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Part I: Meditation Postures

While meditation techniques vary widely among the Buddhist traditions, it is interesting to note that in all of the traditions the basic posture of meditation is sitting cross-legged upon the ground. This newsletter explores the posture of meditation from the Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan Buddhist views. We have included meditation posture photographs demonstrating basic sitting posture as well as some alternative postures for those who are unable to sit cross-legged.

In this issue:

z e n
Fukan Zazengi: Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen
By Eihei Dogen Zenji

The The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent on practice and realization? The true vehicle is self-sufficient. What need is there for special effort? Indeed, the whole body is free from dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from this very place; what is the use of traveling around to practice? And yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion. Suppose you are confident in your understanding and rich in enlightenment, gaining the wisdom that knows at a glance, attaining the Way and clarifying the mind, arousing an aspiration to reach for the heavens. You are playing in the entranceway, but you are still are short of the vital path of emancipation.

Consider the Buddha: although he was wise at birth, the traces of his six years of upright sitting can yet be seen. As for Bodhidharma, although he had received the mind-seal, his nine years of facing a wall is celebrated still. If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice?

Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now.

For practicing Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think "good" or "bad." Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, and consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?

At your sitting place, spread out a thick mat and put a cushion on it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, first place your right foot on your left thigh, then your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, simply place your left foot on your right thigh. Tie your robes loosely and arrange them neatly. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left hand on your right palm, thumb-tips lightly touching. Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Rest the tip of your tongue against the front of the roof of your mouth, with teeth together and lips shut. Always keep your eyes open, and breathe softly through your nose.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking-what kind of thinking is that? Nonthinking. This is the essential art of zazen.

The zazen I speak of is not meditation practice. It is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized; traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know that the true dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both mundane and sacred and dying while either sitting or standing have all depended entirely on the power of zazen.

In addition, triggering awakening with a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and effecting realization with a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout—these cannot be understood by discriminative thinking; much less can they be known through the practice of supernatural power. They must represent conduct beyond seeing and hearing. Are they not a standard prior to knowledge and views?

This being the case, intelligence or lack of it is not an issue; make no distinction between the dull and the sharp-witted. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Going forward is, after all, an everyday affair.

In general, in our world and others, in both India and China, all equally hold the buddha-seal. While each lineage expresses its own style, they are all simply devoted to sitting, totally blocked in resolute stability. Although they say that there are ten thousand distinctions and a thousand variations, they just wholeheartedly engage the way in zazen. Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.

You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not pass your days and nights in vain. You are taking care of the essential activity of the buddha way. Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from a flintstone? Besides, form and substance are like the dew on the grass, the fortunes of life like a dart of lightning—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.

Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not doubt the true dragon. Devote your energies to the way of direct pointing at the real. Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort. Accord with the enlightenment of all the buddhas; succeed to the samadhi of all the ancestors. Continue to live in such a way, and you will be such a person. The treasure store will open of itself, and you may enjoy it freely.

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v i p a s s a n a
The Posture of Meditation from The Posture of Meditation: A Practical Manual for Meditators of All Traditions
by Will Johnson

The Posture of Meditation: A Practical Manual for Meditators of All Traditions by Will Johnson. © 1996 by Shambhala Publications, Inc.. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, http://www.shambhala.com.

Ordinarily, we think of meditation as an activity involving our minds, but in truth meditation is initiated by assuming a specific gesture with our bodies. This gesture or posture forms the literal base on which the focused inquiry of meditation ultimately rests and depends. If we build a house with a faulty foundation, we create great difficulties for ourselves when we later take up residence. In the same way, if we do not focus our attention initially on establishing a posture that naturally supports and aids the process of meditation, we create many difficulties for ourselves as we attempt to make progress in our meditative quest.

The word “posture” comes from the Latin positura, which means “a position” and ponere, “to place”. Applied as it customarily is to the structure and appearance of our body, it refers to how we position or place our body in space and to how the different segments of the body relate to one another. In addition, posture or posturing may refer to an attitude or self-image that we self-consciously create, identify with, and project. The determined slouch of an alienated or angry person, the overly developed musculature that attempts to conceal insecurity, the affectation of casual confidence by a lawyer attempting to win over a jury—all of these self images ultimately depend on holding our bodies in different ways to create a desired effect. By holding our bodies, we create different postures that express different attitudes.

Mostly, this kind of posturing or posing carries with it a connotation of unnaturalness. We can tense the muscles in our body and hold ourselves in different postures to manufacture a desired persona or self-image. This is precisely what actors do as they attempt to enter into a role, and consequently theater schools spend a great deal of time focusing on the purely physical aspect of the actor’s craft. However, the natural state of the human being, as with any animal, is to be balanced and relaxed. By consciously manipulating our bodies so that we can create and project a specific self-image, we limit our range of expression, restrict the natural movement of energy within our bodies and minds, and forfeit the natural ease of balance and relaxation that is our true birthright.

