by Ben Connolly
An owl. Silent flight, but the movement in the stillness catches my eye. The swift thick form of the owl’s body rides away through the trees high to the right, then out of sight on broad grey wings. Standing in the deep red needles that carpet the pine forest above Hokyoji’s residence where I’ve made my home for the past week, I feel a soft swell of elation at my first sight of an old friend.
This last week has been one of mostly solo retreat with a little time each day to practice with friends: rising early to stoke the wood stove and share morning zazen, oryoki, and some good strong work with a few folks, and then settling in alone to chanting, yoga, and walking in the deep woods, with ample time to enter into that dharma gate of joyful ease and repose, zazen. I’ve been bathed in the slanting winter sunshine in the small winter zendo and bathed in the deepening dark as the early sun goes down. I’ve floated along on the song of fierce wind, while still and warm inside, and listened to the wild nightly chorus of coyotes. Life springs up everywhere I turn here: whitetails springing into the air as they flee downslope, flocks of wild turkeys riding to the tops of trees, watercress growing an impossible green in the water of the spring fed creek rimed with bright fresh morning frost below the hermitage. For years though, I have listened to the call of the owls.
I’ve been coming here for retreats in summer and fall for about ten years, nowhere near as long as many. It’s the first place I came for a Zen retreat. As long as I can remember the night time has come with this distant call: Whoo Whoo woowoo, Whoo Whoo woowoo-oo . Sometimes two owls, would call back and forth across the valley, and I have so many times just listened and felt a closeness, a kind of intimacy, the simple kind. I listened, and I loved, just content to be there with the sound. And yes, sometimes I desired. Although just hearing the call brought me home to another moment of life, sometimes a little part of me would wake up and think, “I want to see that bird I’ve loved so long.” The owl too, has its intimacy with me. She doesn’t want to get too close or seem to have much interest in me, but she shares this valley when I come to visit, she makes a space for me to be. This intimacy is not about a particular kind of relationship or something to acquire, it is the basic condition of life. That we are here together right now is already most intimate.
And so I’ve seen this loved and longed-for friend, seen her fly on soft wings off above the hill.
And then I make my way carefully down the steep slope to feed the fire as night’s cold deepens and settle into time to just sit, just listen.
Ben Connelly is a priest-in-training with Tim Burkett at Minnesota Zen Center. His first book, Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage, Reflections on the Classic Zen Poem, is available from Wisdom Publications.