Autumn kessei (90 to 100-day practice intensive) started a bit late this year, so will actually only be 81 days. Traditionally, no one could come or go from the monastery during this time, but the modernity of our society and economy, the complexity of our lives and schedules makes things less simple than once upon a time. But we will still manage to hold a strong meditation container for ourselves and the one to two hundred people who come to practice each season. Since mid-September, we have been through three sesshin, one being the first-ever Mondo Zen retreat at DBZ, and an Intro to Zen weekend, attended by over 50 people, 45 of which were college students.
In addition to all of the intensive training, I was put in the role of “jisha,” head temple caretaker, for this kessei. On the surface, the jisha manages of all the housekeeping of the monastery, top to bottom, end to end, tending to the needs of guests, and a number of jobs during each day of sesshin. I dreaded it because I got rather burnt out on multi-tasking management with my former business, but found it to be a different experience. Of course, it is important to keep the monastery clean and to be at the ready for the sake of our guests’ experience, as well as the daily sense of well-being for us residents. But the deeper aspect of the role is to provide an ambiance of soothing care, as a counter-balance to the jikijitsu role, the one who maintains the spirit of alertness and discipline in the zendo.
More important than accomplishing the tasks of housekeeping and hospitality is how they are done, what ambiance is created as we clean rooms, or get someone an extra blanket. Another fine Japanese word that points to life’s subtleties is “hado,” the characters of which can translate as “wave” and “motion.” It invites us to remember that our motions, our actions, create waves, and those waves affect people and circumstances, even places. The role of the jisha is to maintain warm and comforting hado in the monastery. Being jisha has been a rich time for me, and I have received profoundly warm and comforting support from fellow monks who are training and encouraging me. I find myself loving and valuing this opportunity and experience more with each day, each moment, each breath… watching the hado I and we create.
Four days after the kessei opening, we started Golden Wind sesshin, five days of silent meditation. The story behind the name of this sesshin, which became a koan is this: A monk asked Ummon, “What will happen when the leaves fall and the trees become bare?” Ummon said, “Golden Wind!” Ummon is the Japanese translation of the name of Chinese master Yunmen Wenyen. During Golden Wind, I resumed my koan practice with Shinge Roshi, having lost touch with it during the flurry of activities through the summer. That loss in itself reveals the challenge of this practice, since the purpose of, and real source of benefit from, koan practice it to become completely absorbed in reflection and meditation on it, 24/7. If you are practicing koans or curious about the practice, I highly recommend reading the collection of essays, “Sitting With Koans” edited by John Daido Loori, founder of Zen Mountain Monastery. The fourth essay provides a particularly excellent history of the development of the practice. Further in to the book you will find a dharma talk by Shinge Roshi. (Here is some interesting DBZ history: Loori’s first formal Zen experience was at DBZ, and Shinge Roshi, then called Roko, gave him his first-ever sitting instruction).
At DBZ, koan practice starts with the “Mumonkon,” or Gateless Gate, collection. The name “Gateless Gate” reminds us that there is nothing between us and realization of our essential nature. “Two Zen Classics” contains the version that DBZ uses. Since koan practice really only exists when practiced with a qualified teacher, it is not a book that will help the curious or the beginner understand what it is about. “Sitting With Koans” is among the best books to offer an understanding of koan practice, as well as some of the history of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.
I’ll write another post soon about koan practice, since the longer I practice it, the more I understand what a vital and precious awakening tool it is. This is especially so because those trained and skilled enough to facilitate it are few and far between, especially in the U.S. You may find this Wikipedia page offers a good explanation of koan practice (though remember, koan training is about lived experience, not intellectual comprehension). If you have had the least inclination to do a residential Zen training with koan practice, stop hesitating and go. You may not always have the opportunity, and it may not always be available.
Immediately after Golden Wind ended, we had a samu, or work, weekend, during which volunteers came and helped us with various maintenance projects in the monastery and on the grounds. That made a big difference with the post-retreat clean-up as well as accomplishing some other important projects that we few residents often do not have time for. Great thanks to all who came to help out! Samu weekends are free to attend, and a nice way to get a taste of our morning and evening Zen practice. Visit the DBZ website for the dates and to register.
