So tonight we're going to follow up on
yesterday's entry, by filling in
some less strictly chronological observations from the
Retreat, and maybe if we have time and energy including
some actual like thoughts and stuff rather than just
a raw memory-dump.
All Buddhas through space and time
All Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas
Maha Prajna Paramita
We'll do this as individual snippets with titles in
some font, just because we feel like
doing it that way.
And we'll start it with the traditional (although quite
likely completely inapplicable in this context because
what do I know) dedication up there, because we feel
like that also.
Okay, we'll dive right in with the Big Thing, but we'll get into
Virtually all the time, the zendo is a calm and formal place,
of silence and whispers, of chants recited in a (sometimes loud and
energetic, but still controlled) monotone, of ordered rows of
people sitting or walking or turning to bow to the Buddha
as they enter and leave.
There are a couple of exceptions to that, though.
One that I found just utterly adorable is at the call
to interview; when the announcement comes that the interview
line is open for a particular group of students to queue
up to see the teacher one-on-one, the relevant students
all rise and pick up their cushions, and run at
full speed (the skirts of their robes flying out behind
them and their bare or stockinged feet thudding on
the wood floor) to the back of the zendo to get in line.
I assume this is just as much part of the tradition as
the quiet and the calm at all those other times: demonstrating
their eagerness to receive the teacher's teaching or
But it's really cute.
When they said that the line for Daido Roshi was open to
retreatants on the north side of the zendo, I took my
cushion and didn't run but did move with some alacrity
back to the line, and sat down again, behind one fellow
(and faster) retreatant who was himself behind a couple
of robed students left over from the previous line call.
I had to cross the center of the zendo to get there, and
I didn't pause to gassho to the Buddha on my way past.
(I'm not sure that those running students do, either, although
I suspect that there's some complex pattern in the running
so that they in fact avoid crossing the center of the
hall or something.)
Note though that in the zendo Buddha doesn't get mad at
you if you forget to do that; you've just missed an
opportunity to contribute to the cohesiveness of the
community, and there'll always be others.
It's tempting to describe the ritual around dokusan in
detail, because there's quite a bit of it (the bell,
the striker held in two hands, exactly where you wait
and how the line moves up and where you leave your
cushion while in the Roshi's room and so on; all intended
to increase mindfulness and presence, although in small
doses I think mostly encouraging nervousness), but I'll
just say that I was really glad I'd asked Ryushin to
explain the series of bows again to me beforehand, because his
analytical explanation (the entire dokusan takes place,
in some sense, in the midst of a prostration, which is
cool) stuck with me quite well and at least I didn't
mess that part up.
Here I am kneeling in front of John Daido Loori
Roshi, a real live Zen master like in all those old
Zen stories that I grew up loving.
I've said "My name is David and my practice is
counting the breaths" (the latter not being probably
strictly true but as close as fit the traditional
form I suppose and I couldn't bring myself to say
something brilliant like "my practice is being nervous
in front of Zen masters" because in person as it
turns out I'm not really all that good at showing off
(unlike in print, heh heh), although in retrospect
it would have been fun to see what happened).
And not only am I forgetting to look Roshi in the
eyes, I'm also finding it difficult to breathe, let
I do get out one witticism; I follow up the
ritualistic statement of my practice by saying
"although I hardly ever get above One".
The effect is somewhat ruined by my saying it so
fast and garbled and breathless that he has to
ask me to repeat myself, but when I do get it
out he nods slightly and says "of course", which
And then I make a little gasp of some kind in trying
to get myself calmed down, and he combines that gasp
with what I've just said about getting past one, and
says (something like) that I shouldn't worry about little
breath sounds, that this just happens when the attention
has drifted from the breath, and I should just return to
the breath and everything will be okay.
And I consciously do that and it helps a little, and
then very frighteningly he says "did you have another
question?" suggesting that if I don't manage to say
something he's going to ring his handbell to signal
that the interview is over and yipes wouldn't that be
a waste, so...
Now since I talked to the student Bodhisattva over
supper I've been planning just what to say to Roshi.
I figured that I'd talk about my own practice, my long
exposure to Zen in various forms, the fact that I
know that he and I and the doorstop are all enlightened
Buddhas and that there is nothing to attain, and that
I think this has benefitted me in my life in terms of
compassion and all, and I'm wondering how I tell if
there is a reason to deepen my practice, and what
further benefit might come from that.
And I do get enough breath to say some of that, but I
leave out all the self-aggrandizing stuff about being so
comfortable with the paradoxes and all, and just say that
I've been interested in Zen since my father had the books
lying around when I was little, and that I feel that I've
benefitted from it in my life, and that I don't have any
burning dissatisfactions or anything, and so how do I tell
if it makes sense to deepen my practice beyond where
I am now?
Roshi nods, and says that Buddha didn't have any
deep dissatisfaction with his life either, he
just had some questions (and here
I remember to look into his eyes, and they're just
fine eyes), and that just having questions can be
And on whether it makes sense to deepen my practice
he says "trust yourself; you'll know".