The French word poseur describes this condition quite accurately. It refers to someone who is trying to be something other than what he or she naturally is, an imposter. Contrasted with this unnatural way of being in the body, the posture of meditation aligns our bodies and minds in the most comfortable, guileless way with the greater forces of nature that condition us. In this way we accept ourselves as we are in truth and experience no need to be anything other than what we naturally are already. As we learn to let go of some of our unnatural posturings and posings and enter more comfortably into the posture of meditation, we find that what we naturally are is very wonderful indeed. We experience a comfort and relaxation that reveal ever deeper insights into our true nature.

Just as the gradual, but consistent, evolution of the human species toward an ever more upright and vertical posture has accompanied by a parallel growth and expansion in consciousness, so too do the “higher” states of consciousness that can be contacted through the process of meditation themselves depend on the continued refinement of verticality and relaxed balance in the body. This preliminary condition on which the inquiry of meditation can proceed is often overlooked, however. Meditation, instead, is mostly presented as a variety of different techniques or activites in which we engage our minds and on which we focus our attention. We may, for example, be instructed to sit and silently repeat a word or phrase or to visualize and merge with the image of a deity. We may be told to sit and pay attention to the passage of breath as it moves in and out of the body or to observe the ever-changing contents of our bodies and minds. We may be asked to sit and attempt to come up with an answer to an insoluble riddle or to imagine a cord of expanding white light in our spines. We may be instructed to sit and listen to the inner sounds of the body or to focus on one particular point in the body to the exclusion of all others. We may sit down and contemplate the meaning of a specific passage from a book we value, or we may simply be instructed to sit and do “nothing at all”.

Meditation techniques are extremely varied. The Buddha enumerated approximately forty different techniques, and the Vigyana Bhairava Tantra (which Paul Reps translated in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones) lists one hundred eight different forms of practice, any of which is capable of taking the practitioner to the highest stages of realization. It is entirely appropriate that there is such a diverse offering of meditation techniques as we all have different temperaments and inclinations that may make one technique a more suitable avenue of exploration for us than others. Many roads can lead to the same place, and ultimately it makes little difference which one we choose as long as it suits our temperament and abilities and allows us to reach our goal. In the end, the best technique is the one we adopt for ourselves.

While the specific techniques of meditation are extremely varied, there exists a denominator common to all of them, and that is the sitting posture itself. It would be very difficult for an observer, even someone who was familiar with the process of meditation, to discern which particular technique a meditator may be practicing. All that the observer can know for sure is that what the person is doing is sitting. Ultimately, the act of sitting itself may become even more important than the technique we are supposedly practicing while sitting. Put another way, techniques themselves may be necessary ways to occupy ourselves as our bodies and minds slowly learn to assume the posture of meditation. Seen this way, the posture of meditation can be viewed as the starting point of the practice as well as its ultimate goal.

Most teachers of meditation do give initial instructions about the importance of posture. These instructions generally take the form of: “Sit with the back straight and the body relaxed. Sit quite still and breathe comfortably and naturally.” The first part of this little volume will be an examination of each part of these instructions and is undertaken in the hopes that it may become much easier for you to put these instructions into practice. As simple as these instructions may be, they also represent one of the most challenging actions that we can attempt to perform. Often if we concentrate on sitting up straight or sitting quite still, we find ourselves becoming rigid, and it becomes very difficult to relax. Or, if we consciously focus on relations, we may find that the structure of our bodies slowly begins to collapse. The head begins to hang forward, the front of the body shortens while the back becomes overly elongated, and we lose our verticality. In either of these common positions the natural and comfortable flow of the breath is seriously compromised and impeded. The posture of meditation shows us how to balance and integrate each of these bodily instructions into our sitting practice.

The posture of meditation depends on three primary attributes: alignment, relaxation and resilience. Each of these attributes is equally important, and each supports the others’ manifestation. Appearing together in harmonious relationship to one another, they generate a powerfully catalytic effect on the process of meditation. In this posture the healing energies of the body and mind are naturally activated, and the process of transformation has no choice but to begin. Whatever personal postural habits of body and mind serve to obscure the truth of our enlightened nature are gradually dissolved through the assumption of this posture, just as the constant unimpeded flow of water gradually dissolves sandstone. We naturally experience this powerfully catalyzing effect as the deepening of our meditation. Body and mind become progressively integrated, and the artificial division between our inner and outer worlds begins to fall away. If any one of these three primary attributes is lacking, the process of meditation may still proceed, but it will do so much more slowly.

The first part of this book will deal with the mechanics of the posture of meditation as they specifically apply to our formal sitting practice. In the second part of this book we will expand our arena of practice and see how these same principles can be applied to what might be called informal practice, our everyday movements through life. The sections at the end of the chapters are exercises designed to help the reader experience the aspect of the posture of meditation that chapter addresses. A final note: the author’s personal form of sitting practice has been strongly influenced by the rich and varied tradition of Buddhism, and indeed references to that tradition will appear from time to time within the text. Even so, the principles underlying the posture of meditation are universal in their application. They apply equally to the meditator who is working with a Theravadin mindfulness practice, a Christian form of contemplation, or a Hindu mystical practice. They apply to all of us who have had the good fortune to recognize that simply to come to sitting can be one of the most potent gestures we are capable of assuming.

