I vow...

During my second and third semesters of clinicals, I stayed overnight between clinical days at the home of an RN and his father, the brother and father of one of my classmates. The experience was just as valuable as any during that time, being able to quiz and be quizzed while the iron of clinical preparation was still hot is something I recommend. Labs, pillow arrangements, care planning were all discussed, but maybe even more valuable was "how things really work in the field". After several years in Hemodialysis and some time in ICU, he had plenty of stories to tell. His father, too, after a long military career and tenure as a spanish teacher in urban public schools, could spin quite a yarn. I often wished I could take some video or audio of these stories, but it's difficult to do without making people uncomfortable.

Anyway, one of the most puzzling things this RN related to me involved ongoing harassment and discrimination from his coworkers for describing himself as a buddhist (he's of european descent, not that that matters). They would condescend and speak derisively about his "imaginary friend", and engage in all sorts of subtle psychological intraprofessional violence against him. These coworkers were universally christianist, and felt strongly that christianism was deeply connected to the profession of Nursing. I wonder how those same nurses treated their muslim, hindu, buddhist, etc. patients!

A different classmate who dropped out of the program half-way told me he suffered some of that same lateral violence from faculty memebers because of his atheism. This also seemed strange to me, mainly because questions about my religiosity never came up, even during those two semesters in a catholic hospital (which was -much- easier going than I anticipated). Later on, during a scandalous fling with a classmate, I learned that there was a rumor circulating through the class (and also through the faculty, by association) that I was jewish. I was amused by this, since all three of my names are irish.

I strongly resist any "ist's" or "ism's" being applied to me, especially when they denote any particular school of religious or metaphysical thought (preferring instead to borrow the ideas I like from all of them), and at the same time I was always aware of the reality-tunnels of the patients and coworkers around me. I made a joke once to one of my patients at the catholic hospital about how yoga and acupuncture are great, but here "it's the eucharist or nothin'". The classmate assisting me (who was catholic) looked horrified, but the patient laughed. A combination of prior conversations and a quick glance at the reading material at his bedside confirmed it was a safe joke to make.

Anyway, It's clear that despite employers and schools working to increase diversity in the nursing population, a monoculture still exists. Nurses are predominantly female (90-95%), middle-aged (mid 40's) and overwhelmingly subscribe to one of the three abrahamic religions (islam, judaism, xtianity). I think there's still a sort of "nurses eat their young" effect going on that counterbalances institutional drives for diversity, but even still, the percentage of men in nursing has increased over 200% since the 70's, so the trend seems to be towards greater diversity anyhow.

What troubles me most is the correlation that abrahamists (christianists in particular) perceive between their faith, their work and their morality/ethics. In true abrahamic style, many of these people slip down the path of believing that they have the market cornered on morality and compassion, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that, in fact, they could use a little work in that area.

The case they make against buddhism is possibly more asinine than average, since they view it as more of a religion than a set of techniques, and that's not entirely accurate, especially for people who adopted it outside of the cultures it arose from. I've tried and failed numerous times to explain to christianists (especially) that the practice of meditation does not, in fact, contradict anything in their faith or religion.

So it's for these people that I present the four great vows of buddhism. We chant this before zazen when we train in Aikido (it's a traditional style dojo). I present it as something to ponder for people who think that nurse=christian. First in some asian language or other, and then in english (maybe not the most accurate translation, but the one that appears in our chant-a-long booklets).


Sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to care for them all.
Self-delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to relinquish them all.
Gateways to truth are immeasurable, I vow to enter them all.
The buddha way is complete wakefulness, I vow to manifest it.

I haven't seen a better mantra for nursing in any other religion, that's for sure.


Chris said...

If you're finding zazen in aikido useful, that's great. But you seem too intelligent to swallow it all whole. The zen-martial arts connection is a lot more tenuous than it seems on the surface. You should start with an article by Yamada Shoji called "The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery." Also there's a book called, I believe, "The Broken Mirror" that describes life in a pre-war Zen monastery. It is useful for seeing the quite serious differences between traditional Zen--which is about process and lifestyle--and both the philosophical positions of people like Suzuki and the pretty shallow and meaningless practices that pass for zazen in martial arts. There's also a good academic book on historical kenjutsu (brown cover with yellow writing) with an interesting discussion of the preference of actual practicing martial artists for the other sects over Zen. The key is to start coming at the physical practice from the academic literature, which really highlights the shortcomings of the style of teaching used in martial arts.

I agree that, as far as Christians go, many are ignorant but there are too many variations to make blanket statements about the acceptability of meditation. The perspective that things done under Buddhist auspices are wrong is a perfectly mainstream-orthodox view, even if you mean by Buddhism some sort of psychological program. If meditation is anything more specific than silent sitting, the aims of emptiness are not really congruent with the biblical injunctions to constant prayer and whatnot--the general form of prayer being pretty well outlined by example in scripture as including some sort of intentionality.

That aside, you must live in the South. I think I know only 2 or 3 nurses who identify as practicing Christians.

PM, RN said...

