Evening Sit

The soul of all existence

carried on the sound

of thick spring rain

kissing

the forest leaves

comes through

the small opening

of my window

The candle

silently echoing

the luminescence that becomes

what

I am

each moment

For a brief eternity

there is nothing

but wonder and gratitude

tasting the delicacies

of unknowingness

taking the shape of a body

where

I used to be

Eventually

the incense stick

is silently snuffed out

by the packed ash

that held it so gently

for a time

 

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