More from the Sangha
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.
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.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner. For lots of families, that means turkey. As Buddhists, many of us are vegetarians. So what to do?
I would suggest we turn to the advice of an extraordinary dog I know named Sheila. Sheila has written a book titled Zen Unleashed: Everyday Buddhist Wisdom from Man’s Best Friend. Yes, a book written by a dog! Like I said, she’s extraordinary.
Anyway, I feel that Sheila the Zen Dog has a good, solid understanding of vegetarian practice. In fact, I asked her if I could share with you an excerpt from her book, one that discusses vegetarianism. She was hesitant at first, but I told her it could help people during this holiday time, and she agreed. So here is a haiku she wrote about vegetarianism, with her commentary.
Incidentally, she has an additional message. She would like to encourage everyone to share table scraps with their dogs during this holiday time, as part of the Buddhist practice of giving.
Here’s the excerpt:
Under the table
I receive squash, peas, meatloaf
Praise be the grandkids!
You might be aware that the Buddha was a vegetarian. However, you might not know that he wasn’t too uptight about it. Out of compassion for living things, he would not eat meat. However, when he was a guest at someone’s home, he would eat with thanks whatever was offered.
Sounds good to me.