self-liberation through practice, to trash mere religion for the sake of finding something better than mere “God” in the wind through the trees, the sound of a bird, a set of footsteps passing on the cobblestones outside the Dharma Room window, a fragrant tree walked past on the street. I have been burdened with “life,” since it has set up the incoming experience of annihilation of death, an experience I can imagine coming toward me: Yet, how inexpressibly lucky I am to encounter the practice of “moment-world,” this infinite expanse of now.

The Romanian existentialist Emile Cioran once said, “How good would it be if one could die by throwing oneself into an infinite void.” (On the Heights of Despair) Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know — again and again and again, as far as the inner eye can see, and further still in boundless awareness. There is no sweeter “death” than this.