Six days later began the seven-day Mondo Zen retreat with the Hollow Bones order. It was the first ever held at DBZ, so a bit of an historic event for our lineage, to have a post-modern practice form in a traditional practice monastery. Hollow Bones founder Junpo Denis Kelly, who trained and received Inka at DBZ, created Mondo Zen with fellow sangha members as a way to facilitate clear understanding about meditation practice, and how to integrate it in to one’s daily life. The heart of the practice is to develop an emotional koan, in which one uses counter-productive behavioral habits to recall the ever-present meditative mind within, and to develop the ability to respond consciously and compassionately in any situation.
Having been at DBZ over a year now (426 days on 11/14/17), I find that the traditional koan practice and the emotional koan practice are perfectly complementary… yin yang. Traditional koan practice is more existential, having us “face the wall” of infinite consciousness to truly know the root of our very being. Emotional koan practices gives us the ability to face our lives from that very depth of awareness. Profound meditation on a cushion that is not actualized in daily life is meaningless. Daily life lived without true connection to our pure, essential nature is fated to be limited at best, and a perpetual struggle at worst. Giving time to attend silent retreats and practice traditional koans is one of the best things you can do for your mind. Taking that depth of practice in your activities and relationships with emotional koans is one of the best things you can do for your life.
The weekend following the Mondo Zen retreat, we hosted the sangha from Eiryu-ji Zen Center from Wyckoff, NJ. They are in the Soto lineage of Maezumi Roshi, one of the early Japanese Zen masters to come to the U.S. to help establish the practice here (Daido Loori, mentioned above, also trained with Maezumi Roshi). They were a delightful group to host and practice with, and we look forward to their return next year. If you live in that area, go enjoy their practice center, which also offers training in Aikido.
The weekend after that we began Harvest Sesshin, a seven-day silent retreat. During every silent retreat, each morning at 9:30 we have a reading from The Diamond Sutra, with two participants reading the roles of The Buddha and one of his disciples, Subhuti. Then we chant it in Japanese for about ten to fifteen minutes. For the event, a large accordion-fold panel with the The Diamond Sutra hand-written in kanji on it is set up in front of the altar.
It offers a sublime and bold presence, echoing the depth and importance of deeply understanding and realizing the teaching in this sutra.
Like our other chanting in Japanese, I have found that not knowing the meaning of the words has much less importance than having an essential sense of the text, and chanting with deep meditative attention on that. Listening to the dialog between Buddha and Subhuti just prior to the chanting makes the experience all the more powerful.
Various Buddhist sects focus on different sutras, and for Zen, The Diamond Sutra is one of the most important. If you are a practicing Buddhist or curious about it, I strongly encourage that you read it. For starters, enjoy this essential taste:
Buddha: “Subhuti, how can one explain this Sutra to others without holding in mind any arbitrary conception of forms or phenomena or spiritual truths? It can only be done, Subhuti, by keeping the mind in perfect tranquility and free from any attachment to appearances.
“So I say to you, this is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightening in a summer cloud;
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream;
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
Thus spoke Buddha.
Last weekend (November 10-12), we held our bi-annual weekend retreat, Intro to Zen. Last fall and spring, each event had less than 10 people. For some reason, there was a lot of interest this fall, and we had over 50 participants. That number was mostly due to students from three colleges closely associated with DBZ (Wesleyan University, Syracuse U. Hamilton College), several of which were returnees.
A first-time student had this to say:
“So often on campus, I feel like I’m just drifting around, somehow far away from my own experience. At DBZ, I felt close to life in a way that I haven’t felt since the first time I fell in love. The whole place–the monks, the rituals, the forest–is somehow freeing, like its inviting you to quit hiding inside your silly, messy head so you can instead live at the edge of your senses and from the honesty of your heart.”
Now I’m officially caught up with sharing my experience here since summer. Our next activities are the Thanksgiving pot luck, followed two days later by the transmission ceremony in which Shinge Roshi will make Dokoro Osho her first dharma heir. It will be a busy, highly-attended and magnificent weekend, and I look forward to telling you about it afterwards…
Until then, I wish you vigor and clarity in whatever your spiritual practice is!