Ticking away…

[Author’s note: It is now four weeks after the first draft of this blog post, and it still is not posted. Another sesshin has passed (May 6-11), and as of late I’m just too tired in the evenings to write. “Time passes like an arrow…”]

Time has a way of flying. I wanted to post about Holy Days Sesshin (April 1-8) right after it ended to give you stories fresh out of the experience. I got a chest and head cold the night before sesshin started, and it lasted 16 days. On regular days, I’m usually up at 4:45AM and our evening sit ends at 8PM. Then I clean the incense bowls from five altars and have dinner after that. So it is 9PM when my personal evening time starts. During sesshin, I’m up at 3:30AM and we sit until 10PM. You get the picture. Generally, my (mental) energy level by the end of the day is not up for blogging. I also have been doing some more outdoors work lately, adding a nice but uncompromising fatigue at the end of the day. Every day I would think, “OK, tonight I’ll blog for sure.”

Suddenly it is three… now four weeks later (???!!!) and [the last day of April] May 22. Our free time starts on Sundays around 2PM, and I made firm resolve to at least start a new post today. To give you an idea of how tired I was earlier, I made a two-shot cappuccino at 2:15. At 2:45 I laid down to take a 30-minute nap which turned in to two hours. I did yoga, ate, socialized a bit, meditated with Nature on the deck, and suddenly it’s 10PM as I start to blog. The song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” composed by Sandy Denny while she was with Fairport Convention, is a lovely expression of the beauty and sadness of the fleeting of time… and of life. And Pink Floyd’s “Time” makes a more pointed statement on how easy it is to waste one’s life.

By the way, don’t tell other monasteries about our cappuccino machine. An member from Brooklyn asked if we had one, and upon hearing “no” decided to send us one. The residents who have been here the longest weren’t thrilled, but per tradition, gifts cannot be refused. So, our use of it was limited to personal days. That’s fine; it’s a huge luxury in a monastery. Although I do have mixed feelings about such indulgences while here, it is the first thing I do after lunch clean up is done on Sunday. Monks love caffeine. Not all of them love coffee, but those that do, LOVE coffee. How much? Here’s about 2/3 of the bag we buy about once a month from King David Coffee (who buys directly from small farmers and roasts in small batches per order. It is the best bean I’ve ever had. Try out his coffee and consider supporting such a high quality and ethical roaster).

One thing the contemplative path has me face is (the concept of) time. On the surface, I get a much closer look at how fast it does indeed pass. It’s already day 231 of the 1000 days…I turn 50 in September…today is already over. Going a little deeper, and what this post is about, I see how much time I waste in unnecessary thought. It is more accurate to say I see how much quality of life I waste in fantasizing. Thinking is a tool, and we need it to do things like design, build and use the computer I’m typing on, or plan and execute a project or activity, or make decisions. However, when I slow down and examine more closely what is actually going on in my head, it amounts to bad television, with way too many channels, and way too many reruns.

Now that deep contemplation and meditation are my primary activity each day, I can see and get feedback loops on my internal reality with much greater frequency and clarity. Did that make you gasp or cringe? If so, yes, indeed, it can be very uncomfortable, often, and even for days on end. This is the stuff that the bustle of “civilization” prevents from seeing. Be it education, jobs, family raising, entertainment; we often do not have the time or energy (in general) to slow down, be still, look, listen. However, isn’t the very source of our dissatisfaction and troubles in life caused by not-seeing of the aspects of ourselves that limit us? “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. We all experience fears, confusion, misunderstanding, varying degrees of depression, frustration and more. We wish we had more time and energy for what matters to us. But, really, what matters more than having an accurate understanding of who we are inside?… and the clarity to clean up what is contrary to the well-being of our lives and those around us (which, in the big view, is everyone… there is no separation)? In “It’s Alright, Ma,” Bob Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

One thing I have come to terms with is that the quality of my meditation practice, and of my presence, fluctuates day to day, even moment to moment. I see the perfectionist illusion, the lie of getting to some awakened, trouble-free stasis, or even of “forward” or “upward” progress. Mental chatter, either fixated on a topic or relationship issue, or bouncing around from things I have to do, want to do, don’t want to do, imagining my future as a Buddhist and land steward,… Ding! goes the meditation leader’s bell. The 45-minute sit is over… also revealing that life ends. What quality of mind, of being, will I have cultivated, will I be in, when it is my time to go?

There is an aspect of our culture (in the U.S. that does not deal well with death at all. From the obsession with youthful appearance, activity and behavior, to shipping our elders off to “senior communities” reveal how poorly we have integrated the reality of death in to our living. In Zen there is an exhortation, which Charlotte Joko Beck eloquently rephrased:

“Let us be respectfully reminded:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and with it our only chance;
each of us must strive to awaken.
Be aware! Do not squander your life.”

So when a meditation session, or a beautiful moment in nature, or precious times with friends, go by even somewhat unnoticed because I was elsewhere in thought, I notice it more and more. I used to react with frustration, yet lately it is shifting to a sadness, and thankfully with a positive spark to give extra effort to be present, aware, open and receptive, engaged. Sometimes, if the spin off in to thought leans towards negativity, it literally feels like poison, like I drank something toxic that is coursing through my body and effective every cell. And in reality there is no separate self, no “other,”  The Buddha said, “With our thoughts we create our world (or reality),” and the medical and psychological sciences are increasingly able to reveal the effects of our mind on our bodies and in our lives. I increasingly see the value in the practice of being acutely present. There is only now, and “what is” becomes “what was” in an instant…unceasingly. Meditation, why bother? To sit for periods of time in our day to recognize the timelessness of being…

…and reengage in our lives, our relationships, with that fleeting sense coupled with the infinite nature of existence…

My deep love for Nature is an ever-present reminder to slow down, and deeply appreciate the subtleties of life… be it a baby salamander…

…or a fungus fading from life, in a shape that reminds me what really matters…

 

and the playful miracle I experience of seeing smiles everywhere I go…also reminding me…

…to sit, be still, listen, be aware…

…and keep improving my ability to bring the stillness and awareness in to everything I do, within me and in my interactions with people and planet. I only have this one moment, this one breath, and if there will be next ones is never guaranteed.