And then the interview is clearly over (and it's not
like he just blatantly reached for his bell or
anything, it was just sort of obviously over and I
was bowing and saying "thank you for your teaching"
at the same time he reached for his bell and I imagine
"gently ending dokusan" is one of those Basic Roshi
And I did the closing half of the prostration and
stood up and backed to the door and opened it for the
next person, and we bowed together to the altar
behind him ("to the space", Ryushin said), and I left
and went back to the zendo, and rejoined yesterday's
So there we are; I asked a nice patient guy who reminds
me of Yoda (it's the head and the ears and the general
attitude, and at the Sunday talk I think it was he even
talked about how you shouldn't try you should just do
and I'll bet I had a really silly grin on my face when
he said that) a relatively obvious question, and he
gave a relatively obvious answer, and it probably took
like a minute and a half (next time I'll ask something
deeper, and pay more attention, I tell myself).
He didn't shoot sparks out of his eyes or anything,
but he seemed kind and practical.
Which I suppose brings us to...
Roshi: In particular John Daido
Loori Roshi, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery,
founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order,
holder of both Soto and Rinzai lineages, photographer,
artist, author, etc, etc, etc.
Seems like a nice enough guy.
The retreatant who had dokusan with him just after
me was very impressed; "you can tell by looking at
someone," she said "how much they really get it,
how deep it is with them; with him it's just
I didn't actually get that impression at all;
he just seems like a nice patient guy, with lots
of experience talking to people.
No special aura or anything.
His talks seem a little dualistic to me sometimes,
a little "West bad, East good", a little oblivious to
(or, to be fair and probably more accurate, a little
neglectful of) the paradoxes inherent in the whole
thing, in the inadequacy of words.
(But of course that's probably the part that I'm
fondest of, so I'm not exactly unbiased.)
He also lets the place be significantly pervaded by
him, and I find that sort of offputting.
In the dining hall there's a big display of some
photographs of his, and while they're just fine
photographs I'd think that modesty would tend to
advise against devoting too much wall space to the
works of the Roshi.
Similarly in the store there are normal bookshelves
with works sorted by author, and then there's a whole
vertical shelf devoted to "Works by John Daido Loori
Roshi", which seems a bit much.
I mean, the store folks would presumably do whatever
he said, and my ideal Zen master would have said:
"What the heck are you thinking? Just file those things
There's so much danger of Roshi-worship anyway
(see our references to Richard Baker and so on sometime
last January); it
would seem sensible to take more precautions.
And there's the whole "Daido Roshi" thing, which means
"Great Way Respected Teacher" or whatever, which is
entirely within the tradition but still seems a bit much.
I hope that the "Daido" was assigned to him by his own
teacher and not chosen by him, but still;
the whole practice of taking on exalted Oriental names
strikes me as bizarre.
When I'm a Zen master maybe I'll call myself "Abramovitz"
or something, just to keep them guessing (or maybe the
Japanese for "clumsy talkative person").
(Did the first few generations of Japanese Zen types
give themselves Chinese names, and the first few generations
of Chinese (and Tibetan?) Buddhists give themselves
That'd be cool.)
On the other hand, while Roshi doesn't hang out
constantly with the general monastery population and
laugh and talk and work the store counter and everything
like all the others seem to (have to maintain
some mystery and distance if you're doing to
run the place, I know), the other big thing that makes
the zendo feel less formal and sparse (in addition to
the adorable scampering of the students to the interview
line) is Roshi himself, when he's sitting on the high seat and
giving a talk.
He's relaxed, at ease, friendly, informal, focused on
communicating with the audience rather than
on fulfilling some form.
Not constantly cracking jokes, not laughing all that
much himself, but definitely a person and not just
some embodied Position of Authority.
Which is very good.
April Fool's Day in the Monastery:
important Zen fact: the monks and students in Zen
Mountain Monastery do in fact play April Fool's Day
tricks on each other, and aren't shy about discussing
the subject ("I really had you going, didn't I?
You were all pale!") in front of retreatants.
I don't know if anyone played a trick on Roshi, or
I didn't notice the stick in use at all at Fire Lotus, but
at ZMM it's definitely there.
During zazen the monitors pace slowly around, and each
monitor carries a stick (the kayosaku, Manjushri's sword,
although our zazen intro teacher didn't call it either of
those things, she just said "the stick of compassion" and
If someone feels like they need to be bashed with the
stick, they gassho (palms together, bowing slightly) as
the monitor goes by, and the monitor gasshos back, and
the sitter leans forward with the head to one side and the
monitor bashes the other shoulder with the stick,
and then the sitter puts the head to the other side
and the monitor bashes the opposite shoulder, and then
they gassho to each other and they're done.
I'd heard the stick now and then on Friday and Saturday
but not been sure if that was what it was.
On Sunday morning for whatever reason it seemed like a
good half of the people sitting in the row in front of
me were asking for the stick, and I was naughty and
looked up through my eyelashes and actually got to see
a couple of people get bashed.