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t i b e t a n b u d d h i s m
Discovering Basic Goodness from Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
by Chögyam Trungpa

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa. © 2003 by Shambhala Publications, Inc.. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, http://www.shambhala.com.

Our life is an endless journey; it is like a broad highway that extends infinitely into the distance. The practice of meditation provides a vehicle to travel on that road. Our journey consists of constant ups and downs, hope and fear, but it is a good journey. The practice of meditation allows us to experience all the textures of the roadway, which is what the journey is all about. Through the practice of meditation, we begin to find that within ourselves there is no fundamental complaint about anything or anyone at all.

Meditation practice begins by sitting down and assuming your seat cross-legged on the ground. You can begin to feel that by simply being on the spot, your life can become workable and even wonderful. You realize that you are capable of sitting like a king or queen on a throne. The regalness of that situation shows you the dignity that comes from being still and simple.

In the practice of meditation, an upright posture is extremely important. Having an upright back is not an artificial posture. It is natural to the human body. When you slouch, that is unusual. You can’t breathe properly when you slouch, and slouching also is a sign of giving in to neurosis. So when you sit erect, you are proclaiming to yourself and to the rest of the world that you are going to be a warrior, or fully human being.

To have a straight back you do not have to strain yourself by pulling up your shoulders; the uprightness comes naturally from sitting simply but proudly on the ground on your meditation cushion. Then, because your back is upright, you feel no trace of shyness or embarrassment, so you do not hold your head down. You are not bending to anything. Because of that, your shoulders become straight automatically, so you develop a good sense of head and shoulders. Then you can allow your legs to rest naturally in a cross-legged position; your knees to not have to touch the ground. You complete your posture by placing your hands lightly, palms down, on your thighs. This provides a further sense of assuming your spot properly.

In that posture, you don’t just gaze randomly around. You have a sense that you are there properly; therefore your eyes are open, but your gaze is directed slightly downward, maybe six feet in front of you. In that way, your vision does not wander here and there, but you have a further sense of deliberateness and definiteness. You can see this royal pose in some Egyptian and South American sculptures, as well as in Oriental statues. It is a universal posture, not limited to one culture or time.

In your daily life, you should also be aware of your posture, your head and shoulders, how you walk, and how you look at people. Even when you are not meditating, you can maintain a dignified state of existence. You can transcend your embarrassment and take pride in being a human being. Such pride is acceptable and good.

Then, in meditation practice, as you sit with a good posture, you pay attention to your breath. When you breathe, you are utterly there, properly there. You go out with the outbreath, your breath dissolves, and then the inbreath happens naturally. Then you go out again. So there is a constant going out with the outbreath. As you breathe out, you dissolve, you diffuse. Then your inbreath occurs naturally; you don’t have to follow it in. You simply come back to your posture, and you are ready for another outbreath. Go out and dissolve: tshoo; then come back to your posture; then tshoo, and come back to your posture.

Then there will be an inevitable bing—thought. At that point, you say, “thinking”. You don’t say it out loud; you say it mentally: “thinking”. Labeling your thoughts gives you tremendous leverage to come back to your breath. When one thought takes you away completely from what you are actually doing—when you do not even realize that you are on the cushion but in your mind you are in San Francisco or New York City—you say “thinking”, and you bring yourself back to the breath.

It doesn’t really matter what thoughts you have. In the sitting practice of meditation, whether you have monstrous thoughts or benevolent thoughts, all of them are regarded purely as thinking. They are neither virtuous nor sinful. You might have a thought of assassinating your father or you might want to make lemonade and eat cookies. Please don’t be shocked by your thoughts: any thought is just thinking. No thought deserves a gold medal or a reprimand. Just label your thoughts “thinking”, then go back to your breath. “Thinking”, back to the breath; “thinking”, back to the breath.

The practice of meditation is very precise. It has to be on the dot, right on the dot. It is quite hard work, but if you remember the importance of your posture, that will allow you to synchronize your mind and body. If you don’t have good posture, your practice will be like a lame horse trying to pull a cart. It will never work. So first you sit down and assume your posture, then you work with your breath; tshoo, go out, come back to your posture; tshoo, come back to your posture, tshoo. When thoughts arise, you label them “thinking” and come back to your posture, back to your breath. You have mind working with breath, but you always maintain body as a reference point. You are not working with your mind alone. You are working with your mind and your body, and when the two work together, you never leave reality.

