After All

The purpose of this post is to share a poem I wrote this week, but the context in which it arose is important, so here goes.

At 6PM this evening, the seven-day silent retreat called “Holy Days Sesshin” officially started. We monastics have been in gradual then hurried preparation from guest rooms, to monastery-wide floor cleaning, to altar ornamentation and more. It is the first sesshin of this kessei (100-day training period). The energy here is a wonderful blend of strong eagerness and bright nervousness. The week of sesshin is demanding, with long days and a lot of sitting meditation. There are also three “holy days,” commemorative events to celebrate the monastery and its community at large (Dai Bosatsu Day), the namesake of our lineage (Rinzai Day) and the birth of Siddartha Gautama (Buddha’s Birthday). Each of those days has distinct additions to the Dharma Hall altar, as well as its own chanting. These and other special events in the week has the resident monks on high attention to make sure all the details are covered. Overall, we are feeling a sense of vigor as we approach this seven-day journey in to human and universal consciousness, for the benefit and liberation of all beings.

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My lead up to this retreat was not at all what I had imagined it to be, reminding me of the line in John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy,” “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” During interim, I was doing four to six hours of Ashtanga yoga per week, in part, because yoga! and in part to be limber and tone for all the zazen, or sitting meditation, we will be doing during this retreat. It will be about six hours per day, which includes the time we will spend in morning service, special chanting sessions, the ceremonies, and dokusan (a private practice check-in with the Roshi). But leading up to kessei, duties increased, cutting yoga down to about an hour a week. Just as kessei started (March 24), I developed a chest and sinus cold. Fortunately it has been minor, but was just enough to fatigue me even more than our full schedule and six-hour nights for sleep. So no yoga since then. However, I have kept up vigor during zazen (well, except for a few sleepy and distracted sessions), and it created its own momentum to carry me in to sesshin.

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What really lifted me up were the three dokusan sessions with Shinge Sherry Chayat, Roshi, the abbess of Dai Bosatsu/Zen Studies Society. We established a genuine and amicable teacher-student relationship last fall, and meeting with her this week was a seamless continuation of that. My illness was the topic on the middle night, and with it came the reminder of the purpose of meditation: to cultivate the ability to remain present and aware in the face of anything, non-reactive, aware and ready to respond from and as compassion and integrity. When Shinge asked how my practice was, I responded, “Who is sick? Who is aching? Who is tired?” We engaged in a delightful exchange about the impermanence of this human experience, and the importance, even urgency of recognizing the original and pure nature of our consciousness… that which is not phased by anything.

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Shinge Sherry Chayat, Roshi
The following day I was feeling significantly better, and thankfully was called on to help with some outdoor work. It was sunny and gorgeous, and the light, fresh air and physical effort helped me feel even better. Fellow monk Keirin and I had to drive the length of the 2.3 mile driveway and fill potholes with gravel. The camaraderie and vigor of the work were good medicine, particularly our deeper chats when we would pause for a break. It should be no surprise that most of a Zen monk’s conversations are about the dharma, practice, what we learn along the way. In fact, some of those conversations are quite essential to the evolution of our understanding and manifesting the awakened life.

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In a moment while working alone, I reflected on what Doshin Michael Nelson, Roshi said to me last year. We were discussing my pattern of having deeper and deeper insights, yet relatively quickly losing touch with meditative mind, and going back to conditioned, egoic behavior. He said, “You keep looking over the edge then running away.” When I thought of that statement, I looked up from my work through the trees, to the sky, and felt and saw the unity of all things, that no thing is separate from another… there are no things, just appearances. In that moment, the bones of this poem came up, which I later fleshed out. I welcome your comments below, and will post about the sesshin next week.

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After All

I have walked
and crawled
and been dragged
and danced
thousands
of scribbled miles
to try to find
and then
try to stay
at the edge of infinity ~
Every time
I looked over
I gasped with delight
froze in electric fear
and ran away
again
and again ~
Here
Now
at last
with One
True Breath
being breathed
there never was
an edge
after all
and nothing to do ~
In any direction
I step
I Am
Home ~
Now…Here
each step
is a drop
of water
merging with the ocean
until
there are no drops
and then
after all
no ocean

 

© Paco Tozan Vérin
30 March 2017

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