rohatsu reflections

It’s always difficult to put words into an experience like a silent retreat.  Well, it is now for me.  Used to be, I could come home and blather on about this, that, and all those people, places and things that collided during the days (often seemingly interminable days).  So far, I’ve been to two sesshins – silent retreats complete with oryoki (formal eating from three bowls and confusing utensils while sitting perched on my cushion trying not to spill anything on the zendo floor).  It’s actually fun.  And that being the case, I think I’ve been missing the point of sesshins.

Rohatsu is different, I told myself.  First of all, it has this exotic title and it’s a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Second, we practice not just to commemorate the event of his Awakening but it’s a chance to get there ourselves!  In other words, it can be categorized and there is a likely outcome!  Ingredients I tend to like in a mix.

Of course, this is supposed to be the ingredients of any sitting.  That I-am-too-friggin’-tired-to-sit-this-morning sitting, the why-do I-always-leave-it-for-the-evening-when I’m-too-friggin’-tired sitting, the Oh-good-we’re-in-sangha-so-I-can-just-look-like-I’m-sitting sitting.  All of these are opportunities to awaken.  But somehow, putting a name like Rohatsu and making it a festivity just seems to sweeten the deal which made Rohatsu a longed-for experience for many years.

I have to admit, I was a little anxious heading to Upaya this go around.  I’ve been in deep discussions with Roshi and Maia about issues of Chaplaincy and my thoughts about going into the second year.  Much of it is related to time but also to my categorical mind which cannot discern between Chaplaincy and Psychology.  But before we get into that, let me share a few memories of Rohatsu – which turned out to be a fascinating mix of sleep and waking.

Day 1: It’s like Homecoming!  Met up with all my buddha-buddies. My seat assignment is perfect!  I’m surrounded by my dharma pals, Andrew, Maria, and a few more.  It’s like being in a little dewdrop!

Day 2: This isn’t a picture of roshi.  It’s a picture my mind made of roshi when I met with her to continue our discussions face-to-face.  She asks, “What is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?”  I blather.  She says, “Thank you for your practice.”  But it’s that Bodhidharma look my mind registers.  A new koan: what is the difference between a Chaplain and a Psychologist?

Day 3: I’m into the oryoki.  Brought my own set too.  Bamboo bowls.  Laminated bamboo bowls. Somewhere from the depths of samadhi – or dozing, I can’t tell the difference – I recall the instructions: do not soak bowls in water.  The server fills the bowl with tomato soup.  It’s not water, I say, reassuringly.  It’ll be fine.  We chant the food offering and hold up the Buddha bowl (that’s the first and largest bowl).  In my case, it’s filled with hot tomato soup.  For a while anyway.  It seems hot liquid in a laminated bamboo is the perfect condition for liberation of tomato soup.

Day 4: It’s been 4 days and 12 oryoki meals.  I’m sure I’m transcending because my dharma sister and Chaplaincy classmate Susan’s red painted toes with a gold ring on one of them are looking like the path to nirvana.  Or maybe it’s just Pavolvian.  Susan serves larger quantities than that other server with the blank toenails.  I wonder if I will now drool every time I see red painted toes.

The temple assistant had asked us to take off all our jewellery on the first day.  I didn’t think my rings and earrings were “jewellery” since I wear them everyday.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  Not thinking.

I brought chocolate-covered almonds (code CCA) to get me through the rough patches and drop one on the floor of my room.  “TWO-SECOND RULE!!!” my mind screams (it does that just to get attention and  to hear itself speak).  Germs in the zen center, germs int he zendo… And I begin to wonder about the germs in my oryoki set (they only get washed out with hot tea at the end of each meal).  But then, germs are beings too and they probably are sitting Rohatsu along with us…

Day 5:  I’m taken by Enkyo roshi.  Something about the way her mouth and eyes dance when she’s scanning the room.  Like we’re mala beads and she’s reciting a mantra.  I’m hoping it has something to do with getting my enso submissions into the Sweetcake Enso art show at the Village Zendo. Oh… craving, clinging, ego, eggo, eggs for breakfast, hmmm, have to ask Sandra about that raw cashew fig cream thingie…

Roshi Joan, Beate Stolte sensei, and Kaz Tanahashi sensei all give talks along with Enkyo roshi.  The theme is “Buddha and all the buddhas”.  Kaz sensei talks about upper case Buddhas – and he gives an amazing historical perspective of the Big B-Buddha.  He’s not in favour of capitalizing Buddha because it’s all about the lower case buddhas.  Changing the English language, he says.  But not when we have to write Buddhism or Buddhists because in the face of all the other religions who get to capitalize themselves, we Buddhists should not “lower our case.”

Sensei Beate can’t stop laughing because Sensei Kaz says that in German all nouns are capitalized so Buddha has to become a verb.  I thought I heard Kaz say “ich bin buddhaen” but Beate is laughing to hard for me to figure it out.  She reads from Camus’ The Stranger.  I’m caught by the words: tender indifference of the universe.