The ideal state of tranquility comes from experiencing body and mind being synchronized. If body and mind are unsynchronized, then your body will slump—and your mind will be somewhere else. It is like a badly made drum: the skin doesn’t fit the frame of the drum, so either the frame breaks or the skin breaks, and there is no constant tautness. When mind and body are synchronized, then, because of good posture, your breathing happens naturally; and because your breathing and your posture work together, your mind has a reference point to check back to. Therefore your mind will go out naturally with the breath. This method of synchronizing your mind and body is training you to be very simple and to feel that you are not special, but ordinary, extra-ordinary. You sit simply as a warrior, and out of that, a sense of individual dignity arises. You are sitting on earth and you realize that this earth deserves you and you deserve this earth. You are there—fully, personally, genuinely. So meditation practice in the Shambhala tradition is designed to educate people to be honest and genuine, true to themselves.

In some sense, we should regard ourselves as being burdened: we have the burden of helping this world. We cannot forget this responsibility to others. But if we take our burden as a delight, we can actually liberate this world. The way to begin is with ourselves. From being open and honest with ourselves, we can also learn to be open with others. So we can work with the rest of the world, on the basis of the goodness we discover in ourselves. Therefore, meditation practice is regarded as a good and in fact excellent way to overcome warfare in the world: our own warfare as well as greater warfare.

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DharmaCrafts and the Dalai Lama
His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the United States in September. During his stay in Boston, His Holiness accepted an invitation to bless the statues in the temple at the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Studies, in a small and private ceremony. DharmaCrafts was honored to be asked by the Kurukulla Center to create a cushion for His Holiness.

View photos of our founder/CEO Dyan Eagles making this special cushion:
(click images for larger view)

 

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DharmaBum Sits Kyol Che at The Providence Zen Center in Rhode Island

by Jody Blackwell

The long retreat in the Kwan Um Zen tradition is called Kyol Che, which means Tight Dharma, or tight meditation practice. It is a period of intense, concentrated meditation together with other lay people and monastics, both men and women. Winter Kyol Che is 3 months long, of which I did 1/12. It could be said that successfully getting through Kyol Che is the Mount Everest of our Zen tradition. For me, the prospect of lasting through one week of Kyol Che would be like leveling Mt. Everest with a dessert spoon. Given my willingness to put myself in discomfort only when there is immediate gain to be gotten by a fast route, I wasn't sure I wasn't flattering myself with the idea of an extended retreat. But as they say in Zen, the check was in the mail.

Every day of Kyol Che entails a strict regimen of bowing, chanting, sitting, walking, working and eating together, all without speaking. We call this together action. Together action not only provides mutual support for the arduous daily routine, it also serves as a microcosm of the universe, to show the interconnectedness of all life: The close living quarters on retreat is like a microscope, allowing each person to observe how their actions affect the whole group. Or put more bluntly, how everyone drives themselves and each other crazy with their little hang-ups. These hang-ups are called our karma, and Kyol Che is designed to bring them out in high relief. By the end of the week, the point was not lost on me.

Day One

Four of us are entering Kyol Che together on Saturday morning. The retreat is in its second to final week up in the monastery, whose curving bright peacock blue tile roof perches gracefully like a giant exotic bird on a small hill about a quarter mile walk beyond the Zen center's converted farmhouse residential building. We are to walk up together in a group and carry our packs and sleeping bags ourselves. With my bag this is not a small effort, weighed down as it is with padded socks, extra sweaters, medication bottles and illegal emergency food rations. In a last minute panic the day before, I had amassed a post-apocalyptic supply of tiny quiet food, fearing malnourishment in the austere environment that awaited us.

As our little group walks quietly and thoughtfully up the dirt path to the monastery, its roof the only cheerful color in the dormant, gray landscape of late March, we pass a gaggle of ruddy-cheeked grinning retreatants bounding down the road with their packs and sleeping bags in the opposite direction. These are the exiting one-weekers of the previous week. They are finished, returning again to their personal freedom and their first cup of coffee. They have done what I have not yet done and they now know what I do not yet know. Now they are headed back towards all that I am about to give up but still very much want, and they look annoyingly pleased about it. One of them waves at us. I can't yet imagine myself as them at the end of this week.

The rooms in the dark, galley-like basement floor of the monastery are predictably small and sparse, furnished only with a mattress and fitted sheet for each retreatant. I am sharing the room of a woman who has been here for the entire three months of Kyol Che. The one element of interior décor in our room are these curious handmade landscapes fixed to the walls and hanging from the window, fashioned from torn cardboard paper towel cylinders, with tiny paper origami cranes perched on the cardboard cliffs and ledges. I know that they are supposed to be beautiful, but they give me an unsettled feeling. That homemade handiwork smacks of isolated longevity, the kind you might encounter in places of less voluntary confinement. I return to my breathing and unroll my sleeping bag.

The second meditation, or sitting period of the day starts at 10 AM, after work period. The first sitting period was at 6 AM, a ripe hour and a half into the Kyol Che day, which starts at 4:30 AM. By 10 AM the day is old hat to the retreatants, who have already done 108 full standing-to-floor prostrations, 45 minutes of chanting, one and a half hours of sitting, a choreographed breakfast routine and work period. This will be the first sitting period for us newly arrived. It will last until noon, three thirty-minute intervals broken up by ten minutes of walking meditation. Feeling fresh and familiar with this part of the regimen, I take to my assigned cushion and settle in for the morning, following the snapping orders of the wooden stick, the chuk-pi, that the Head Dharma Teacher slaps in his hand to signal the next thing on our agenda.