I once heard monastic life mockingly described as “naval gazing,” a waste of time while the world desperately needs actions of healing and justice. However, monastic life is not an escape from life, but the deepest engagement with it, nor an escape from responsibility, but owning the greatest responsibility of all: to live each moment with as much awareness and gratitude as I can, and share that presence with others. At the monastery we keep a sacred campfire burning, so that those in society have a refuge to come to, to recharge and then bring to the world the stillness and clarity and compassion that is so greatly needed. Whatever your tradition or practice, I hope you will give the time to dwell in the timeless, and bring its wisdom and light forth in to your life and to those around you.

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

“Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile!”

I have always been able to see shapes of things in the surfaces and textures of just about anything. All the painting and drawing I did growing up and into early adulthood further developed the ability. The suggestion of a dancer in tree limbs, a mountain range in the moss on a decaying stump, a tree in the frozen water at a creek’s edge…

Many years ago,  I don’t even know how many, during a difficult time, I saw the shape of a smiley face in something. It gave me encouragement, a spark of inspiration, like a friend showing up to remind you that everything is going to be OK. Over time, the shape of smiley faces would show up now and then, not just when life was challenging, but in the easy and joyful times, too. Just now and then, once every few months, like the surprise of the first Crocus of spring popping up to say hi and share the good vibe of being.

From an old school Zen perspective, this could be dismissed as a pointless distraction, an egoic creation to reinforce the illusion of self. But as Zen and modern psychology both evolve and merge, it is well know that cultivating a healthy ego is essential on the spiritual path. As Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” states about stages of development, we must “Transcend and include;” meaning, as we move through and out of stages of development, we transcend them, but it is also essential to include them as part of our understanding of being, and to understand and relate to those people who are in stages that one has moved through. Or as a contemporary Zen saying goes, “You have to be someone before you can be no one.” And now neuroscience can pinpoint what happens inside us when we see smiles. And to bring it all down to Earth, seeing smiley faces just feels good, and I welcome them all. And I’d like to give you a closer view in to the experience I’m having.

The initial months of living and training at Dai Bosatsu was both positive and rough. It was quite an adjustment, letting go of so many activities and places and things and proximity to friends… all at once. And starting on a journey of directly facing every aspect of oneself and the immediacy of impermanence… of things, of circumstances, of people, of me. And wouldn’t you know, the smiley faces started showing up, at first once every week or two, then a couple of times a week. It was truly encouraging. Then, when I returned from winter travels in January, and I found myself having to do some deep digging to resolve communication issues within me and with a fellow monk, they started showing up, a lot… several a week, then more by the day, and from many per day to many in a single moment and space.

You could be thinking that I’m just a tripped-out dude, but the remarkable thing is that these appearances are playing an important role in my evolution and awakening. Junpo’s dharma reveals that we can use the counter-productive aspects of our personality to liberate ourselves from them, both psychologically and spiritually. And, most importantly, we can, and even must, do so with a sense of humor. We must be seriously focused on both realizing the infinite nature of our being and our inter/personal behavior. And yet we also must be able to laugh at ourselves to lighten the load, as well as laugh in celebration as we awaken.

This two-fold approach is wonderfully presented in the book, “The Heart of Zen,” a transcribed dialog with Junpo. It is an easy read, as if you were hanging out with him and chatting. Yet, it cuts directly to the essential matter of simultaneously cultivating emotional maturity while realizing spiritual liberation. Junpo brings it home that the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact are interdependent; each expands the other, and we must develop both simultaneously if we are to be whole and free. To help with this, the practice of “Sacred Laughter” he teaches can be found in the free Hollow Bones Sutra Book. Part of practicing Sacred Laughter is to cut through self-centered seriousness, and part is to tap deeply in to the inherent joy of being. Try it out and let me know about your experience in the comment section below.

So how is this working for me? What is actually happening when I see these smiley faces in things?

On a simple level, I think too much. I can easily get lost in the distraction of mental activity, both the practical sort (planning and organizing; contemplating solutions to situations; deciding what to make for lunch, et cetera), and the fantastic sort (playing out scenes of what I’ll say to someone and their possible responses; imagining all the what-ifs of a situation, both light and dark; fantasizing the life I want, or could have had, or am heading towards, et cetera). Or it can be random mental babble, like channel surfing. Increasingly, the smiles show up to remind me to come back to the present, to reenter my body-mind, and if reflecting on a situation or relationship is necessary, to include its intelligence and wisdom… in fact to engage it first. And to have a good chuckle about it all.

On a deeper level, I can be too serious, can shut down in moments of conflict, get rigid when I feel overwhelmed with responsibility or when in situations that I don’t know what to do. In my confrontation with a fellow monk, I was called “uptight.” It was a hard pill to swallow, but on honest examination, I could see that sometimes I really am, and for no other reason than being unconsciously caught in habits of being over-concerned or afraid about something. The smiley faces show up and remind me that I got hooked, and to laugh and let it go, returning to heart-centered joy and a clear mind.