Christianity has it's own tradition of contemplative prayer (aquinas is probably the most famous vector for this), but the problem is that christianists seem to have short memories when it comes to their own tradition.

Xtians are a diverse bunch, I'll agree, but people who blindly follow their programming all clump together into a large lump.

To continue to work backwards, our practice of aikido and practice of zen are very seperate, although they inform eachother. We practice the things we practice simply because that's how people who came before us did it. We're not doing the full zendo+roshi thing because our sensei isn't a roshi, and his dojo isn't a zendo. We just sit for a little less than an hour before we train, and it helps, that's all. When we train without sitting it's different, but not better or worse. We all get out of it whatever we get out of it and that's fine. The way we're being taught aikido is only 2 generations removed from the way the founder of the form (one of o-sensei's apprentices was the sensei of our sensei) taught it, and it's goal isn't Zen or Buddhism, it's Aikido.

I just thought the four great vows themselves were an interesting counterpoint to all the "our father who art in heaven" blustery hooplah which supposedly imparts greater moral reasoning than..well..focused moral reasoning.

PM, RN said...

Hah..i only just now remembered the koan read to us from "the gateless gate" or whatever the hell it was called, about swallowing the ball of hot iron.

Of course, whatever it is, I won't be able to "swallow it all whole".

The practice itself is challenging, years of reading about zen and buddhism didn't prepare my abused arteries and joints for the task of sitting in a half-lotus position (or even seiza!) for a little less than an hour.

Of course, once the discomfort goes away, i'm told the challenge becomes simply staying awake, but I'm nowhere near that, maybe I never will be.

I think that whatever the lineage of your meditation practice, however, what you get out of it is largely a function of whatever guidance you receive along with whatever you discover along the way. There's lots of window-dressing like getting slapped on the back or koans or dharma talks or chanting, but what it really comes down to is how awake you are. This is directly related to our practice of Aikido, even though our practice of aikido and zazen are completely seperate.

Chris said...

Yes, it's true that the contemplative prayer tradition is pretty much forgotten, but it also existed in an atmosphere of oversight in which the theology of outliers-in-practice was vetted. That's why it's been forgotten in American and Protestant circles--no urbane, educated hierarchy to balance zealots against heterodoxy.

The informing between aikido and Zen is what I wonder about. The Kenji Tokitsu book on Musashi quotes a 9th-dan kendo practitioner who says he started practicing Zen to help his kendo and got nothing out of it. Unfortunately, I don't read Japanese, so I can't research beyond the quotations, but I think it's interesting.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Zen practice was not a regular/important part of aikido training prior to WWII but that after the war aikido reformed its practice along with a bunch of other martial arts in order to conform to the "peaceful" image required by the US authority. Now, you're following your instructor because of the unbroken line of teaching represented by his lineage, but what would you make of the break in practice for the stylistically artificial reason of political expediency? If the connection with original teaching is important, the break throws into question the instructor. If the instructor's personal judgment is important, why? What evidence do you have that his practice leads to wakefulness? None, really. Of course, this supposes a break in teaching and practice. But do you know a break didn't occur? How do you find out?

PM, RN said...

I wouldn't expect someone who was already 9th dan at -anything- to be in dire need of additional training in focusing the mind (although i'm told often the difference between 6th dan and higher ranks in most forms is political more than anything), but as a component of comprehensive mind/body training, it's not all that out of the ordinary, whether it's aikido or the modern military.

Check out this article, for example, which describes meditation practice's use in the modern military. Snippet:

"This is a way to turn off your thoughts and get razor-sharp attention. We kind of work out the muscles, before our troops ever see action, so that they have the mental skill set to stay focused in the heat of battle - and to be able to leave the horrors of war behind when it's time to come home," Ernst said.

End snippet.

Zazen isn't practiced everywhere people practice aikido, of course. The reason it tends to show up there probably has a lot to do with the founder, Morihei Ueshiba. He grew up studying a lot of the old Koryu styles of martial arts that the samurai trained in. Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, I think, was one that the form he founded drew heavily from (also judo, but that's gendai budo, not koryu).

The significance of his fascination with the samurai, of course, was the use of Zen meditation by samurai to cultivate spontaneity in their technique and to keep their minds focused on the battle. (your other blog suggests you might be familiar with this aspect of history but for our other readers here's a link)

In the modern study of aikido, the relationship to Zen and martial arts is well-understood within the community. At a seminar taught by T.K. Chiba, one of the ushi deshi of Aikido's founder (who is now retired but he still teaches a seminar here and there), he admonished a student whose eyes were wide open while taking ukemi by shouting "zazen eyes!" at him. We all instantly understood what this meant, and how it related to the goal of meditation practice to be -aware-. Not by straining the conscious mind to "pay" attention, not with wide, active eyes. The advice mirrored something similar Juba Nour (an ushi deshi of T.K. chiba, as was my sensei) told us at a seminar, not to be "hypnotized" by our own hands while applying or receiving a technique.

The relevance of meditation in these experiences is obvious, I'm not sure what you're implying the wars of the mid 20th century have to do with it, or what someone could be said to be "buying into" by practicing it.