The Head Dharma Teacher, or HDT, is the pragmatic overseer of the retreat. In addition to being our human alarm clock for the duration of the week, he or she functions as a role model for how you should be doing things, versus how you, in fact, are. HDTs are also a little like commercial flight attendants. Just when you feel you're about to freak out in this uncomfortable, artificial environment where you're stuck for an interminable length of time, you look over and see the HDT looking totally calm and blasé. It has a subduing effect. Anyway, by lunchtime I have completed the first three sittings with relative ease and am relieved that I have slipped into the Kyol Che machinery without clogging the wheels. It is some people's goal to leave a retreat with some kind of spiritual or emotional alteration to their psyche. My goal is to get through the week without causing a scene.

For first-timers, the first couple of days of a retreat are a nerve wracking process of simultaneously observing and following all the meticulous procedures, called forms, for doing just about everything except taking a leak, though even that isn't particularly private. You feel increasingly on edge as you realize that your every action in the premeditated life you are now living is a potential mistake. This anxiety is highest during the formal meals. At mealtimes the food is laid out by the retreatants themselves on a straw mat in the middle of the room with geometric precision, all the pots and bowls positioned symmetrically with their handles all facing the same way. During the first couple days I ceremoniously carry in and set down my meal item, then automatically know to stand back and let a veteran scuttle up from behind and adjust it. (You figure out fast that taking things personally on a retreat is a great way to emotionally implode.) Fortunately our Zen tradition is one of the more forgiving, and the Head Dharma Teacher appears stoic on occasions when the soup is sent down the wrong direction, or the ritual water bowl passed around after meal clean-up, in which you're supposed to pour only clear, pure water from your final bowl wash, comes back to him a cloudy, milky swamp, the contribution of guess-who.

Everyone on the retreat is given four identical bowls, a spoon and chopsticks for meals, which at the snap of the chuk-pi you lay out in a specific sequence in a tidy square on your cloth napkin. The cloth napkin functions as a personal tablecloth of sorts, and as the week progresses, a running archive of your unmindful slops, drops and spills. The retreatants also serve the meal to the group, everyone taking turns as they notice what needs to be done. Hypothetically you are allowed to take as much food as you can eat, and it would appear as if all four bowls are meant to be filled with something, that being the nature of bowls. The uniterated fine print, however, is that the whole meal process from set-up to clean-up lasts about ten minutes. For the hungry and not-yet-initiated, the very first retreat meal usually starts off with mindful little nibbles. Then, as the first panicked awareness sets in that the meal which has just begun is also simultaneously about to end, the scene degenerates into the spectacle of pigs at a trough. I, who am not new to the formal meal ritual, nonetheless spend the first few meals in a blind frenzy of gulping and swallowing (chewing is an unaffordable luxury) the damning evidence of my food attachments.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and as you get more meals under your belt, so to speak, you gradually discover all the tricks for streamlining meal production and distribution while maximizing food intake. You can usually spot the old-timers at mealtime by the garbage disposal-looking amalgam of foods and cross-culturally mixed condiments slopped together in one or two bowls for efficiency - hummus and seaweed rice cake sandwiches with Korean pickle sauce and wheat germ, raw salad greens caked with balsamic vinegar and dried yeast and submerged in lentil stew. If the brisk eating pace is the cause of these weird combinations, it is also your salvation from them. Meals on retreats are not so much about food but about eating. These first meals for me are not about eating so much as finishing eating.

In actuality the food on Kyol Che, when treated with proper respect, is quite good, and by the end of the day I haven't yet broken into my emergency food rations, though I start to find my attitude toward each day's entrée jaded by the degree of difficulty in cleaning the pots afterwards, as one of my assigned jobs for the week is lunch clean-up in the monastery kitchen. Lunch clean-up cuts into afternoon rest time. When seaweed soup is served, it is a good day. Hearty vegetable stew is eaten more reluctantly. I am grateful, at least, that I don't have to do the oatmeal pots from breakfast.

Day Two

My second assigned job for the week turns out to be ringing the heavy green bronze bell in the corner of the meditation hall, or Dharma Room, every morning during the Morning Bell Chant. This is something I've never done before. The Morning Bell Chant is the first chant sung in the morning and it is very long and very slow, made longer and slower by the cadence of notes sung on each chanted syllable. It is punctuated at various points by a single strike of the bell, and is begun and concluded with an extended motif of striking the bell at increasingly faster and quieter intervals, until you can hit it neither faster nor quieter, then reversing the sequence, getting slower and louder, as if you were to bounce an 8-ball down the side of the Eiffel Tower and then play the tape backwards. At the end of the chant you must repeat this ball-down-the-Eiffel-Tower phrase three times. In a nutshell, the bell that ushers in the new day for everyone at the monastery and that is now my assigned job requires the agility of a fly-fisherman and the focus of a brain surgeon, at 5 AM in the morning.

