I just returned from Santa Rosa and the spring sesshin at the Angela Center. I was only able to make the first 4 days, which is great, but painful leaving the sangha to continue to strive without me.
Sesshin in the hills of Santa Rosa, green in the spring rains, warm and speckled with wildflowers if you know where to look. Summer camp for the joyful and intent.
What is sesshin? It’s a retreat, though it hardly seems like a retreat. I feel more present in sesshin than anywhere else. It’s a container in which every aspect of life can be practice. We wake at 4:30, and take tea in the zendo at 5. We sit in the quiet stillness, black faces on busy houses, lines of dedicated practitioners saving all beings, until 7am, at which point the sun has begun to rise. The teachers silently inspect the troops. The head of practice opens the practice for the day. We eat in silence, and work practice animates the Angela center. We rest until 9, then are back in the hall. There is sitting and walking and yoga, which Ishara is generous to lead and I am intimidated to join so I lie in the extra cushions in the ajoining room. Interviews with the teachers begin, and attendants, like angels, come to collect the souls and ferry them into light. We wait for the teachers, for the drum for their bell and signal our approach. We enter into interview, and speak, perhaps for the only time that day. We sit talk about koans (n), then we are invited to koan (v). We sit in the hall until 12, then break for lunch. We give food to the hungry ghosts that they will be at peace. We eat our bread and salad. We drink tea. We work and rest and return to the zendo at 2. There are sutras. We sing. We chant. We mess up words and laugh. More interviews.
At 5 we take dinner, and break till 7. Then we have darma talks. We bow, and sit and listen. After the talks, we sit. The teachers say goodnight. The head of practice closes the zendo. Many people stay on and on, striving in the shadows of the candles. The rest of us turn to sleep at 10.
While on a walk in the hills, I wondered: When does the blank wood basement at 824b Carolina become a Zendo? When I lay out the cushions? When I light the candle and incense? When I give Buddha his water?
I knew in an instant, without knowing how, that the room becomes a zendo when I place my sandals against the wall outside and bow to enter. Then it is a sacred container holding our practice and letting us look unflinchingly into our true natures.
Driving away today, a double rainbow held the Angela center. How fitting that I could see it, but not the people it crowned. Ishara asked me why we say "enlightened" instead of "lightened". I guessed that lightened refers to casting a light on something, but enlightening comes from a light within. We agreed that we didn't know this to be the origin, but to steal from Hemingway, "wouldn't it be pretty to think so".
Carry on sesshiners. Carry on for all of us. I bow to you and we will light incense for you tomorrow.
Not everyone can get to a teacher or a sangha. Everyone can read books on Zen, and if you have a computer, you can download dharma talks. I want everyone to be able to work with koans.
I have worked with koans for years now, but PZI does something innovative (actually, historically, PZI is returning to the way koans were worked in China before you were born) by making the koans a public case. John Tarrant holds koan seminars, in which people are invited to discuss what the koan is doing for them AT THAT MOMENT. For me, hearing people work through koans gave me confidence that I was not doing it wrong, and in fact, that I was doing it exactly right for me. I want others to have that gift. Not just those in Santa Rosa or the Bay Area of California, but for all our readers in India, Norway, Germany, England, Ireland, Spain, France, Bolivia, Japan, and most of the 50 united states (I am looking at YOU North and South Dakota. And New Hampshire. That's right, I know you are ignoring me).
My idea is to post a koan online twice a month. On occasion, there will be commentary by a Zen Roshi. Anyone who reads this blog can participate, and post what they notice in the comments section. This koan group would be open to anyone, and the comments public to the world. In this way, your practice can touch the whole world, and the whole word can touch your practice.
"In general I'd like you to think of the Dharma as something to be passed around and encouraged, more than as a secret property" - John Tarrant
Last night, David Weinstein came out from Oakland to teach (aside- for some reason nearly every time I type David's last name, I type it "WeinStein", like he is some internet product. I have no explanation for this). (another aside- yesterday was St. Patrick's Day. Being every so slightly Irish and Catholic, I felt it my duty to liven up SF. If my typing suffers, or improves, because of it, blame the Guinness. Or R). David's Dharma talk can be found on the Dharma talks page.
The koan was "Who is hearing this sound". It started off an uncharacteristically warm night in SF, our first Wednesday meeting since daylight savings ended. The zendo was light and warm and we left the door open. While we sat, there was the noise of the distant freeway, motorists racing home or out to bars,sirens, the sound of birds in the trees trying to find a feathery someone, people coming home from the day, putting out the trash, and a strange sound that was either a cat, or a harmonica, or something else entirely more interesting. IN between the beats, there was the sound of silence, or breathing, sometimes C's heavy exhales, or D's deep low slow inhales.
David told of visiting a teacher on a river, and in the great cocophany, where he could not even hear his own voice, found silence. He talked about a month long silent retreat, about keeping company with the monkeys and upon returning to the town finding that his voice was an instrument of hearing. He was surprised to hear his own voice, and to hear what it had to say. There was an immediacy in the speaking that brought forth its own pure movement and surprised the mind.