The stick is, I think, made of a number of separate laths
("laths"?) of wood, and so when someone gets bashed with
it the laths knock together and it's real loud (and
it sounds more like wood hitting wood than like anything
My theory on the physiological effect is that it just
gets you a little shot of adrenalin because your body
is surprised, and that helps with focus and energy.
I'm sure there's a more spiritual explanation as well.
And, I can attest, just having the person sitting next
to you get bashed provides a certain energy all by itself.
turns out that I was wrong the other week when I said that
I'd be able to report back about how bad I was at Oryoki,
because this retreat doesn't involve any.
If I eventually do a few days of sesshin or something
(extremely intense zazen with meals taken formally and
in silence in the zendo), then I'll be able
to report back on how bad I am at it.
various moments of validation: Roshi's "of course" when I
said I didn't generally get past one in my breath counting
(at least I'm pretty sure that's what he said!);
a comradely squeeze on the arm from the Bodhisattva
registrar as she went off to get in the meal line
after I told her what had happened in dokusan and
thanked her again for encouraging me; one of the other
retreatants asking me at some meal whether I always
smiled so much; the tour guide on my second round of
monastery tours looking over at me when thinking whether
there was anything else she should cover (probably because
I had muttered something about pillowcases when she was
telling the tour group what we should be fetching from
the office when we went up to our rooms; yeah, I could
have entirely imagined this one but imagined validation
is good too); one of my roommates saying something about
how ramrod straight I'd been keeping my back during
zazen; someone at The Club this morning saying that I had
a real energy and glow about me (this was after I'd told
him where I'd been all weekend, so no health claims
should be inferred); and the young jewelery designer
with her cigarette chatting willingly to me despite
that I'm a strange old guy who talks too fast.
Dwelling on validation events, note, is not necessarily
the best way to realize the true underlying nature of
reality or the general inapplicability of concepts.
Nearly all of the retreatants, and most of the Monastery
staff, struck me as very whitebread: caucasian,
Buddhism, someone says in the latest issue of
Buddhadharma (a copy of which, by the way, was sitting
in the cabinet under the sink in one of the bathrooms I
cleaned on Saturday at Dharma Communications, which I
thought was funny), has often tended to be a religion
of the affluent.
Whatever that might mean.
In yesterday's entry I somehow skipped over the most
interesting part of Art Practice!
After the parts that I did describe, the leader first told
us to make sure that there was someone directly across the
table from us, and then to apologize to that person (at
which point we all laughed nervously), and then to look
right into that person's face, and try to draw them using
our brushes without looking down at the paper.
The person across the table from me was the one non-whitebread
face that I recall among the retreatants, a lovely well
nourished black woman with her hair spilling forward over
one shoulder and an urban accent and a really interesting face.
I didn't, of course, capture anything about her face at all;
my picture was probably the least recognizably face-like of
the bunch (her picture of me at least had eyes).
Once we'd all drawn each other's faces we took our drawings
and crossed the room and put them all in a grid on the floor
in front of the big fireplace and laughed and talked about
the experience and stuff, and that was great fun.
It was very comradely standing there shoulder to shoulder
with at least one person that you'd just spent some time
staring directly into the face of (something we all
agreed was a rare and intimate thing).
And then we all went up to the zendo to
hear about the teacher-student relationship, or
whatever it was that came next.
At every meal during the retreat there were big piles
of hot whole-grain bread to eat, which everyone loved
and everyone asked "do you make the bread here?", and
the residents all said no we get it from a place called
"Bread Alone" (Bread Alone)
which is right up route 28, and I remembered in fact passing
it on the way up.
So on the way out again I stopped there and got a loaf
of a very multi-grain bread (sliced) to bring home, and
a round loaf of some other random bread (not sliced) to
rip apart with my fingers and eat half of on the drive
and bring the rest home.
(I also stopped at the ramshackle Good Used Books
storefront down the road and bought a used copy of
"Wittgenstein's Nephew" with some of the last of my
the reason it was the last of my cash is that I left
all the tons of stuff that I usually keep in my pockets
at home (in a plastic toy-storage tub sitting on the
table next to my side of the bed).
All I brought was my car key, my house key, the remote
for my annoying car alarm, my driver's license, my
credit card, and a twenty dollar bill.
In retrospect a fingernail clipper and a comb would
have been useful additions.
A watch would have been also, as it turned out, but it
was interesting going without one.
I'd expected not to need a watch from the example of
Farm and Wilderness (see many previous stories here in
the weblog) where everything is run by bells and there's
no point to a watch.
At ZMM everything is also run by bells, but there are so
many different things going on at once that there are
always bells ringing (and gongs sounding and drums
rolling), and if you're a novice like me they aren't
very helpful since you don't know which are which.
So I pretty much had to spend most of my free time
downstairs in the office or the dining hall (where
there are clocks), which was an interesting constraint.
But next time I'll probably take a watch so I can
wander further afield.