My expectations are not high to begin with, so it is not a big disappointment when my first Morning Bell sucks. It has all the subtlety of the Gong Show. If anyone in the Dharma Room manages not to be jarred awake by it, they are either legally deaf or dead.

This particular morning there is a light dusting of snow on the trees and grounds around the monastery. Having rarely seen the natural world at such an early hour of the day, I am struck by the stillness and beauty. The light-blue clapboard of the Zen center farmhouse on the other side of the pond just barely stands out in the luminescent pre-dawn light. It all looks like the backdrop for a Robert Frost poem. For a moment, while waiting for the first meditation period to begin, I am fixated at the floor-length glass window of the Dharma Room taking in this landscape. Then I turn around and see the Head Dharma Teacher looking in my direction. His brow looks furled. I glance back at the window. There is a pristine grease imprint of my nose and forehead where apparently I had been mashing my face up against the glass. The karma part of retreat is now officially kicking in.

Sitting meditation in the beautiful, sunny Dharma Room is still relatively novel and enjoyable this afternoon, save for the matter of my new silk meditation pants bought expressly for this retreat, kind of a hoary-old-hermit-meets-Audrey-Hepburn cut. Silk, I am now

appreciating, is not famous due to its traction. At the start of each sitting period I buckle my knees and legs under me in a tidy little erect triangle, only to pass the next thirty minutes steadily oozing out and down into an uncomfortable puddle. But I am genuinely enjoying how quiet it is, apart from the songbirds, the wind, and the occasional chuk-pi, and I'm grateful that the retreatant on the neighboring cushion has not yet manifested any offensive habits that might thrust me further into the present moment than I am inclined to want to go at this point.

It is now evening sitting on the second day, and something inside me unexpectedly arises. In the midst of the usual ebb and flow of anxieties and hopes and to-do lists, I suddenly find myself flooded with memories of childhood. In particular, images of my grandparents' catfish farm in Alabama. The sharp, mingled smells of dogs and honeysuckle and catfish feed. The first mind-numbing blast of air conditioning after stepping inside from a scorching July afternoon. The mysterious craft drawer filled with exotic papers and fringes and beads left over from Grandma's bridge parties. The fascinating and creepy array of moths, beetles and frogs that would sit on the living room window at night, bellies to the glass, while Grandma, Grandpa and I watched The Love Boat on TV inside. It's not only that these images have come to my mind, but that I feel physically inside of them, as if some long closed channel has suddenly opened. I am not remembering being a child, I am actually feeling the mind of myself as a child again. This experience has caught me off guard and I start weeping. After a few minutes I can't stop and I'm beginning to get embarrassed; crying quietly is an oxymoron. I proceed to cry straight through two thirty-minute sittings as more and more childhood memories come up. Soon I am actually rummaging for memories, as if the sitting period had turned into a deep closet. I've lost all interest in returning to my breath. I want to visit with these ghosts as long as I can, before they fade.
By the third sitting I've finally stopped crying and I feel physically like I have lost 30 pounds. The final sitting and chanting periods whiz by with almost no effort. By bedtime I am wide awake.

Day Three

I am very punchy today, a complete reverse from last night. I can't stop giggling. It's always been a phenomenon with me that as soon as I know I'm not supposed to laugh, everything becomes uncontrollably funny. But this morning

it is getting out of control. I think about all the illicit food in my bag and start giggling. I look at the moustache on the big gold Buddha on the altar and start giggling. At lunch I see one of the monks accidentally drop some rice in his clean water and I almost choke on my banana. My sitting neighbor must think I'm epileptic because I keep shaking with suppressed giggles. I speculate that maybe during the morning sitting I unknowingly got enlightenment and this is the result. But then that idea becomes hysterically funny and I have to once again funnel the laughter through my nose. Why is no one else laughing, I'm wondering. Here we have paid money to interrupt our lives and walk around in circles in grey pajamas. That is really funny. Does anyone else in the room notice how funny we all look? Apparently not at that moment.

At lunchtime I am unnerved by a recurring urge to shout something out and disrupt the subdued quiet. Say, anyone heard any good jokes recently? I also keep having this irrational fear that deep and prolonged meditation might trigger some latent strain of Turret's Syndrome in me and I'll start yelling something really mortifyingly embarrassing. The thought of it makes my spine shiver. My goal is to get through the week without causing a scene, but I'm starting to feel that possibility slip away with every new absurdity in my head. I giggle at that thought, too.

This morning we have kong-an interviews with the Zen Master. This thought is less funny. Kong-ans are riddles that the Zen Master asks you during a private conversation to see how clear your mind is. You can't answer them with your usual thinking mind, or even with your intuition. The answer has to come from the center of your being and from the clarity of your life direction, namely to save all beings from their suffering. To make matters more difficult, the scenarios in these riddles are always archaic settings in ancient China where everyone has a complicated name and is doing some obscure domestic chore that I have a hard time identifying with, things involving ten pounds of flax or dredging outhouses, or they are in some improbable dilemma like hanging from a tree by their mouth with their hands tied behind their back. They are also curiously prone to lopping off a finger or limb in order to get some point across. There are usually lots of cats and donkeys and buffalo lingering around causing trouble, too. I think my impression of China has been unfairly colored by listening to too many of these kong-ans.