He challenged us to see with our ears, hear with our eyes, and in doing so, let go of how we know things to be and allow for the possibility that they are more complex and rich and spontaneous that we expect. Be free to let things be what they are. He reminded us that Helen Keller, asked which sense she would want restored, said "hearing", so she could hear people laugh.
Hearing is such a powerful sense. So different from listening. You can listen to, or listen for, or listen up. Hearing is just as it is.
Later, when Chris Wilson led the small group, he told us of a dying zen master who took this koan with him to the grave, as his last place of contemplation. That speaks to the power of this koan. I wonder: What did he hear on dying? I wonder what he hears now. What will death sound like? I guess I will find out.
Chris set up an experiment, a practice from the Tibetans if I recall. He talked of their thre buddhas, a primordial buddha, a buddha of communication and the physical buddha. Then we chose a mantra, "ah", and chanted, for 5 minutes. We kept it spinning like a plate.
I noticed how humanizing this Koan is. David pointed out how human a thing hearing is. This is one of the hardest koans I have found to overthink. How can you think about hearing? You just hear right?
But there is more than that. What is doing the hearing? David kept bringing the group around to that awareness, that as you are hearing the car door, the car door is hearing you.
David reminded us that hearing the suffering of the world was the gift voted by some buddha caucus as the most powerful to saving all beings. And that hearing is that last sense to pass. And in my recent research I have learned that it is the first sense to open up. Children in the womb hear before they see, feel, or smell. Cellists have years later played pieces that they heard their mother practicing in the womb.
As a friend of mine said "everyone loves vibrations". And the whole universe is
Tonight the koan was "A coin lost in the river, is found in the river". The zen game we played, was taken from that theme, and was called, "Lost and found".
After our zazen and kinhin, I asked everyone to sit for several moments and try to notice loss. Notice something or someone that they had lost. It could be near, or powerful, or small, or a long time ago. I asked them to notice how they knew that they lost it, and where it is now.
I should be growing accustom to being surprised by my fellow sangha mates, but I haven't and I dont want to. The responses that poured out caused me to choke up, cry, and laugh. It was like walking into a foreign city and finding your family there. Or finding out that the suprise party you threw was for you. Surprise!
Loss of a grandmother,
Loss of a passion for cross bows.
Loss of a father,
Loss of balance and composure,
Loss of possessions.
Then we went around and I asked everyone to say how they knew it was gone. What struck me most, is that most people seemed to find it was less "gone" than they thought it was. Finally, we went around once, and I asked people to say where it was now, that lost thing.
R talked about the hole that not shooting anymore brought him. But he talked about how it had changed him, and how it still traveled with him. He mentioned that it had brought him to Zen, and had changed into surfing. that it it continued to be with him, causing aching, remembrances of stiller minds and focus. T told a story about having lost her father, finding a name tag with his name on it left in a cab in New York. She talked about how his death brought her family together, and in those ways, how he was not lost at all. D said he noticed his balance was gone when he felt the pain of his ankle twisting. He said that he felt his composure slip and stories well up. But he said how pain has a way or reminding you that you are here, and with that, the stories seemed to stop and let him stand on the twisted ankle and be in pain and in balance. J told about her car being broken into. How she noticed that her anger, long a part of her story, was lost. Gone. She didn't notice it leaving until it was gone.
My Nana passed away in the spring. I was living in NYC. My family rarely morns, and never have funerals, but her Church held one for her. I could not get home in time. Nana was very special to me, so I walked from Park Slope to Red hook to an Episcopal church. There I sat through mass, then fell asleep in the pew. I dreamed of Nana with two blue eyes, instead of the one that she had in life. She never seemed gone. I talk to her still. I want to name my daughter after her. I wanted to say that I knew she was gone because I have no knew memories of her. But I do. Whenever I see something she would love, our relationship goes on. She is not gone, or lost, and is always here with me.
Then I asked that we sit again, and this time to notice things that were found. I encouraged people to notice where they found it, and what it was like to find it.
Words for my feelings,
a still place
What people seemed to notice was that finding things didn't result from looking. Sometimes it was as if they found us. A snippet from a sutra opening up a home for us no matter where we are. The dust on a cushion growing into a speech, inviting everyone into it. A calm where there was anger and stories about anger. They just came for us. And w
I am grateful for all the teachers in WiG.
Tonight Dan Kaplan led the small koan group. It was so beautiful a talk, my first memory is gratitude. He spoke about how this koan is practice, and our practice is this koan. How enlightenment comes in many flavors and the everyday ordinary flavor is perhaps the sweetest. He unwrapped his love affair with koans and talked about how noticing is the first step to awareness. How accepting how we are is a gateway to the specialness of the ordinary.
