The purpose of Zen practice is the perfection of character.
Yamada Roshi quoted in The Practice of Perfection by Robert Aitken
As you read this, I will be winging my way to Sant Fe, New Mexico for a retreat at Upaya Zen Center. A year ago I arrived at the doors of Upaya ZC feeling like I had walked every mile from home. My heart in tatters, my moral compass spinning, I had no expectations that 7 days was going to put a dent in my character failings.
It was not my first retreat but it was the first that included formal meals (oryoki). The mysteries of unfolding the linen wrappings, setting out the bowls and utensils, and knowing which spoon to use in which bowl had intimidated me so much I blocked out the request to read the 30-some pages (!) of instructions sent ahead of the retreat. By the second meal I was truly panicked. I could stumble along with the order of use of the spoons and chopsticks by watching my neighbours. But wrapping up the bowls at the end of the meal with a lotus leaf knot and without the bowls skittering across the zendo floor in the process baffled me. So I cheated: despite the injunction not to read anything during the sesshin, I pulled out the instructions I had wisely brought along and practiced in my room with a towel.
Achieving success was less about looking like an oryoki dork as it was about fully enjoying the beauty and perfection of the whole process from beginning to end. There was something deeply satisfying about the laying out of the bowls and utensils, the rhythm and cadence of the serving of the dishes, the bows to the servers, the slap of feet on the floor of the zendo in time to the drumming which opened the chanting. Everything dissolved into a dance with partners who quickly moved out of sight.
And in this life I have, I am slowly learning how to wrap things up as skillfully as I can when all is done.
Thank you for practicing,
Please visit Jomon at Nothing to Attain for a beautiful linking of oryoki and compassion