Part of the ego’s game is to create concern where there need not be any, or where there is need, to dial it up too loud. I’ve been amazed, as I look closer and more consistently at my mind patterns, how quickly and easily I get hooked by that habit. And as I see it in me more, I also see it in others as well. This is doubly liberating because in seeing theirs, I can relate to them from Presence, rather than their fear story, or mine. I do not have to get pulled in to their tension or drama, nor do I need to generate any of my own. Wow! Can you imagine how much freer and how much more energy I have in the day by not burning it up in these ways? And can you imagine what the world would be like if more and more of us were doing this? We could celebrate by eating happy face risotto with mushroom cakes together!

Or some Irish soda bread with currents!…

Of course, we can create smiles, and all kinds of beauty, in our day, simply by where we keep our attention, centered in imperturbable, receptive and curious heart-mind. It can show in how we move, or speak, work we do or play we make, like this joyful Buddha snow person made by Junje, a recent visitor to DBZ. It faces in to the building through a double sliding glass door, so is a delightful and playful reminder for us as we bustle about with chores or head back to the zendo for another session of sitting meditation. Thanks, Junje!

Whatever you think of this experience I’m having, I wish you more smiles in your life, from outside and inside, coming from and reflecting back to you the pure and clear awareness which we all have, which we all are… from, and before, birth. I invite you to share your musings and experiences in the comment section, and before you do, here is a smile from me to you. Remember the Grateful Dead lyric, “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile,” and have a wonder-full day!

Stillness and Action

We must take steps
in to activity
in to this world
in to relating with others…

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The footprints that we leave
on a task
on something made
in a person
on Earth
reveal
reflect
what the weather is like
inside
the doer…

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Meditation
is not an action, a doing
rather it is a state of being
to recognize
to remember
the endless silence
from which all wisdom is spoken…
the impeccable stillness
from which all activity arises…

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The bringing together of palms
at the heart
is a gesture of unity
of heart and mind
of self and other
of being and doing…
two as one
one as two
and yet not one and not two

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This is the practice
for those who want to dwell in peace
and clarity and harmony
to rediscover
the stillness
and unite it with our actions…
so that stillness and action
are experienced
at once

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Communication Breakdown and The Tunnel to Heaven

 

When I started this blog, I intended to do at least a bimonthly post, if not every week. I also knew there was a chance I would not blog so often, that the rigor of the schedule and the depth of the practice would not leave much time or energy. No matter what we are doing here, every activity is meant to be meditative practice, an opportunity to deepen one’s awareness, have insight, even step through in to the unfiltered consciousness that is our original nature. Doing sitting meditation is but one of these opportunities, albeit the most still and silent. Every day, therefore offers experiences and insights worth sharing here. I get excited about the gems of awareness I gain and want to recount for you what led to them, or the struggle I encountered and how I made it through. But if a week goes by, there is more to tell than I have time for… and if two, then three go by, I do not know which tale to choose, nor am I in the freshness of the experience any longer.

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The first two weeks back at the monastery were quite peaceful (late January).  It is interim now, the time in between the formal and rigorous training periods called “kessei.” There were only five of us here, we enjoyed a relaxed approach to practice and work. The newest resident at the time happens to be an amazing cook. Creating a more balanced and nutritious daily menu had been in discussion for a while, and she helped establish that further, and in delicious ways. We stopped eating “okayu,” rice porridge, and now are enjoying a custom multi-grain blend that includes millet and quinoa for protein. We also started doing embodiment practice first thing in the morning (it was previously scheduled for 4PM). One is free to do whatever their practice is, though most of us do Ashtanga yoga. To support a good sitting meditation, it is best to do an embodiment practice first thing, then sit. Everyone’s energy levels are higher and our sitting is better throughout the day, our bodies warmed up, limber and relaxed. I was feeling so peaceful, so grateful to be here, so optimistic for the unfolding of my journey.

Then came the storm…

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I found myself in a communication struggle with a fellow monk. He was repeatedly interrupting me, and I got quite tense about it. I mentioned it to him once, and was met with push back. By the time I talked with him about it again, I was even more knotted up about it, so my tension evoked reactivity in him. He countered with some observations about my behavior. I felt caught in a trap of my own tension and the truth in what he said about me. At the same time, he cleverly avoided addressing my experience and concern about his interrupting me. I let the conversation end, knowing it would not progress well unless I took time to get clear and grounded.

A prickly discomfort arose as I examined my tendency to get tense when communication does not flow, and then speak from that tension. Simultaneously, I began spinning fear story that our relationship would always be problematic, that he would not acknowledge or work on his habit of interrupting me. I was so disappointed that that joyful, easy time had turned in to this. Although I was creating a state of pain for myself, I knew I had to just stay with it, look, and look again, trusting clarity would come. So I began looking for the clarity in my turmoil, and the way out.

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I saw how I unconsciously let my reactivity escalate, creating a miasma of fear, spinning in my mind, trying to find the right language to resolve the situation with the monk, and making movies about all the possible negative outcomes. I was spinning out everywhere: in the zendo, the hallways, during meals. My meditation practice was shot. I felt as though I were in a whirlpool I couldn’t get out of. I was poisoning myself. I knew had to look over the edge in to the depths of my mind, and face what I would see.

