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Being Washed Out: June Sesshin at Hokyoji

by Samuel Conway

Friday morning the rain had knocked out the power in the zendo, and we sat zazen in the barest morning light at daybreak on the summer solstice. We walked in silence after breakfast looking at the damage. The gravel paths Carl had worked so hard to establish each had massive canyons carved across and into them. “Just like the dharma,” I thought. It comes likes torrents of rain, completely free for everyone, and cuts right in, deeply transforming us into exactly who we really are. In sesshin, we practice like those gravel paths, not doing anything, just sitting, and totally accepting the rain.

This was my first seven day sesshin, and I was totally unprepared for what I had gotten myself into. Driving down to Hokyoji, through Minnesota’s driftless region, I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. I’ve sat lots of zazen, I thought, and done a bunch of one day sesshins and a few three—no problem. At first I was right. The evening sitting periods Saturday night were total bliss, pure silence punctuated with birdsong and winds in the poplars. I went to bed free and easy. But by Sunday afternoon, I was crawling out of my skin. What had I done? Spending almost six hours a day in zazen, for seven days, plus kinhin, liturgy, oryoki meals and dokusan, while maintaining silence the whole time was not something any sane person would do. I thought I must be crazy. And the longer I was there, the crazier I felt.

That craziness, I came to see, was with me in every moment, in my day to day life, at work or at home, walking, swimming, gardening, parenting. Whatever that voice was it was yelling at me all the time. It was only here, in the structure and silence of Hokyoji, that I could see it for what it was, at least a little bit– I want so much. That wanting makes me nuts and not just me. It does the same for the turkey vultures circling the tops of the ridges, the bees searching the flower heads for nectar, the ever-present gnats, all of the 10,000 beings. That craziness is so painful but it’s also a gate. On the other side is compassion, limitless compassion for myself, the great earth and all beings. On the tip of each blade of grass a buddha is born. And small minded me, I was scared of that.

Later on Friday afternoon we realized the road out of Hokyoji had been partially washed out. If we didn’t want to pack our things out on our backs we’d have to fix the road. So for work practice we headed down to the washout with spades and rakes, wheelbarrows and gloves, and started digging, shifting the wet gravel back into the road in big, dripping shovelfuls. The road we were mending had brought countless practitioners to Catching the Moon Monastery over the years, including Katagiri-roshi and our teachers Byakuren and Dokai, great practitioners who taught and practiced the dharma. I realized that this very road was literally the Buddha-way, and our work of throwing gravel back up onto gravel was simply giving the Buddha way to the Buddha way. I thought “maintaining this road, I know I am maintaining this road,” and I let that be enough.