It is part of the kong-an interview form that before you answer the riddle, you hit the floor with your hand. The noise of your hand on the floor is intended to clear your mind for a split second before you answer, so that your answer comes from a place before thinking, a spontaneously conceived expression of your true self. The anxiety about kong-an interviews on a retreat is that everyone sitting in the Dharma Room thinks the person presently having their the interview is whipping through their assigned kong-ans with an expertly clear mind. Sitting in a perfectly quiet building, you can't help but hear how many times someone is hitting the floor in the interview room, which doesn't help eradicate your ego as you're preparing to go in. I feel tingly as my neighbor bows and goes in for his interview. I am next.

Our Zen Master is usually very friendly and cheerful, even when he is threatening to hit you with a stick thirty times. I don't think he ever really would, but maybe he would. As a rule, I dread kong-ans and the humiliation of constantly getting them wrong, especially since attempting to answer them involves being confident under pressure, which for me is another oxymoron. I've been trying in vain to answer one particular kong-an for two years now. So again my expectations are low as I enter the interview room and bow to the Zen Master. But he is cheerful and talkative and starts me off with an easy one that I've answered before. I forcefully hit the floor and give my answer. Yes, I am correct. One down. Then he asks another, this time a new one. I shut my eyes, hit the floor and give the first answer that comes to me. Yes! I got it again. Wow. He asks another, I hit, give my answer. He nods approvingly. Holy cow, three in a row. This is a first. I start to feel light-headed from the morning sitting. Keep it together.

Then he has me read a kong-an passage from a book about two ancient Chinese monks doing an obscure domestic chore. This is an unusual one and it's more tricky. But fortified by my successes, I throw caution to the wind, hit the floor and act out my answer. Right again! Woo-hooo! Four in a row. Somebody stop me! Then he proceeds to ask me my "homework" kong-an. This is the big enchilada that I haven't gotten correct in two years. Swept up in the moment, I hit the floor and answer with gusto, which for reasons I can't elaborate here entails me crawling around on the floor and sniffing like a wild animal. For about five seconds I am really hamming it up, until I detect an attentive but conspicuous silence from the Zen Master. No. That was not correct. That was my thinking mind answering. Oh. Now he starts laughing, I can tell, not with me but at me. I cease sniffing, get up from all fours and, collecting the shards of my dignity, bow thank you and goodbye. Giving it your all and then failing utterly is where kong-an practice becomes embarrassing and annoying. A giant splinter in the toe of your ego.

Day Four

It is dreary and raining outside and nothing is funny this morning. I have finally internalized the fact that this grueling routine is going to go on for another four long days with no variation or respite. My Morning Bell sucks again, and the chanting is dragging on in an endless chain of diphthongs. The retreatant chanting beside me is tone-deaf. Trying to keep the melody next to him has the quality of trying to hold onto a live fish. It might be funny if I weren't in complete pain. My knees and back have hit their threshold today, and no creative shift, bend or arch is relieving the agony. I honestly don't know how I will get through the remaining thirty minutes of chanting and hour and a half of sitting until breakfast. Thinking beyond that isn't even bearable.

Miraculously it is afternoon now, and somehow I have managed not to flee out the fire exit and hitchhike back to the highway. My legs and feet have settled into a permanent fuzzy numbness, which under normal circumstances would alarm me, but is such a relief right now I convince myself that anything short of amputation is probably reversible. As I'm sitting here on my cushion trying to recall the final bars of a Van Morrison song, I notice that over the past three days the young woman to my left has quietly and steadily been turning into The Buddha. Her breathing has dropped to about three breaths per minute and her portions at meals have been getting smaller and smaller (mine remain in a healthy state of food attachment.) I'm half expecting her to vaporize into an enlightened mist at some point soon. I begin to feel a little guilty that I have frittered away so much meditation time following the stupid things that go on in my head.

Thoughts on a retreat range from the profound, What will the moment before my death be like?, to the absurd, How is it that everyone in the developed world but me learned the words to the M*A*S*H theme song?, to the profoundly absurd, When I squint my eyes, that knot in the floorboard looks like Bill Clinton. The point is to notice your thoughts but not try to suppress or control them. You just say, "Oh, another thought." and then return to your breath. Some people do a mantra with their in-breath or out-breath. I am currently supposed to be using the mantra, [breathe in] "What is this? " [breath out] "Don't know." But somewhere between the in and the out, everything veered down a side path that dead-ended at Van Morrison, where my wagon to enlightenment has been stuck in the cerebral mud for the past five minutes now.