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Gradually, I saw how my perception and reaction patterns around being interrupted had formed, revisiting experiences with my parents, teachers, kids at school, and on in to my teenage and formative adult years. In some communication situations I am fine with asserting myself, and in others I shut down, and seeing the difference, I am gaining clarity on what was triggering the shut down. Also, since at least high school, I have noticed that some amount of interrupting is a social norm; people do it all the time, speaking over each other, or speaking as soon as someone is finished with no acknowledgement of what was said. I never liked or understood this, but I have rarely heard anyone express any discomfort or issue with it. So, I would just let it be, but then found myself not speaking much, as I kept looking for the appropriate pause to have my turn.

Over time I became aware of the more aggressive kind of interruption, where it is no longer a casual occurrence in a flurry of social exchange, but a conscious or unconscious effort to deliberately override, discount or silence someone. With enough introspection, and checking in with a couple other monks about my experience, it was clear that this dismissive type of interruption was the kind that had been occurring. The tone of voice used helped expose it. Confirming my experience within and from feedback was a great relief, as was recognizing that I can only work on myself, and that for now, focusing on my process was enough. The opportunity to revisit the interruption issue with the monk would present itself in time. No rush. No worry.

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Sometimes we know things, yet find ourselves learning them again, but on a deeper level through an uncomfortable or even painful experience. In fact, this is the only way we cultivate wisdom: clearly and intelligently recognizing truths through our lived experience, especially the difficult ones. In any painful experience, there is always the light at the end of the tunnel. As we awaken to purity of our unconditioned minds, and the miraculous reality of our existence, we also awaken to the truth that the tunnel itself is light, even though it seems dark. The essential skill to develop is this recognition, and to focus on the light while being aware of the content in and experience of the tunnel, and remembering it is just a tunnel, and that we invariably come out at the end, in to greater and greater light. No birth or rebirth is painless, but every one of them is miraculous.

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Through this experience I re-recognized that I must free me, and cannot change others. I owned that I had approached the fellow monk from my contraction, not clarity, despite my best intention to improve our communication. I saw that he may not be willing or ready to look at his behavior and its impact, and despite that, when he is, I will be available to support him. If the interrupting persists or gets worse, I may call for a communal or facilitated conversation. In seeing all of this, suddenly I felt liberated of all the heavy, draining knots I had built up in me. I had new energy during yoga and zazen practice. I rediscovered the openness of seeing & feeling in to the vast, imperturbable conscious we all come from (that may sound too deep, or esoteric or weird to you, but if you sincerely look, you will see it, too). And humor and light heartedness returned, releasing all the tension in my body and mind.

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And wouldn’t you know, the quality of my connection with the fellow monk shifted. I choose simply to be myself, buoyant and energetic, present and free. We could enjoy each others company, collaborate on daily tasks, laugh… Curiously, the interrupting decreased, so maybe he understood and is making changing without saying so. Maybe not. But I do know I have new clarity and centeredness to address it if it happens again.

When we look within and honestly face whatever is inside us, we can embrace and work with our reality, and more easily change and evolve ourselves. Through this we naturally become open and clear inside, and have a better chance of positively influencing outer reality and relationships. “The kingdom of heaven is within” is a deep truth statement. It is up to each of us to enter our  inner kingdom or queendom. Come, let us all live in the dignity and grace of the wisdom, compassion and skillful means that reside in us all.

Burning Heart

Returning To The Well

I return to Dai Bosatsu Zendo today. It has been a very important month for me, spending time with my parents and family, friends that are family, and the Hollow Bones sangha.

Many people are surprised that I “got out” and ask if this time counts towards the 1000 days. To this: there are no public activities at DBZ this time of year, and it is the most appropriate time for the few residents to visit family and tend to worldly affairs. Per the counting of days, it absolutely counts. The purpose of meditation is not to escape the world but to develop awareness and tools to be fully engaged in it with open heart and mind. To me, this month outside of the monastery was both a test and additional training, and I am de-Lighted to say it has been deeply fruitful.

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I have seen that the training at DBZ is powerful and I am integrating it well. I have experienced that by freeing myself from small, scared egoic perspectives to recognize that all the love and connection I ever wanted is always all around me, and I am so profoundly grateful to those who have shown me love. I have also experienced that all the love in me that I have wanted to see people receive has always been received, and I am also grateful to those same people.

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In Buddhist philosophy, now supported by quantum physics, there is no actual separation of “self” and “other,” only the temporary perception of it. How much we are willing to let go of our small view and open up to the infinite one/One is up to each of us. And more than ever, when fear is hyped in “news,” Facebook posts, conversations, we must practice this deep, selfless awareness and bring forth the strength and compassion it reveals in to our personal lives. Fear nothing, especially not this inauguration day and its implications. It is not a problem; it is a call for you to wake up to the deepest truth of being human and to actualize it in your life.

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Thus I strongly urge and invite you to take on a strong and clear meditation practice… not tra-la-la new age “bliss out” meditation, but meditation that enables you to recognize the infinite consciousness from which your very life arises, and empowers you to actualize this awareness in your life and relationships. Consider attending a 6-day Mondo Zen retreat that provides the experience of meditative mind, tools to root the experience in body and mind, and a support structure to integrate your experience in to your life when you return home. Also consider a traditional, silent 7-day retreat at Dai Bosatsu. There is no experience like entering the deep well of silence, and finding that same silence within you. Then, bringing that insight home, you can experience the freedom that all the wisdom traditions speak of.

I look forward to seeing you in this One Heart-Mind, and sharing de-Light in this world.

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The Most Important Gift

It is said that only poetry can come close to expressing the ineffable of this mysterious life. I agree.

After a slow breakfast and good conversation planning the release of the book my dad is writing, my parents took a nap. I sat down on the couch with my laptop to check Facebook for replies to a post I made about a heart-opening experience I had last night. Writing and editing the post took nearly an hour… I tend to start refining my writing as soon as I think it is “done.” I was up past midnight. This morning, it was a delight to open the post and see many beautiful replies, and a mounting number of “likes” and “loves.”