Farm and Wilderness:
speaking of which, the one thing in my previous
experience that the Retreat reminded me of most was
Spring Work Weekend at Farm and Wilderness
(see for instance the
It's a place up north, dense with interesting and
intelligent and very kind and to some extent left-leaning
people, where you go to do some mundane work, and
some sitting in silence, and some communal sound-making,
and you sleep in bunk beds with friendly strangers as
roommates, and there are good vegetarian meals that you
stand in line to take from long tables and help to
clean up after. (And come to think of it even hikes.)
What could be better?
Now that the little daughter's probably not going to
F and W anymore (sniff!) having pretty much aged out of
the parts that interest her, maybe ZMM's going to serve
some kind of similar (and/or very different) place in my
(Is the future version of me who reaches back with his
time machine to arrange things being too blatant here?)
First, this food is for the three treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation,
and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone.
Nothing really profound to say about the chanting and bowing
and stuff, except again that I didn't find it nearly as
offputting this time as at Fire Lotus, because it was
better explained and in a wider context.
The lines above are a fragment of the meal gatha, said
in approximate unison
during a tiny ceremony before various meals, after the
bell has been rung and the person lighting the incense has
lit the incense and all.
The unison is very approximate.
It seems to be part of the process of all the chants at
ZMM that the voices aren't actually in sync, aren't even
as much in sync as untrained voices are capable of being;
I'm pretty sure that the experienced chanters are more or
less intentionally and explicitly keeping things rough,
broken up, not quite in step.
It makes the tone richer, I think, and memorable.
And the last syllable of every chant tails off suddenly
into a ragged anticlimax even when just one person is
chanting (so it's not due to any group confusion over
how to end, as I thought at first).
I noticed the tailing-off at Fire Lotus and sent them email asking why
that was, and whoever replied said they didn't really know,
it was just tradition.
It's pretty neat, really.
An appealing sort of anti-grandiosity; at least that's
how it feels to me.
Sentient beings are numberless,
I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustable,
I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless,
I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable,
I vow to attain it.
so having gotten convincing explanations from both Roshi
and Ryushin, I've finally chanted the Four Vows (so I'm in
line for Bodhisattva myself as soon as I get that little
"feeling compassion for all sentient beings even when they're
annoying me" thing down).
Gotta love a religion whose basic doctine is so clearly
I still don't like the Desire vow much.
The esoteric meaning is fine, but for the other three
vows the exoteric one is also fine (saving sentient
beings is good, ruling the universe is good,
attaining the Buddha Way is good).
But the exoteric meaning of the Desire one is some
kind of asceticism or self-denial or something, and
how lame is that?
But still, I'm fine with realizing the unity of myself
with all possible objects of desire (or anger or loathing
or indifference or fear or suspicion or low-interest loans),
so it seems unfriendly to hold out over details of wording.
Maybe someday I'll make my own translation that I
Ryushin is also
page about the senior monastics for details and pictures and stuff
of some of these people I've been mentioning) "responsible for
Monastery fund-raising and cybermedia at Dharma Communications",
which is cool.
Not long after Roshi's Sunday talk, someone walked into the
store saying "we've got this morning's talk available if
anyone wants it"; so they've got quick CD production down.
They also have WZEN, which has
streaming and podcasts and stuff, and they've been experimenting
with online mondo for students, and before long they hope to have
live audio streams of dharma talks and all.
Apparently Roshi's said that if Buddha were around today he'd
be using every means of communication at his disposal, so
there you are.
They've been online quite awhile, it seems; someone said they
thought that the "cybermonk at mro org" address had been operating
to answer random practice questions since the days of Gopher or
Also pretty cool.
That was extremely cool.
I stayed in a monastery, and did zazen, and had dokusan
with a Zen master (and beyond doubt failed to impress him
as anyone in the least unusual, which is no doubt a good
thing for controlling the size of my ego), and got validated
in all sorts of various ways, and generally had a great
time (and I haven't even told you about the lovely
windstorm, the birds, the building, or any of that).
First off, I've resolved to try making my zazen an actual
daily practice rather than just something I do sleepily
at night now and then, by setting a second alarm clock twenty
minutes earlier than my usual alarm clock, and sitting
faithfully in the time thus created.
(It worked interestingly this morning, in that after
waking up to the first alarm and sitting for quite awhile
I told myself that although it probably hadn't been twenty
minutes yet it really did feel like it (and my legs were asleep),
and since it was the
very first time there was no shame in just glancing at the clock
to see how many minutes were left before the second alarm went off,
and when I did it turned out I'd forgotten to set the second
alarm clock an hour ahead so it's a good thing I looked and in
fact I got about 35 ninutes of zazen and had to rush about a
bit to get everything launched in time in the rest of the morning.)
Also I've written off to ZMM in email and looked around on their
web site to follow up on some of the talking I did while there,
about other things that one can do, and maybe sometime I'll do
a weekend of sesshin, or take the whole family up on a Sunday
if that makes sense, or even
just go up there randomly
some weekend when nothing special's going on and do whatever
everyone else is doing (people seemed to think that this was
definitely possible to anyone who's taken the introductory
retreat, but I don't know the details yet; presumably there's
at least room and board to pay and advance warning to give).