Sensei Al had talked the day before about brains swinging in harmony and Enkyo gets into the groove with Zen Master Duke Ellington’s teachings: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.  Dowa, do wa, do what?

“Transcend the koans!” Roshi Joan says.

Day 6: We all go out in the early morning to watch the morning star.  At home, once when I sat Rohatsu, I stayed up through the night.  That was last year.  This year I’m too old to do silly things like that.  We walked out into the parking lot and huddled together.  That’s the brightest I’ve ever seen Venus shine.  Enkyo roshi had talked about the invisible buddhas who point out the obvious next thing we have to do.  Just after being slapped by Linchi for his impertinent question, Elder Ting bows when told to by an unnamed monk.  He awakens.  Body and mind come together in that instant.

Bodhi and mind.

Day 7: Svaha!  Loosely translated as “Yahoo!”

My roomie and I hit the trails to the Tea House for chocolate chai and pie.  Coming back to the ZC, I get a sloppy lip-smacking lick by Lucy the Wonder Dog.

And wake up.

And wake up again at 3AM the next day which lead into a 24 hour travel day with flight delays in Chicago.  Maybe I’m not too old to do that overnight zazen.

Thank you for practising,


musical chairs & the subtle nourishment of lack

Yesterday marked a turning point in my practice.  As most of you know, Frank and I facilitate/manage/runaround a sangha.  Most of the time, it’s a lot of fun.  We have an opportunity to sit, walk, drink tea, and laugh with like-minded folks who share a curiosity about life.  Sometimes, it’s a pain where the zafu meets the body part.  Events are rarely attended and often we’ve been left holding the financial bag for community gatherings.  (Probably the worst was a fund-raising dinner for a local charity to which we had “bought” a table for 10 and no one showed.)  We tend to roll with these things though Frank and I have markedly different approaches to the ups and downs of interest and attendance.

My view is quorum-based.  There’s no point going ahead without the right size of body count.  His view is to go ahead with practice and eventually the bodies count.

I finally acknowledge that Frank is right.

There.  It’s in writing and published across the multi-verse.  And yesterday was that kind of turning point in my practice, a realization finally that practice must be independent of all outward markers of success.  It was our Day of Mindfulness (zazenkai, for those of us who need exotica in our language).  The number of emails expressing regrets suggested there would not be anyone attending but we went ahead anyway.  One person did come – in fact he came twice: the day before, thinking it was Sunday, and again on Sunday.  Now that is dedication! K. walked in and said, “Oh, is no one coming today?”  And for the first time, I truly felt the paradox in our thinking.   I replied,  “There will be three of us today.”

I have wondered where this need for a body count comes from, especially in the sanghas I’ve attended.  One dharma teacher would send out anxious and angry emails railing at the community for not showing up.  Another would become furious when other communities formed because it threatened to take people away from his group.  A third, greatly beloved by all and sundry, took strips off Frank and me because we had only brought 11 people to his retreat (final body count 35) and refused to give talks at our budding sangha until we had over 30 people attending regularly for at least two years.

Looking back, I can see this as a subtle training in sensitivity to lack, to not having enough, to the Other as a threat to acquiring more.  Sadly, it reduces the spiritual path to just another form of desperate consumerism.  Interestingly, the talk I chose for our DoM yesterday was given by Sensei Beate Stolte at Upaya ZC: Exploring the Self.  In it, Sensei Beate goes on a bit of a tangent but an important one.  She describes the subtle ways in which we foster our fear of not getting what we deserve, not having enough.

She used the example of a child’s game, musical chairs. You know the game.  It starts out with much laughter and fun as the music plays, children run around the chairs, and squeal as they try to find a chair when the music stops.  Quickly though, the implications of the music starting and stopping sink in.  Now it’s become a full contact sport.  Has it ever become again just a game for us since those days of birthday parties and summer picnics?  Was this part of the early seeding of our competitive, driven nature? Do we still walk into a room, a situation and scan it for the potential of “one-less-chair-than-bodies?”

I had hoped it would not be that way in communities given to mindful consumption or dedicated to the uprooting of greed.  Apparently it is not and this is distressingly so.  The marker of a community dedicated to practice cannot be the number of bodies sitting in rows.  Admittedly, if we’ve got to support temples and structures which necessitate an accounting at the end of the day, bodies count.  And perhaps, that’s a morality tale in itself about tails wagging dogs.  At the same time, I won’t say I’m not concerned by the low body count in sangha-building but it’s more a concern about people not taking advantage of the dharmic riches available.

But yesterday, it was different for me.  Whatever it was, however many we were, it was enough.  In my striving to be homeless, free of attachments, I noticed that three of us shared a wonderful morning of meditation, followed by a lunch of roasted squash soup, fresh-baked bread, spinach salad, tea, a walk in the woods, and then a gentle sharing about our practice.  There were two chairs and a zafu leftover and no one had to fight for their seat in the circle.

Thank you for practising,