Suddenly, as if often the case when I write, an image and phrase came to me… ah, Muse, it’s you! and I gracefully took hold of the thread and followed it where it would lead… and a new poem was born. This Christmas Day, with love, this is my gift to you…

The Most Important Gift

The most important gift
to open
today
is beneath the tree
of an eternal beauty
and shelter
that I have always been
under
or at least near
whether or not
I knew it
at any given time…
despite the entangling

brambles

and the unpredictable

bombs

there were the moments
I could sense it
so near
could feel
inside
its fresh soothing
presence
on a breeze
or in the beauty
of the sunlight
caressing whatever scene
I happened to be
in
whether it was
a shiny or cloudy day…
or heard it in a song
saw it in a picture
or understood
the whispering wisdom
of a spring rain…
the low-flying geese
under a midnight full moon
above glowing fresh snow…
or in a kindness shown to me
by friends
or strangers
as if any of us are
actually strangers…
even in my parents
when their beauty
was truly available…
the gift
so obviously
is my heart
one of many hearts
of the One heart
which I have
indeed
opened
again and again
usually by silent intuition
and thankfully
now
with purposeful choice…
having learned that the hurt
when tearing the wrapping off
is inevitable
and not so bad
and found that the more layers of paper
the more strips of tape
surrounding the gift
the more time it may take
but that’s OK
just tear it open
not with reckless abandon
nor drawn-out caution…
just feeling what is
inside
letting it guide me…
understanding that a gift
left unopened
is not fully a gift…
although the tree
will keep it safe
until it is time…
and maybe the time is now
to at least pull a piece
of the paper
off
letting some of the light
in to
this gorgeous and tragic
world…
and maybe the time is now
to tear all the wrapping off
and let the deepest truth
and love
free.
© Paco Tozan Vérin
12/25/16

 

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Rohatsu 2016

This post is sooooo late. I wanted to have it done soon after “Rohatsu,” the eight-day retreat from from November 30 to December 8. The week was long and abundant with challenges, joys and insights… I could write a chapbook. Between catching up on rest after the retreat, and on-going monastic life, I was not tapped in to the muse to distill it all for you. Now I am in Ohio visiting my parents and family for the holidays, and have some respite to edit my jumbled draft. Hop on; here goes….

“Rohatsu” means the 8th day of the 12th month, which is supposedly the day that Siddartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, became enlightened (more on this another time). It is also known as “Bodhi Day.” The week is intended to be the deepest dive of the year in to meditative mind, and even to fully awaken. One must bring great determination and courage to engage in the rigorous schedule and to see deeply in the pure nature of human consciousness. The days are longer than regular retreats (4:00AM-10:30 PM). Plus, every two days a half an hour is added to the schedule, and on the last night one has the option to stay up and meditate all night, as Siddartha did. By that time, “all night” only means from 12:00 AM until the wake up bell at 4:00 AM when a new day starts.

I was very much looking forward to this sesshin, to immerse myself in the kiln of long and profound meditation. It was to be my third Rohatsu ever, but my first at DBZ. Thirty four people in all attended, a nice amount to make a strong meditation container. A couple of days prior, I was told my officer role would be assistant jisha, or temple attendant… lots of care-taking of the space, organizing temple cleaning, serving of beverages and treats, and the like. Then I was asked to make breakfast everyday. OK, but darn, as that would cut in to meditation time, but not too much. Soon after I was told I would not be assistant jisha, but assitant tenzo (kitchen help), as I was on the prior retreat. But, I was told, I would only have to help periodically; I would still get to sit a lot.

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The zendo, or meditation hall

It is important to know that the role of tenzo, or head chef, is taken quite seriously in Zen monastic culture. Tenzo means “heavenly monk,” and the person selected must first and foremost be deeply spiritually committed, and infuse the food with reverence and care. Naturally, the same ethos applies to tenzo assistants. How a tenzo handles the food influences the quality of the monks’ bodies and minds, and thus their practice and the community as a whole. Actual cooking skills were secondary in olden times when meals were quite simple. Now there is a higher culinary expectation, and planning and executing the meals is quite an organizational and creative task.

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The meal plan for the week… note the multiple edits and amendments… note that you are drooling as you read the list.

On day one, I prepared breakfast per usual, which is “okayu,” or rice porridge (the toppings are toasted sesame seeds, nori seaweed flakes, and soy sauce), pickled vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and sliced fruit. The prep is routine for me now, but I always delight in making food for people. Particularly, accurate and efficient use of a kitchen knife is a joy and meditation for me, so making the fruit mandalas is quite satisfying. After breakfast I helped with lunch prep, then spent the rest of the day in meditation, yoga and a dokusan session with the abbess. Sweet! The best of both worlds.

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But starting on day two, part-time became full-time, and I was in the kitchen from 5:15AM to 6:30PM every day, plus at 10:30PM to start the next day’s okayu. I only got to go to the zendo in the evening (which was about three hours of meditation). But by then I would be very tired from the kitchen bustle, legs aching and knees a bit swollen from standing all day. I had to fight sleep and was doing “bobbing zen,” dozing off and drooping forward until reflexes jerked me back upright, and maybe a bit awake. Each time I would get determined: “OK, that was the last one. I’m staying awake now.” One or two or maybe three conscious breaths, and the next thing I know I’m startling myself out of slumber as my slumping body yanked itself upright again. Sigh…

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The kitchen at about 6:15AM. Breakfast is almost ready and lunch is already being prepared. The early light makes the snow outside appear blue. Keigetsu is doing some of the endless flow of dishes.