And maybe sometime I'll be sitting in that little room
with Roshi again, or Ryushin, and keep my wits about me
long enough to exchange more than two sentences.
Or maybe we can just talk over lunch...
I tell ya, there's nothing like being woken up at 4:25am
by a guy
coming up the stairs ringing a handbell, when you've been
kept up most of the night by your roommates' snoring.
Which is to say, I did as
resolved and went up to
Zen Mountain Monastery on
Friday for the Introduction to Zen Practice Retreat,
and it was great; I just got back some small number of
hours ago (small when I started writing this
An Important Zen Fact: things to avoid while doing zazen include:
- having ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" (Bruce!) stuck in your head,
- mentally composing weblog entries.
I want to describe it all in utter detail to I don't forget
any of it, but I probably won't (and therefore will).
I'll at least take a crack at it, though, so there'll
be lots of detail that might be of less interest to
time-strapped readers before we get to any summing-up
or profundities or anything.
(In fact given how late it's getting, the profundities
and summings-up will have to wait until tomorrow!)
We did lots of zazen, and we chanted lots of chants
and bowed lots of bows.
When I went down to
Fire Lotus (over a year ago; sheesh!), I found the
chanting and bowing sort of silly and offputting.
I was much more comfortable with it this time, because
it was all better explained, and experienced for longer
and in a wider context.
I drove up on Friday (taking route 6 to route 87),
a fine drive, and got there a little after five pea em;
called home from the last gas station before the
monastery, as my cellphone had had no signal for
miles, and I wasn't sure if the monastery would let
us make routine outgoing calls.
(Funny scene: the Adopt a Highway sign a ways before
the turn, saying next whatever miles, "Zen Mountain
Monastary". Sic and all.)
At ZMM I parked where the kind young person suggested
I park, and I went into the building and registered
with the nice registration people, and was shown to my room
(five bunk beds for eventually six or seven people,
'way up on the top floor of the main building up various flights
of narrow and/or twisty stairs), and had a little informal tour
of the place (two tours, really; on the first one the zendo
was in use so we didn't get to see it except through
the little second floor viewing windows,
so I tagged along on
another tour later to see the zendo after some more people
had arrived) and sat around talking
until sevenish when we had a good vegetarian dinner, and an
introduction to zazen in the Buddha Hall while the regulars
did their first sitting in the Zendo, and then John Daido
Loori Roshi the Abbot came in to give us the general
introduction to the retreat.
But it had been hot in the Buddha Hall so they'd opened
the windows, and since the windows were open the moths
flew in, and when Roshi saw the heat and the moths he
decided we'd have our introduction in the main zendo.
(Once we were in the zendo and getting settled, he
said something amusing about the moths and
said "let's get the screens up today" or something like
that; and later on I heard one of the students or
monks or something say "yeah, he was looking right at
me when he said it, but they're not going to get put
up today and he's going to be mad at me!" or other
heartwarming words to that effect.)
I don't remember anything specific Roshi said in that
introduction (which shows what a good student I am,
since one is supposed to let the words of the teacher
flow in and by without clinging to them); afterward
we sat our first half-hour of zazen, which went very
well although (or because) I was sleepy and my legs
fell asleep so I toppled over slightly when I tried
to stand up the first time.
And then we went to bed (lights-out bell at 9:30pm).
During the night at least three of the six men in
the room snored, some astonishingly loudly and some
distressingly persistently, and some of them (of us),
possibly including some of the snorers, sighed and
groaned (and even giggled) and tossed and turned
because of the snoring, and since it was a strange
bed and I was sort of hyped up with the newness of
everything I probably wouldn't have slept well anyway.
But, I told myself, it's just one more thing to
practice with: accept the snoring and let it go.
That, and wrapping my T-shirt from the day before
around my ears,
got me through the night.
The bell-ringer was very welcome.
(Oh, also: the monastery has mostly deep-set artistic
single-pane windows. Modern practicality has added
wooden forms shaped to go into the
windows covered in cling-wrap to increase insulation.
Sometime in the middle of the night and the snoring,
the wooden form in the window just above my bed
decided to topple inward into the room and clack
loudly against the bedpost of my bed.
This startled me, but for the rest of the night
there was a nice stream of cool air flowing
Before that, the room had been getting decidedly
As we'd been told the night before, the morning
was conducted in silence: to the bathrooms to
brush teeth and excrete, changing clothes in the
pre-dawn bedroom, down for zazen in the zendo,
with the dawn gradually lightening the windows.
