I has been so long since I last posted…. over two months… that I am not quite sure what to write about. So much as gone on around and in me during that time, it is beyond my available time to try to convey it all. That is too bad, as this community, and even tradition, are in a transition, as am I. On one hand, I like to note the changes that I and the community are going through, to be able to see and look back on the evolution. On the other hand, Buddhist philosophy does not give such endeavors much value… experience is ultimately illusory, and in the past… nothing to hold on to. Let it go. And yet, as humans we live our lives and experience others by the stories we share, even if they are biased and have gaps in accuracy. All that said, here goes…
Because I was going to take a 4-day forestry course during our hiatus, I got to take that amount of time off before hand. I used it to visit fellow Hollow Bones priests Dazu and Koren in Portland, ME. It was such a heart-filling time with them and their children.
I fell in love with the city, got to see Grizzly Bear for free thanks to Koren’s sister, and surfed for the first time. Surfing is quite a meditative experience, much of the time spent sitting and waiting in silence for a good wave, then a sudden burst of activity that demands all of one’s attention. I’ll definitely go back sooner than later… maybe land there one day, or at least spend some extended time to collaborate with them on consciousness raising retreats.
I also learned that time and temperature are controlled there. Who’da thunk?
By the end of summer, we monks were exhausted and discouraged from the incessant work and communal tension, yet also managed to enjoy hosting groups. All summer long, every week we hosted a new group. It was a constant cycle of preparation, service, clean up and turn-around. We went from the rigors of spring kessei (100 days of intensive practice), culminating with the 41st Anniversary Sesshin, right in to the routine of “Open Space,” hosting a variety of groups. And in the middle of that was O-bon, a major four-day ceremonial event. It is a great joy to host people here, make our practice, our home, this gorgeous land, available to them for restoration and inspiration. Being of service and pushing through fatigue and self-interested wants is part of the training. And at the same time, there is only so much output a human can give. We needed our own restoration. Thankfully, Shinge Roshi is attuned to our well-being, and there has been and will be discussion about how to adapt the schedule to honor our well-being, while maintaining a rigorous practice, as well as meeting income needs that hosting groups provides. However, the summer ended on a somewhat dark note, and we were all glad to have some time off, even away, to restore. Some of were not sure about returning, me included
But back to the “enjoyment” part at the end of summer… which, I regret, I don’t have any photos of. The last two weekends of the summer are “Healing and Wellness” and “Family Weekend.” Healing and Wellness was started decades ago to give people with chronic health issues a chance to unplug from the busy-ness of life, enjoy the restorative energy of pure nature, and get free body work from professionals. It was a small, festive group, and we all enjoyed lots of time at the lake house, on the patio and in the water. We residents also enjoyed deeply restorative body work (which helped reveal how exhausted we were). I got acupuncture one day and shiatsu the next. Ahhh…! And we all watched the solar eclipse together. The Family Weekend was just simple fun for all. It was just like the previous weekend, but included children and a good bit of playing games.
The hiatus period was from August 28 to September 14. I spent it visiting friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and my parents and family in Ohio.
In Pennsylvania I took two afternoons to go to the archery range I used to frequent. I took my bow out of storage, a classic Fred Bear “Kodiak” recurve, circa 1970-72 (for enthusiasts, it is 52″ and 50X #. Dig this page on Bear bows).
I have loved archery since childhood, when I got a bow from S&H Greenstamps, but never really got in to it until my early 40s. Going to the range this time was a big treat, as I had not practiced much in a couple of years, and sadly bows are disallowed at DBZ (even though archery has deep roots in Japan, called “Kyudo,” and also has a history with Zen training).
Stepping up to the shooting line I could tell this time was going to be a new experience for me. Having spent a year in monastic training, I had a depth of focus and body-centric awareness that I did not have the last time I shot. I made a point to use breath to direct all my movements, and see the target from my hara, the intelligence in the abdomen, and be fully aware of my whole body.
I focused on the target in such a way that it was almost all I could see, all that existed, creating an energetic link that somewhat dissolved the illusion of the space between me and it. When I was in this state, aiming was effortless, release of the string was like a flower opening, and the shots were excellent. If I was in my head, thinking about aiming or a desired result or physical technique, aiming was strained, releasing was clumsy and shots did not go where I had intended. I would distinguish the experiences as a state of with-ness, being with my body, bow, arrow, space and target at once, versus having a goal in which all the above elements felt separate, isolated. What would we and the world be like if we lived in this state of with-ness?
In my home state of New Jersey, and my first hometown, Bloomfield, I visited the town’s cemetery with my friend Pete. I had never been, and was glad we went. Seeing names of the families that shaped the the growth and development of society (for better and worse) gave me a better sense of the town’s and region’s history. Many headstones were very old (by U.S. standards, also lending to a deeper sense of time for this country. And yet again, because of the age of the cemetery, it was home to several trees who’s lives predated that of European arrival here. To stand in the presence of a living being that is 350-400+ years old is quite awe-inspiring, evoking imagination of what the land might have looked like then, void of and buildings or pavement, just pure nature.
