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Silence and Noise: Growing Up Zen in America [Paperback]

Ivan Richmond
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The "convert Buddhism" of the 1960s has been around long enough to produce a second generation of practitioners. Son of businessman and author Lewis Richmond, Ivan (now 28) spent his childhood years at Green Gulch, the rural San Francisco Bay area Zen monastery. Those silence-drenched early years were spiritually formative, making the younger Richmond a native Buddhist who found, and continues to find, himself out of place in the larger American culture-materialistic, trend-conscious, noisy, Judeo-Christian-to which his parents returned when he was only 10. Richmond writes as a "rank and file Buddhist" rather than a master or teacher, distinguishing his perspective from most authors in the body of American Buddhist practitioner writings. He manages nonetheless to teach about Buddhism by laying out apparent contradictions in his experience and then explaining a Buddhist "middle way" in which he lives with the tensions of being a silence-loving non-materialist in a noisy consumer culture. His unadorned expository style nicely embodies the plain-experience quality of Zen; the lack of unfolding dramatic narrative that conventionally ought to characterize a life story is also distinctively Zen-like. This quiet tale is a good social study of being young, Zen and American.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

Sojun Mel Weitsman Berkeley Zen Center An unusual child's view of what it was like to grow up in a Zen monastic community in his, and its, formative years during the late 70s, and early 80s, and suddenly finding himself at age 10 immersed in the 'noisy' world. The contrasts between the two worlds and his struggle for integration between them provides an eye opener to an unexamined area within the Zen community.

Michael Downing Author of Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center Richmond writes in a refreshingly clear voice, and his frank memoir documents his intention to seek the Middle Way, which he locates somewhere between the remote Zen Buddhist monastery where he spent his early childhood and the roiling American mainstream into which he was plunged as an adolescent.

Norman Fischer Zen priest, poet, and author of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up Honest and wise, [this] is a book anyone concerned with contemporary youth -- and with the Western Buddhist movement -- will want to read.

Syliva Boorstein, Author of Pay Attention, for Goodness' Sake This account of an American childhood in a community that is both countercultural and Zen weaves basic Buddhist concepts into the fabric of the narrative....

About the Author

Ivan Richmond is a second-generation American Buddhist. The son of a former Zen priest, he grew up as a member of the Buddhist community of Green Gulch Farm, located just north of San Francisco. Today he lives in the Bay Area, where he practices and writes about Buddhism in everyday life.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One: An American Immigrant in America -- Eight Conflicts

The World of Green Gulch

I have lived in two worlds. One is the world of Green Gulch. Green Gulch was a world landscaped with religion. The fields were religious with the practice of simplicity. The dining room was religious with the purity of our meals -- brown rice, tofu, and organic produce from our farm. The paths to the zendo were religious with silence.

Ours was a religion in which the emptiness of delusion was discouraged and the full wealth of enlightenment was what we sought. By enlightenment, I simply mean a deep and profound understanding of life and of what was truly important in life, such as birth, death, loving others, the good of the world, the arts, and inner beauty. We at Green Gulch didn't think we were enlightened, but Buddhists believe that the Buddha was enlightened. In Buddhism, we don't believe that enlightenment is necessarily easy to achieve, but we also believe that it is an ever-approachable perfection.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, which, as I was told them, say that all human beings suffer; that suffering is caused by desire; that the key to avoiding suffering is to avoid desire; and that we can avoid desire by achieving enlightenment. Delusion, then, which is the opposite of enlightenment, is caused by the desire for things that prevent one from understanding what's truly important in life, which are, in the simplest of terms, material goods and possessions.

At Green Gulch, we tried to live in a way that would bring us closer and closer to the enlightenment of the Buddha, and to stay away from any delusions that would derail us from that path.

As children, we learned from the role-modeling of the adults not to display intemperate emotions, such as anger or overexcitement, but to be meditative at all times, to live a simple life, free from consumerism and materialism, and to avoid the temptations to delusion that are found in popular culture.

Of the fifty or so people who lived at Green Gulch, most were monks or laypeople. Buddhism has traditionally been based on student/teacher relationships. A teacher helps the student to achieve enlightenment by teaching him or her Buddhist philosophy. At Green Gulch, the students might be either monks or laypeople. The monks were people who had been ordained by a Buddhist priest and who had dedicated their lives to practicing Buddhism as a profession. Unlike monks of the Catholic religion, Zen Buddhist monks in America are not necessarily required to be celibate, and are free to marry. They do, however, take sixteen vows, similar to the Ten Commandments, that guide their behavior. I reproduce them here exactly as the monk taking them would speak them:

I take refuge in the Buddha.

I take refuge in the Dharma.

I take refuge in the Sangha.

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do good.

I vow to live to benefit all beings.

A disciple of the Buddha does not willfully take life.

A disciple of the Buddha does not take what is not given.

A disciple of the Buddha does not engage in sexual misconduct.

A disciple of the Buddha does not lie.

A disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate oneself or others.

A disciple of the Buddha does not slander.

A disciple of the Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others.

A disciple of the Buddha is not spiritually or materially avaricious.

A disciple of the Buddha does not bear ill will.