Half an hour of sitting (my legs asleep again),
then kinhin (walking meditation) to get out
the kinks (and I messed up the kinhin line,
because with my glasses dangling around my neck
rather than on my eyes I couldn't see the instructional
arrows of masking tape on the zendo floor and the
person ahead of me had vanished, and I stood
at the end of the row in confusion for a few long seconds
and I had started to go the wrong way when one of
the monitors alertly touched me on the arm and
pointed where I should go; I kept my glasses on
my eyes more after that), and then another half
hour of zazen, and then chanting and bowing and
stuff, and the end of silence, and then breakfast.
I was on breakfast crew, so I went into the kitchen
afterward (where the "Kitchen practice is silent
practice" and "Silence is observed in the kitchen"
signs aren't obeyed as studiously as they might be),
and took a bucket of warm water and some cloths and
went around making tables cleaner and hoping that those
last few people would get up and go sit on the couches
instead so I could wipe their tables also.
And then I wiped the shiny silver fronts of the
After breakfast was I think our first Caretaking
Practice, which is also done in silence (where
"silence" of course means "silence unless you
actually need to say something, in which case
say it very quietly").
The work supervisor person (all of these staff
people that I'm referring to, by the way, eventualy
turned out to be students and/or residents and/or
monks of various stripes; no mere employees here)
broke us into groups and said who should go where to
work with whom on what (including Shugen Sensei and
someone else who were working at Fire Lotus Temple
in Brooklyn, various people who were working front
desk, and Web, and Research Projects, and so on for
pretty much everyone in the place), and I went with
a couple of fellow retreatants over to by the Ox-Herding
Pictures on the wall where our leader person (a
rather Martha Stewart looking woman in nice L. L. Beanish
clothes and frosted hair and a somewhat annoyed
expression who turned out to be I think a rather
senior student or at any rate someone who turned up in
robes at zazen when she wasn't looking like she'd just
stepped off a sailboat in the Hamptons
and who was actually very nice although
she never quite lost that expression and didn't
laugh much) told us we'd be going over to DC to clean.
So I spent an hour or so (I didn't bring a watch,
which turned out to be a disadvantage, although an
interesting one) cleaning bathrooms at the
headquarters of Dharma
Communications, which was cool because I have
various things from them.
It's a nice sparsely-furnished and very neat building.
(And yeah although Work Practice is presented as a way
to continue one's work with the breath and being in
touch with present reality into daily life, I imagine
it probably does save them some money in maintenance
cost also, which would be fine with me.
Or for that matter maybe we retreatants on Work
Practice botch things up so much that it's a net
loss in terms of work productivity; who knows?)
After that the silence was lifted and we could talk
again, and we got into the more program-like part of
(And I probably have the order of this next bit wrong,
and I may already have messed up the order of some of
the previous bits, and oh well.)
Ryushin (one of the very senior monastics) talked to us
about zazen, and koan practice, and shikantaza and
stuff, and entertained questions.
He said all sortsa stuff that sounded exactly right to
me (and quite Ariadnite), and when I asked if it wasn't
therefore the case that even delusion is an aspect of
perfection, so even in our delusion and for that matter
our suffering we're still perfect and all (see
discussion) and he said yes that was a wonderful
point (or other extremely validating words to that effect)
but that of course it was one thing to say that, and
another to really believe / experience / live it.
Which is quite right.
Then John Daido Loori Roshi himself came in, nominally to
talk to us about the role of liturgy and the moral precepts
and all in Buddhist practice, but in fact he did a question
and answer session (sort of mondo-like) about those things
or anything else we felt like asking about.
People asked various things, and he answered them very
straightforwardly (he's a very straightforward kind of guy;
I have the feeling he'd consider my love for the paradoxes
and mindbendingnesses of Zen to be sort of beside the point).
He talked about how Buddhism is non-theistic but that
doesn't mean you can't have liturgy, and how the chants
that aren't translated aren't really words at all but
more like music, and all like that.
I asked about the Great Vow that's about desire, and since
desire is part of the perfection of the Dharma also why
do we pick on poor desire so?
And he answered very straightforwardly that desire can be
good or bad, and that the way to put an end to desire is to
realize that one is not different from the desired thing
and all, and that was fine as far as it went and I didn't
try to pester him with followup questions or anything.
(Outside, it was raining.)
And then we had dinner (noon dinner, the main meal of the
day) which was something again vegetarian and again very
good, and then (as I recall, if I don't have the order
all wrong) we helped move all the tables in the dining
hall (a big stone space with a huge fireplace at one end,
and the zendo up above on the other side of the ceiling)
to the side, and we had Body Practice where we learned
a couple of (um, I think) qigong (not Qui-Gon) moves,
"Swimming Dragon" and "Holding the Moon", which were
fun and stretchy and energetic in a calm Zennish way
After that we moved to the other end of the dining hall,
where the tables were pushed together and there were
paper mats and sheets of paper and big thick caligraphy
brushes and bowls holding the blackest ink you ever
saw, and we did Art Practice with a woman who lives
nearby and is a prominent lay member of the sangha.