After a few days in Jersey I flew to Ohio to be with my parents and family for my 50th birthday. Turning 50 is a strange thing for me. It part, it makes no sense; I don’t “feel” 50, whatever that could mean. Most people say I don’t look 50. And yet the round number that is halfway to 100 also points to mortality, evoke a bit of fear, and drawing attention to do more of what matters, to live as authentically as I can. The birthday celebration my parents and extended family gave me was a rich treat, allowing me to let go of looking back and just relish living and loving in the Now.
During this trip, my parents and I had to discuss their end of life issues, which, as you could imagine, got quite heavy. It was fascinating to feel like my child self again, yet with a whole new fear of the unknown of them being gone. As hard as the conversation was, it was a potent reminder to savor every moment with them, and by extension, every moment, everywhere, with anyone. The Buddha said, “Everything is on fire.” Acknowledging the impermanence of all life and life experience is a core tenet to the philosophy and practice. However, not from a morbid perspective, but to radically deepen our appreciation for this fleeting life, and as an urging to practice constantly, strengthening our ability to live in the present, consciously, openly, compassionately. There is not time to be wasted in confusion, regret, resentment, or any hurtful behavior outward or inward. Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now” statement is not some flippant, warm fuzzy spiritual quip. It is a profound and urgent call.
One afternoon my parents and I went to the Urbana Historical Society so that I could see the ancient trees there. Again I got to be in the presence of trees 300 too 400+ years old. For me, old trees radiate steadiness, sturdiness, depth and stillness unlike any being. It is a remarkable experience to expand one’s sense of awe, of the vastness of life, the mysteriousness of Creation. They are deep teachers. I encourage you to find some near you and spend quiet time with them as often as you can. And rather than scroll on by this picture of a majestic White Oak, who is six feet in diameter at its base, be with it a few minutes.
While in Ohio, I felt dread about returning to DBZ, its ambiance that could be so cold at times, the dark hallways… shouldn’t spiritual practice be bright and uplifting? I also felt concern for my health, as the relentless schedule and limited time for sleep had been wearing on me. I emailed Shinge Roshi and my fellow residents to say I was returning, but with trepidation, and would be taking it one kessei at a time.
Upon returning I learned I would be head jisha, or temple attendant, responsible for making sure all the housekeeping gets done. It is essentially a delegation job, assigning tasks daily, making sure they are done well, plus tending to some of the morning and evening rituals to open and close the day. During sesshin there is more to do, including a tea serving ritual called “sarei” done in the zendo three times a day. It was a role I dreaded, but accepted with grace and set out to do my best. With great support from past jishas, and encouragement from others, I have stepped in to the role fairly well.
As with many aspects of Japanese culture and especially Zen training, getting a task done to a certain technical standard is the less important aspect of doing something. The ambiance one creates doing the task creates is understood as having influence on those who see its results. It is much like painting: many artists can paint a landscape to look at, but only some can do so in a way that moves the viewer to experience being in that landscape. The role of jisha is not simply to make sure housekeeping gets done, but that it is done in such a way that the feeling of the care for the temple is felt throughout. And how else could that be done other than dwelling in the feeling of deep care, and sharing that with those who are sent to do the chores?
As I settled back in to being here, I also settled in to recognition of what a gift it is. Th depth of meditation practice environment; profound inspiration of the vast, pure nature all around; the immeasurable roots of our tradition; the dedication of Shinge Roshi to our awakening, and our own individual and collective dedication as well. The residents were bonding well, communal frictions were being handled better, and the energetic shift was palpable. This waking up is not something we can engineer… there is no perfect, warm-fuzzy, no-struggle spiritual practice. We must surrender, open, allow what is, face and embrace it, work with it, including the discomfort, confusion, friction, all of it. We must be tumbled to become polished gems, endure great pressure to become diamonds. When we can do so in a community of devoted fellow practitioners, we can have experiences of opening to the enormity of this mysterious life that are not really available elsewhere.
One afternoon I walked out in to the woods for some “forest bathing.” It is something I have always done since childhood, finding restoration and inspiration in nature. It has a name in Japan, shinrin-yoku, and is actively practiced for health benefits. As it became evening, I headed out, and spontaneously decided to go down to the lake. I saw pretty scene of the moon sending light that shimmered on the water, and I took picture. Once back in my room, I ooked at it and the phrase “Moonlight makes stars” came to me, and then in a velvety flow a poem came forth. The inspriation of the beauty I experienced by the lake, and the poem that emerged from it, was somehow part of a tipping point that helped me know being at DBZ was perfectly right for me. I quietly resolved to continue to immerse myself in meditation, strive for the liberation promises by the ancestors, to absorb the tradition and form, to never complain but never squash concerns, to be open and real when conflict arises, to be deeply present with the whole of the experience. In June of 2016, when great doubt seized me soon after deciding to come here, Junpo said to me, “I was here for six years and it transformed my life. It can for you, too. Trust the Dharma. Trust the Dharma!”
And so I am…