A disciple of the Buddha does not ignore Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, their own enlightened nature.

The word "Dharma" refers to the teachings of the Buddha. The Sangha can mean the congregation, all Buddhists, or all people in the world. The phrase, "a disciple of the Buddha," is just a fancy way of saying a Buddhist monk or in America, a layperson. Even though a Buddhist monk is literally the disciple of his teacher, he is also, figuratively, a disciple of the Buddha himself, because the Buddha's teachings are still "alive" through the written word of the sutras and the teachings of Buddhist teachers.

In addition to taking these vows, monks wear robes and shave their heads. Each monk also has a special bowl called an oryoki that, at least at Green Gulch, they used to eat meals in the zendo during long meditation sessions. All the monks were expected to live on campus.

At Green Gulch, the laypeople were members of the congregation who had not received monastic ordination or taken monastic vows. They didn't shave their heads or wear robes, but they wore a rectangular cloth called a rakusu that hangs from the neck. They were not required to live at Green Gulch, but many chose to do so, either out of dedication to Buddhism or because, like my mother, they were married to monks.

The priests were monks who, like my father, held a higher rank in the community than that of an ordinary monk. Priests might be compared to the clergy in Western religions. They are leaders of the congregation who have the ability to train monks and laypeople and give them ordination. They conduct religious ceremonies and services, are licensed to perform marriages, and also preside at funerals.

Although these definitions may vary somewhat from one congregation to another, they were the ones that prevailed at Green Gulch.

Most of the monks and laypeople lived in a two-story wooden dormitory adjacent to the zendo called the gaitan. In traditional Japanese Zen monasteries, the gaitan is not generally the same as the monks' quarters. It is the lobby just outside of the zendo. At Green Gulch, however, our gaitan was housed in our dormitory, so we referred to the entire building as the gaitan. It had two main entrances with screen doors. One door allowed access to the gaitan from the area surrounding a complex known as the Wheelwright Center (named after the man from whom Green Gulch's land had been purchased). The Wheelwright Center was comprised of two two-story buildings. The second stories of these buildings were joined by one big deck called the Upper Deck that allowed you to walk from the upper-story room of one building to the upper-story room of the other.

One of these buildings housed guest rooms on the lower level. On the upper level was a lecture room, which was also used for social events. The other building contained the dining room and kitchen on the lower floor, as well as a small annex called the family room. The upper story housed the library.

If you walked through the other door out of the gaitan, you would come to a grassy lawn that we called the Central Area, where the community often gathered. To one side of the Central Area was the post office. It wasn't an official United States post office, but it was where our mail was delivered. Mainly, it was used as an administrative office, and if someone called Green Gulch's main telephone number, he would get the post office. The hills surrounding the gulch rose above the gaitan, the Wheelwright Center, and the Central Area.

Some of the monks and laypeople in our community were married and had children. Those with families didn't live in the gaitan but in trailers and tiny houses nestled among the valley's golden grasses. Each house and trailer had several tiny bedrooms, a small kitchen, an equally small bathroom, and a basic living area.

Although, as I've said, we at Green Gulch didn't think of ourselves as enlightened, we did try -- as best we were able -- to live according to Buddhist precepts. We tried to avoid the pitfalls that come with desire. We didn't want to eat fancy food, live in big houses, or drive fancy cars. We didn't want to fill our heads with television or loud music. We didn't try to forget the reality of our lives by acquiring expensive but unnecessary luxuries. We believed in having just what we needed, eating food that nurtured us, and paying attention to the things that are really important. We believed in being quiet so that our minds could be quiet. When our minds were filled with silence, we could almost hear ourselves living. Then, in those moments of inner silence, we could find happiness in the things that enrich us and take pleasure in simply being alive.

The World Outside

The "outside" -- America -- was viewed by the people of Green Gulch as the world of the unenlightened, slaves to the delusions of their society and culture. Outside, people were thought to be intemperate. Their minds, we were led to believe, were cluttered with empty ambitions and materialistic desires. In effect, we were taught to think of the world outside as the opposite of Green Gulch in every respect.

While I imagine that, to some degree, every religion and even every political or social group perceives itself to be superior to the "outside," the important difference to understand here is that Green Gulch and the outside were separate worlds. We children went into the outside world five times a week to attend school, but we played almost exclusively with one another and seldom, if ever, with children whose parents were not in some way affiliated with the Zen Center. We tasted the fruits of the outside only in contrast to our own flavors.

A Buddhist Immigrant in America

Leaving Green Gulch was, for me, like crossing a psychological border. Once we left, my mind and soul were in foreign territory. However, like all immigrants, I brought my "native" culture with me, a culture that defines me still. Just as an immigrant from China, for example, leaves China, enters America, and becomes a Chinese American, so I left Green Gulch, entered America, and today I am an American Buddhist.

In the outside world, I soon discovered, people judged me by standards that were completely the opposite of those I'd been raised with -- such as how I dressed and how much money my parents made. For the first time, I was tantalized by things that had always been remote from my way of life -- candy bars, Saturday morning cartoons, and popular toys such as action figures. At the time, al...
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