Before I tell more of my story, I will introduce you to the tenzos. In Buddhism (and other traditions), there is an ideal of two or more people doing something together as “one mind.” In the unity of all things, this one-mind is already the case, and the appearance of separate selves with separate perceptions is just fanciful display. But since this display has its own realness to it, we look at this one-mind state as something to strive for, or cultivate (If this perspective is new to you, chew on it a while…).

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In a community or group that regularly does things together, a collective awareness and functioning tends to be the norm, of course in varying degrees depending on the people, the culture, the activity and so on. It is even more the case in a setting like a monastery, where there are practices, beliefs, language, and intentions that are already collectively engaged in, so being in this one-mind comes easier (wouldn’t it be an interesting social experiment to teach meditation to groups and communities, offering this perspective?)

I never saw one-mind so amazingly displayed as by the head and second chefs during this retreat. The head chef, Jusui, is Korean and grew up in South America. The second chef, or better yet, the other head chef, Keigetsu, is Chinese. They have both collaborated in this kitchen before, but other than that have not necessarily spent all that much time together. However, watching them co-create meals and work together, you would think they had spent their whole lives cooking together. Their interplay and coordination and spontaneity were uncanny, much like well-structured yet improvised jazz (which, done well, is sonic zen). The dishes reflected both the roots of their cultures and the freedom of contemporary fusion. If you had come to this retreat only for the food, there is a good chance you would have left enlightened due to it. These radiant cooks a good indicator of that!

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Keigetsu, me and Jusui

As the week progressed, to remain meditative became a struggle as incessant mind chatter increasingly infected my day. It was a lot like that tickle at the back of your throat that hints that you may be getting sick, and perhaps you do something to stave it off, but to no avail: the illness takes over and there is no getting out of it quickly. I yearned for the silence of the zendo, but eventually remembered, “Wherever we go, there we are,” and that “peace” is found neither in an external circumstance, nor in repression of internal noise: it is a state inherent within, to be chosen, at will, moment to moment. So, I continued to practice returning to the present best I could, not giving in to nor fighting the mental chatter, nor trying to stop the frustration that arose in me.

Contrary to the stillness and silence in the zendo, being in the tenzo necessitates talking and activity, which is often a flurry of tending to multiple stages of meal preparation, and of multiple dishes, all at once. At each meal, everyone has their own three bowls to eat from, called a jihatsu set, and so the tenzos must prepare a dish for each bowl, or nine different dishes a day. Plus there is the never-ending washing of pots, pans, bowls, utensils.

Sometimes our planning and prep talk slid in to non-essential chatting as we sampled each other’s dishes and discussed past culinary experiences. That could start us dipping in to topics having nothing to do with food or the intention or spirit of the retreat, which can become a self-perpetuating slippery slope. We would help each other return to silence, and when the focus was strong it was its own unique vibe: three individuals each doing different things, yet in and as “one mind” exclusively focused on preparing high quality meals with great care.

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Foreground: kabocha squash about to be glazed for roasting; background: Jusui’s Korean scallion pancakes

During an officer meeting (of which I was not a part), a concern was expressed that the ambiance in the kitchen had gotten too noisy. There was certainly some truth to that, and yet Roshi interjected that the quality of the food being served showed that the level of attention was “impeccable.” Both comments were helpful feedback.

Despite the flow we were in, getting meals completed on time and enjoying a high-speed co-creative ride, I could not shake the frustration of the blabber going on in my head. I was discouraged, yet fortunately kept fueled by my fierce sense of persistence. As the week progressed I was brought in closer to Jusui and Keigetsu’s creative process, and asked to make dishes. A new level of focus was required of me. An asparagus soup was suggested, and I picked a recipe from one of the many cookbooks available. We did not have the exact amounts of ingredients the recipe called for, including not enough asparagus. However, I like to improv on recipes anyway, so the soup quickly became my own creation… a greater leek-to-asparagus ratio, a hint of my favorite spice: coriander, more garlic…just because. I was not thinking much of it, just making soup with a passion to create and to feed people well, while juggling the many other tasks at hand.

The next feedback from the officer meeting was that Roshi loved the asparagus soup. To hear that suddenly cut through the trap I had been in, the “good-versus-bad” judgment I had been making of my practice, or specifically, of me. And that despite the times I am not laser focused, and maybe spun off in thoughts and/or emotions, I do sustain a deep commitment to the awakening process and to be of service to the world with that awareness, and it does come through, like sunlight through clouds. This helps me see myself and others with clarity and compassion: At any given we’re all doing our best, and learning as we go.

Jusui had a similar experience, in which we collaborated on making kubocha squash baked with a miso-rice syrup glaze, topped with black sesame seeds. At the last minute before setting the dish out, she was sprinkling the seeds on. “Oh no!” she said. “The seeds look like mice pooped on the squash.” I went over to look, and indeed, they did. We were too close to meal time to back-peddle, so she just sprinkled more on, so they were seeds would be more obvious. She still was not confident with the presentation. After the meal was finished, there were very few leftovers, so again, good feedback: despite our judgments in the flurry of a time-crunched creative process, our intention and focus created something that pleased and nourished. We had a good laugh about it, as while we were eating the leftovers (tenzos eat after dinner is done, not with the community), we saw Jusui’s notebook cover, which had the perfect reminder…

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So, wherever you go, there you are, and remember you are doing your best. Sure, we get reminders we could be doing better, but that does not negate what one has brought and offered in the process of cooking and serving this mysterious meal called “Life.” And as you inquire more deeply in to this being human, who is doing?… who is experiencing?…

Bon appetit!