We drew some lines with our brushes in time with our
breathing, and we drew the sounds that we heard (dish
and pot sounds from the kitchen, mysterious thuds
and clatters from here and there, and lots of each
other's brushstrokes), and we drew how it felt to be
various things she read us from a piece of paper
(leaves falling, pride, generosity, walking over hot
coals, walking through honey), and then we all
picked one of our pieces of paper (variously sparse
or dense or spotty or graceful) and held it up and
said a word about it ("this curve is generosity",
"this is the sound of Daphne's brush"; and one woman
had drawn a representational picture of a graveyard,
which puzzled us all but what the heck).
And then we all helped clean all that up.
And then (or somewhere around here anyway) Jimon
(another senior monastic, and former dancer),
who is the same person who gave my little group our
elementary sitting instruction down at Fire Lotus last
year and who has a great smile and who anyone
would like to have around at any time, talked to us
about various forms of the
teacher-student relationship, including funny
stories about her own experiences with Roshi and
so on, and we asked questions and stuff.
And then relatedly we went down to the dining
area and sat around with various of the other
monastics and the person who'd done Art Practice
with us and we talked about the various relationships
that one can have with the Monastery, and how
being an official Student is more or less
orthogonal to being a Resident of the place, and
the various options for being a part-time
resident, or a student who lives far away, or just
an ordinary non-resident non-student who maybe shows
up once in awhile and gets support from the website
and like that.
And that was informative and stuff.
And at some point in there I cornered Ryushin and asked
him about the vow about desire also and asked why we
pick on desire and not say anger or whatever and he
said that the word desire there really includes anger
and for that matter all other preferential connections
to external reality (not his exact words, but y'know),
and that we put an end to them by transcending the
duality between self and other and stuff, and then we
talked about various different layers of Buddhist
thought, hinayana and mahayana and vajrayana and all,
and that was extremely neat also because my god how
often do you get to sit and talk to someone about that
kind of thing who really knows what they're talking
And then we had supper, which was smaller than dinner but
still very good, and we sat around and talked.
I was next to the person who'd checked me in on Friday
(and who I'd emailed about having messed up the Web form
when I'd first registered online, but that's another story
and not worth telling) and it turns out that she's an
official Student as well as a full-time resident, and also
one of those people who when you're talking to them
the idea that everyone's really a Buddha / bodhisattva / fully
enlightened being while still being a perfectly ordinary person
seems entirely plausible, and we talked about our experiences
of practice and what reasons there might be or might not be
for sitting and for doing Zen stuff in general, and I
wondered if there was anything to be gained by deepening
my practice any or if the sort of random dilletantism that
I've done up to now was the right thing, and she said well
why don't you take that question to Roshi or Ryushin?
She said that because part of the Retreat weekend was that
each of us retreatants could have a face-to-face session
with one of the teachers, and Jimon had told us earlier that
we'd be able to choose between Roshi himself (for those who
thought there was some chance, now or in the future, that
they might want to become official Students) and Ryushin
(for anyone who wanted).
And I'd been thinking about omg do I want to have dokusan with
a real live Zen Master and yeah of course I do I can show off
my cleverness and all but yipes and what should I actually say
to him and maybe maybe whoa; and so her saying this was a
And them sometime after that (I think I must have left something
important out of Saturday afternoon, because it had more hours
in it than that) it was time for zazen again, and just as I was
getting settled they announced that the interview line for
Daido Roshi was open to Introduction to Zen Training retreatants
on the north side of the zendo, and that was me and I got up
with my cushion and went and sat in line and was amazed (and
maybe pleased and maybe abashed) to find that my heart was
all like thumping about and my breath a little uneven and
that was just while waiting in the line for Pete's
For tonight I think I'm going to skip the interview with
Roshi 'cause it's getting late and I'm not likely to forget
it between now and tomorrow (basically I asked a nice patient
man who reminds me of Yoda a relatively obvious question and he
gave a relatively obvious answer and I wouldn't have missed
it for the world).
After my dokusan I went back to my place in the zendo and just
as I was getting settled on my cushion the bell rang for kinhin
and this time I didn't mess anything up, and we sat down again
and my leg fell asleep and I tried to stay awake and to count
my breath and let the little thoughts come and go unheeded with
about the usual joyous and drowsy lack of success and then the
bell rang again and we probably did some chanting and bowing
and stuff but we were all pretty much unconscious by then
anyway so we somehow managed to get upstairs and fell asleep.
Lots of people, no doubt including me, no doubt snored
Saturday night also, but I slept right through them.
Sunday the Monastery sleeps in, so the bell ringer didn't
come until after 6am (although because of the Daylight
Savings Time thing we lost an hour's sleep; the Monastery
doesn't make any allowances for such trivia).
Wow, Sunday is just today, isn't it?
So this morning we got up (I heard the bell and
was awake and up instantly, while the bell ringer
was still on the floor below) and brushed our
teeth and had breakfast (no silence required, except
sort of in the kitchen where this time I washed
gathered for Caretaking practice again (and this time
the work supervisor forgot to call the names in my
group so we all went up after and said "I didn't hear
my name?"), and it turned out I was with the same
woman again (she was still kind and annoyed-looking),
and we went out and spent some time raking a bit of
grass next to the road between the main building and
the little store that didn't really seem to my eye to
need raking at all but I tried to return to my breathing
and let questions of the need for raking dissolve; almost
entirely without success but that's okay.