In closing, since this is at least in part about loss, I want to recount one of the more powerful nights of my life. I had just begun my sitting practice. I lived in Boston and sat with Boundless Way Zen, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Sangha, Waldo affectionately. Josh Bartok came in to teach, only a day or two from his father's death. Josh did not teach through his grief or to it. He just taught. And there was his grief. And he talked about wondering what Zen was doing for him then, and wondering how he would hold the hurt and what tomorrow would bring. He talked about his grief and shock. No one moved a muscle, except their hearts, which opened and overflowed. It was one of the most profound acts of compassion I have ever seen. Josh, that is, and his compassion for himself and his grief. That night I figured out Zen was not about feeling better, it was about feeling. Josh's courage and generosity touched me then in a way that I knew I would not leave this practice. The lost coin reminds me of that moment, and Josh finding his father in his loss of his father.
Last night we worked on the koan, "save a ghost".
To limber up, I asked that people, while sitting, notice if there was not a ghost somewhere in their own practice. That nagging voice that tells you that you are not still enough, that your back is not straight enough, that your mind is not still enough, that you should be watching your breath, not thinking of the girl you see on the train, the part that says "not good enough".
We opened up discussion, passing around the Zen locust (if you have no idea what that is, you really need to visit.), and speaking something into the room. J noticed that when looking for a ghost, that her mind quieted and there were no thoughts. T noticed that looking for a ghost, became a ghost. N noticed music permeating his haunting. T noticed that there was a kindly ghost, a motherly figure, with endless compassion, and C noticed brought our attention to the power of ghosts. I noticed a ghost zen master, somwhere inside me, ticking and tacking back and forth commenting and correcting my practice. There more I tried to measure up to his example, the more my practice became haunted. Later, I tried turning it around and giving that image of perfect practice some peace, and I felt gratitude to be able to let down a little and let the back ache.
The conversation traveled and we sat again. The second sit, several people who did not connect with the first period, felt really strong emotions well up from seemingly nowhere. Everyone who came to practice, stayed for small groups. Our resident M'see n Telefu, Chris Wilson, opened the discussion with a historical discussion of ghosts in Buddhism. After briefly touching on demons, he described the hungry ghosts, those beings huge of belly and head, but small of throat, forever hungry, forever frustrated. They appeared frightening and pathetic. He opened discussion and people really connected, talking about spooks and vapors, apparitions and internal ghosts, floating, comforting scaring us.
Save a ghost? Why should we? How can we? Perhaps, not by running or staying, but being honest with our fear or trepidation. Maybe our ghosts are our tension, or apprehension of what should be or could be. Chris told us of ghost, clinging to the grasses waiting to hold onto those who walked by. Are they to be feared or pitied? Can we save a ghost? Can a ghost save us?
Last week's koan is still drifting in my head.
When I was in college, I played water polo. We practiced 7.5 hours a day sometimes, other times, just 6. Sometimes as little as 3.5 hours. But every day. On our triple days, we got in and out of the pool three times. Over the years this mounts up. It never gets easier, getting into the water. It gets hard like a wall when you are over-trained, underslept and over extended. most of us spent the better part of the season in pain of some sort, aches, contusions, arthritis, fractures, heart problems, etc. There was a hot tub. It was in the men's locker room. That hot tub saved many careers. We would wait in the hot tub while our coaches voice snorted like a bull by the pool, spewing streams of invectives, questioning our manhood, parenting, and in some cases legitimacy. Finally, he would start counting. Something about the numbers. If he got to one and not all of us were in the pool...well, we never found out. Dirk did one year. He told us he swam 100 100s, at least until he was too dizzy to count.
Anyway, we got in the weight room at 6, the pool at 7 or 8. It was Berkeley, and cold and always overcast. Sometimes it was raining. one morning RF roze by the pool deck. Everyone else hovered over it for some minutes, feeling the rising naseau, then managed to jump in. The trick was not to think. If you thought about it, you froze. Thats what RF did. There he stood. All 6'9 of him. Stood by the water while our mountain of a coach hollered at him nearby. "RF if you dont get in that &^^(ing pool in 5 G*()&()# seconds, I am goin to %&*$ing..." Then it happened. This man/boy started to cry. He was paralyzed. He could not move. PS generously got out of the pool limped over to him and pushed him in. He fell in, and started swimming. There was not animosity. I heard him thank P later.
And I remember being a kid, mom dropping me off at Canterbury Woods pool. I would wait until adult swim was over, then go tot he 4 foot area, exhale until my body weight normalized, and sunk to the bottom. I would lay on the black tiles looking up, listening to the thrumming of the swimmings, hearing the hard splashing of the kids, the occasional vibrato of divers. And I was held there in the warmth, looking up, the pale world overhead. It was embryonic, fetal. It was perfectly unseperated from everyone in the pool.
The line up in Maine and New Hampshire in the winter would often have iceburgs floating in it. You had to be particularly cautious. water on water, when the forms and velocities are working against you, is disasterous. But we were out there. Out there in the 29 degree water, faces coated in vaseline to prevent frostbite, laughing like deranged seals in the cold, hands above the water line, our surfboards icing over.
How about you?? What is the cause of water?
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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