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Jusui’s Korean scallion pancakes

 

P.S., when not being an awesome chef, Jusui makes a line of skin care products called Eir. Check it out.

Also, a great cookbook called “Three Bowls” came from the Dai Bosatsu kitchen and one of its former tenzos. It’s been one of my favorites for years. I highly recommend it.

Celebration

For all the routine in a monastery, a lot goes on each day, externally and internally, that makes for a rich and varied life. There is so much I could post about, daily even, yet just do not have the time. I do journal every day (hand-written), both to log and process the details and subtler points of my experiences, inquiry and insights. Maybe a book is in order when the 1000 days are complete.

The last ten days have included out-of-the-ordinary experiences. Over the weekend of the 18th-20th, my first and primary abbot, Junpo came to DBZ to present the Mondo Zen process to the abbess, Shinge Roshi, the residents and one board member. Mondo Zen, in a nutshell, helps someone experience meditative mind, to ground the awareness in the physical and mental minds, and integrate it in to one’s daily life of emotions and relationships. It was the absence of this integration that led him to step off the traditional zen path, and find a way to bring deep, selfless compassion back in to the practice. Mondo Zen is the result of that search.

The process was well received by everyone present. They each chose from their own lives what Mondo Zen calls an “emotional koan.” The invitation is to pick one way in your life that you habitually, negatively react, be it with anger, shame or dissociating/avoiding. Then use meditative awareness to recognize the habitual reaction arising, and choose a new, conscious and compassionate response. Now that DBZ residents have experienced Mondo Zen, we will gradually be using it in our practice and way of life, bringing together the power of the traditional meditation and koan training with the open-heartedness of post-modern Zen. Although it was a private event for twelve people, in its own way it was historic and cause for celebration.

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Junpo and Gangyo during the Mondo Zen process

That evening, we of Hollow Bones drove to New York City. The following day Junpo gave dharma transmission (“Inka” in Japanese) to one of our priests, Stan Hui Neng Kohler. Stan has done a remarkable job of mentoring teens and young adults in Spanish Harlem, helping them develop direction and focus in their lives, and empowering them with meditation and consciousness skills found in Buddhism, yet without using any of the cultural or linguistic conventions. “Buddhism without robes,” he calls it, which he now offers as a presentation to interested groups.

His organization is called Peace on the Street, which was born out of his experience teaching meditation to inmates at Riker’s Island. It also began with him helping one of his mentees, Richard Garcia, start a Gung Fu dojo. Richard is a black belt and teaches the art for self-defense and promoting non-violence. His teaching follows the martial art saying: Train so that you do not have to fight, and to be ready if you must.

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The core element of the inka ceremony is the candidate having to pass through “The Five Gates.” The gates are four sangha members and the Roshi (Zen master) who stand in a elongated line, each posing a question to the candidate to test and challenge their insight. These are not conventional questions, but more like koans. Each essentially asks, “What is your insight in to meditative mind and how will you actualize it in your life?” The Five Gates of the inka ceremony is not a rote or rehearsed event. The candidate does not know what the questions will be, which are developed specifically for them. The test is live, and being denied passage is a possibility.

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As each question is answered satisfactorily, the gate keeper steps aside and the candidate advances to the next one. The last gate to pass is the Roshi with whom the priest trained, who usually asks more than one question, and tougher ones at that. Describing his own evolving of the Zen practice and tradition, Junpo often says he “threw out the bathwater and kept the baby.” Junpo challenged Stan to express clearly the core of Buddhist teaching and how he will manifest it in a post-modern, inner-city setting, saying “What part do you keep?” Stan replied, “The heart of the baby and the thirst-quenching essence of the bathwater.”

Stan was wearing traditional robes for the Five Gates portion. Normally, once passing the gates, one would be given their roshi robes, leave the room to put them on, then return for final confirmation. Taking the post-modern route another step, Stan, instead of getting roshi robes, had a suit custom tailored with an emblem that says “Roshi” in Japanese. One was made for Junpo as well. It’s sharp-dressed zen if I ever saw!

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Richard, Junpo and Stan after the ceremony

The event was a celebration on several levels. In addition to becoming a roshi (and Stan would say more importantly), the inka ceremony celebrated all the lives that Stan has touched, steering youth out of lives of trouble, helping them find their paths in life, to become mature adults, responsible for and accountable to their community, and supporting themselves with meaningful work through the skills and education they earned. It is heartening to know such beautiful, powerful cultivation of the human body, mind and spirit is happening in the inner city. What is also to be celebrated is all the good Stan and Peace on the Street are yet to accomplish.

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Crew members of Peace on the Street with Junpo, Stan and Fugen Tom Pitner

The other major recent celebration was, naturally, Thanksgiving. I had not thought at all in advance what might happen in a Zen monastery for this holiday. I was delighted to learn that at DBZ a huge community potluck is held, with Zen Studies Society members (which can include their partners, parents, children and friends) coming from all over, bringing the ingredients for a dish to share, and preparing it in the monastery kitchen. It was a huge family reunion, full of vibrant, communal energy.

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There were 54 people here for two days, and it was quite the happy, busy bee hive during that time. I was impressed by the depth of family vibe, and the high level of joy throughout the days, as well as the enormous amount of work that went in to preparing the monastery, the cooking and the clean up. Never once was the energy flat or people idle. The absence of a TV showing football games or a parade was not felt, nor was the presence of one even desired.