(Also I got a nasty set of scratches on my arm from a shrub
that was in the way of the raking, and now I have a big
Band Aid on it because it was stinging pretty much all
the way home because my shirt-sleeve kept irritating it
but it feels better now and thanks for asking.)
Then we went back to the main building and since it was
Sunday one of the monastics was sitting behind the little
table in the foyer greeting the random (and non-random)
people who were filtering in for the Sunday Open To The
Public service, and since I had forgotten to wear a headband
for the raking I was pretty much drenched with sweat and I
went upstairs quickly and tried to wash up a bit but it
didn't really help so there I was in the zendo
during the first bowing
and chanting and so on and the start of the first zazen
(while the newcomers were in the Buddha hall having their
zazen introductions), with sweat running down from my hairline
down my nose and into my mouth and down my neck and stuff.
But no one seemed to notice.
The air in the zendo was crisp and cool this morning, and
the sun was pouring through the windows (the clouds and
rain from Saturday were gone and the sky was a deep and
a cloudless blue).
I felt alert and energetic (and the sweat all dried pretty
quickly) and my mind was leaping about
here and there like (I decided) a puppy: "ooh, look at this!"
"here, think about this!" "we haven't thought about this
for awhile!" "you know what this sunlight reminds me of?"
Which isn't what's supposed to happen, but which was
And after two zazens with a kinhin in the middle Roshi
came in and sat on the high seat (which is "high" in the
sense of being like four inches higher than most of the
others except for the people with bad knees who sit in
chairs), and gave one of his usual Dharma talks based on
his own commentary (and his own commentary on his own
commentary) on a koan gathered a zillion years by his
pal Dogen, which was fine although as he said himself quite
amusingly during the talk he doesn't know of anyone having
become enlightened during a Dharma talk ("certainly not
one of mine" he said, which got a good laugh), but it probably
sort of lays the groundwork.
(If, that is, there were any groundwork to lay, and if
we weren't already all enlightened.)
After that we all went downstairs and had lunch (which
included cookies oooooh whereas the previous meals had
had dessert only in the form of peanut butter and jelly
that one could optionally put on the bread (more on the
bread later, probably tomorrow)) and went and sat on the
stairs behind the building, under the big Christ up on
the wall (one of the neater things about the building is
that big Christ, which various people told me some Socialists
or Communists or Neo-Nazis or something had pulled down
and tossed into the woods and/or used for target practice
in past years, and the Buddhists when they bought the place
had lovingly restored to his position), with the sun
streaming down and talked to each other about stuff.
(I talked inter alia to a lovely artistic young woman with
red-enhanced hair who is a jewelery designer
and who draws and wants to be a writer and who
also smokes and has an endearing nervous laugh
and between her and the registrar student I want
the little daughter to get out and start meeting
this kind of person some time last week, and
although I intended to ask both of them about what
it had been like to be fifteen I didn't actually manage to
work that into the conversation and the little daughter
says it's just as well because they would have thought
I was weird.)
After talking about stuff for awhile I remembered that
they'd said that the store would be open between lunch
and starting out for the mountain and so not wanting to
miss the store I went over and looked around and talked
to people and bought a copy of the liturgy book that
they hand around to those who need it during services,
and the obvious ZMM T-shirt, and I sympathized while
the student or monk struggled with the misbehavior
of their credit-card machine (not having brought much
cash with me), and like that.
(Between the main building and the store I walked
barefoot, it was such a lovely day.
As I kicked off my sandals on the way back, one of
my fellow retreatants walking in the same direction
said "now you're enlightened".
"Oh, that happened a long time ago," I said.
Such wags, we laymen are.)
And then I pretty much went upstairs and got my stuff
together and said a few good-byes (earlier on in some
meal line I had talked to the registrar student again about my
dokusan and thanked her for encouraging me and all),
and got in my car and left.
(Some people were going to climb Mt. Tremper and have a
service up there to mark the beginning of Ango, but that
would have added like five hours and I wanted to get home
to the family, lovely as that climb would have been.)
On the way home I stopped to get some bread, and to get
a fingernail clipper, and to try and fail to find some
bandaids for my arm, and to call home again from that same
On 87 south I saw the exit for 84, and decided that Yahoo
Maps to the contrary notwithstanding it would be fun to
take the Newburg-Beacon Bridge and the Taconic Parkway
home, so I did that and now here I am.
Pretty fascinating, eh? *8)
There's still bunches of stuff I want to write about it,
but I think I have enough written down now that I won't
forget the rest, and it is way late at night, and I do
plan to get up twenty minutes earlier than usual
tomorrow morning for some zazen, so I'll stop now, and
I hope finish with more words tomorrow.
Well, not "finish", but...