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.
“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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