Preceding dinner, the day included meditation, and a formal chanting ceremony which was gorgeous. It was my first time in the dharma hall with so many people, and the fullness of our voices in the room, I have to say, was truly spiritual. I suppose holidays have a way of lending to that. The singing during the Christmas service in the Presbyterian church I grew up in was always so much more moving than on regular Sundays.

It is worth digressing here to say that most of the chanting at DBZ is in Romanized Kanji, e.g. “I MU SHO TOKU KO BO DAI SA TA E HAN NYA HA RA MI TA, translated as “There is nothing to be attained, therefore the bodhisattva follows prajnaparamita.” I basically never know what is being chanted. However, as a meditative toning practice, it is sublime, precisely because one can disengage mental processing and just explore the physical, aural and communal experience. It is transformational in its own way.

A lot could be said about the Thanksgiving dinner, but it is sufficient to reiterate the strong and joyful sense of family we all shared. And of course, the food was abundant and amazing. Today (Sunday) there are only fourteen of us here, and we were happy to discover that a cheesecake in the walk-in refrigerator that never made it to the Thanksgiving dessert table. It brought back memories of our joyous celebration the few days prior, and that every day there is always so much to be thankful for.

The longer I am at DBZ, and the more I learn about this spiritual practice and lineage, the more I am humbled and awestruck that life has brought me here. It is a precious gift, that, as part of the morning chanting says, is “rarely met with, even in hundreds of thousands of millions of eons.” For this, I am eternally thankful.

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Cooking!

“Cooking” is a term we sometimes use to refer to the deep meditation practice done on week-long retreats, called “sesshin” in Japanese, or “touching/gathering the heart-mind.” I prefer the word “sesshin,” as it refers to the non-cognitive intelligence inherent in all of us, but rarely discussed or cultivated in the busy modern world. “Retreat”sounds too much like an escape, where as a sesshin is an opportunity to deepen and enrich one’s life, and cultivate the ability to face life, rather than avoid or distract from whatever we’re doing or facing, pleasant or unpleasant.

We just completed a five-day sesshin on Sunday (November 6). During a sesshin, sitting meditation is the primary activity of the day, ranging from four to eight hours a day. While that may sound horrific to some, fascinating transformations happen when one dives in to such an experience. Really, meditation, meditative mind, or heart-mind is easy to dwell in. It is the resistance, the mental/emotional distracting and running away that makes the practice difficult, and precisely the issue that a consistent meditation practice can help resolve. So as one cooks, sit after sit, day after day, if one gives up the resistance and distraction, we find that the apparent discomforts that seemed to have so much power just dissipate. From here, other insights can arise, such as shifts in perspective about a person or an issue, clarification about a personal internal issue, and, most importantly, experiencing of what is called “original mind” in Buddhism, what might be described as a universal consciousness that precedes our individual, conditioned consciousness.

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Well, so what? Why bother to do all this? In the Mondo Zen manual, there is a section called “Meditation: Why Bother?” precisely because anyone can engage in a meditation practice, but it has limited meaning if the insights are not integrated in to our minds in a way that supports liberation from our harmful mental, emotional and relationship habits. The point of sesshin is to develop our ability to live from our heart-mind, the one that does not worry or fear, judge or reject, deny or hide; the one that sees clearly, is curious, open and receptive, is patient and compassionate, and chooses to act with wisdom and skill. That sounds like an awesome way to live, right? I encourage you to sign up for a sesshin with Hollow Bones, or Dai Bosatsu. Freedom is closer than you think.

The play on “cooking” is that for this recent five-day retreat, I was assistant to the head cook, a talented and lively woman from Brooklyn who’s dharma name is Rengetsu. We had a lot of backup help from staff and retreat participants through the week, but essentially it was up to us to create three meals a day for nineteen people. Rengetsu had a lot of experience in this role, and I fortunately have a lot of home cooking and some professional experience.

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Aduki bean/quinoa croquettes with a scallion/cilantro sauce

We were in the kitchen most of the time from about 6AM to 9PM every day, so had very little time doing sitting meditation. However, the challenge was to remain as meditative as possible while coming up with meal plans, sometimes improvising on the fly, chopping, stirring, running downstairs to the pantry and walk-in fridge, cleaning all that we used to cook with, serving, over and over. In some cases we followed recipes, and others we were inventing on the spot based on ingredients on hand. Certain dishes were required and had to be made a certain way. Meals were at specific times, and we had to be tight to the schedule so the group could get on to their next activity on time. It was often high speed, intense work, not what one might imagine when thinking of a “meditation retreat.” But blissing out is not the point in Zen; tuning in to what is and moving gracefully with it is.

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Chia seed/almond milk pudding with kiwi, strawberry, banana, and for toppings shredded coconut and toasted nuts and seeds.

At times, things didn’t go so well… a dish wasn’t turning out as tasty as imagined, something got overcooked, something else wasn’t going to be done on time. We were tired the whole week, running on about four hours of sleep a night, and on our feet most of the day. But the opportunity to continue to choose to be meditative despite the flurry and pressure and fatigue was remarkable, and an equally important training as sitting in silence. This in some ways is the real practice, the integration of our still and silent heart-mind in to the activity of daily living and our thinking/feeling mind. One thing I treasure about the Buddhist path is the teaching of the Middle Way… balance, being centered, finding the harmonious path that flows. This is the “why bother” of having a meditation practice. Finding this way does not come easy, is not given to us, but is earned. It takes practice, it takes work. But the fruits of the effort are beyond description. I hope you’ll seek to find them for yourself. Delicious meals along the way are nice, too. Bon appetit!

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