Feeling a little competitive all of the sudden, I straighten my posture and recommit my gaze to the floor. "OK," [breath in] [breath out] "attain floor and you attain universe." [breath in] "This wooden floor is universe." [breath out] How is it universe? [breath in] How can this floor also be universe? [breath out] "floor" [breath in] "universe" [breath out] "floor" [breath in] "universe"
[breath out]. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . ."unifloorse"......"flooniverse"......"flornivoose!"

I once again have to channel the giggling though my nose, but a little squeak escapes anyhow. I know any day now my neighbor is going to request a different cushion.

Day Five

Another snow-capped, postcard perfect sunrise has turned into another dreary, rainy spring morning. As in other parts of the world, the weather on retreat changes. The difference, I've discovered, is that way out here weather's little nuances have a fighting chance, away from the grinding, melting urban oven of snow-plows, exhaust pipes and SUVs. The Dharma Room's façade is an almost unbroken glass curtain wall that wraps around two-thirds of the room, so when the endless sitting periods prove to be too much, one can always crane an eye upward and take in a squirrel or Robin or dry maple leaf being tumbled by the wind, anything to provide a moment of diversion, movement.

There are three menacing demons that haunt every retreat I've ever been on. The first is the demon of pain. Enough said. The second is fatigue. This is the demon born of waking up at 4:30 AM every day and sitting bolt-upright with your legs folded in a triangle for eight hours, interrupted only for walking in circles, bowing to the ground 108 times, doing manual labor and singing loudly. By Day 2 or 3 on a retreat, before you have acclimatized to the new routine, your body is shooting you the proverbial bird. Every muscle, joint and sinew feels like it is moving through an ocean of Vaseline. I find I have to budget twice as much time to walk across the room, or pick up a sock, or butter my wheat wafer. But pain and fatigue are inconsequential little tadpoles next to the third demon that will sneak up and devour you when your guard is down. The demon of drowsiness.

I have made an important discovery about drowsiness on this retreat. Namely, that it has nothing to do with sleep or lack thereof, or its first-cousin, fatigue. Drowsiness is completely a mind thing. Drowsiness happens when nothing else is happening. It is the screensaver of the human soul. Or, it will coincidentally settle on you just as you're having that thought about that issue in your life that's going to require all of your energy and resources and conflict-management skills and much of your money to resolve just as soon as you get back from retreat. Poof. Drowsiness. You can set your watch by it. Fortunately for us, those ancient Chinese monks, along with their more obtuse activities, had already thought of these demons and came up with a simple antidote. That is the stick.

The stick is the domain of the HDT, who fetches it from the altar about midway through every sitting period and makes the rounds of the seated retreatants. By now you probably have guessed that, yes, he hits us with it, but only if we request to be hit. (I recollect my brother asking me whether we can request that someone else in the room be hit with it. There are times when I'd take advantage of that option.) The act of hitting and being hit with the stick is enshrouded with ceremony, entailing a mutual bow between the HDT and the About-to-be-hit beforehand, a great, echoing thwack on the seated retreatant's back, bent over for the event, and then a mutual bow between the HDT and the Now-hit at the end. I'm not positive, but I take the first bow to be the HDT saying, "Don't take this personally. Remember you asked for it." and the final bow the retreatant saying, "I'm fine, really. That vertebra should mend nicely." Being the Head Dharma Teacher and hence, the back-thwacker, is not an easy position. Having myself been HDT on lesser occasions, I can tell you that for anyone raised in a non-violent environment, bringing the full weight of a long, hard stick down on a person's back is a stressful experience. There is a fine science to doing it just right. A good back-thwack leaves a little lingering tingle for about 5 seconds before disappearing completely. Happily, our HDT is a good thwacker, and I have taken to looking forward to a periodic thwacking as another little intermission in our ageless, timeless, motionless afternoon.

Day Six

This morning I feel completely, pleasantly buzzed. As if I might lift off the cushion like a hot-air balloon and drift out of the Dharma Room. I don't think I've been this crammed with energy since the time I stuck my baby finger in the living room outlet and was almost launched out of my diapers. I have been doing a special kind of breathing during sitting all week, called Soen Yu. Soen Yu means "meditation play" in Korean, which to me implies movement, something alive and dynamic. When you do Soen Yu, you are trying to channel your breath deep into the abdomen, below your belly button. Really deep Soen Yu can generate a warmth throughout your body, which strangely, is not unlike the physical sensation of embarrassment or anger. I have been doing Soen Yu daily for over a year now, popping into various nooks and corners, bathrooms and alleys during the workday to bellow the internal fires. Some kinds of Soen Yu involve arm motions which you coordinate with your breath. Because on these retreats they do not permit you to flap your arms up and down like a drowning bat, Soen Yu must take on a more subtle technique using only the breath.

We have kong-ans again today with the Zen Master. I have been disinterestedly working on my homework kong-an since the last interview, flipping it around absent-mindedly in my head like you do a rubber band when you're talking on the phone about something more interesting. The baffling thing about kong-ans is that you're not supposed to think about them. You're just supposed to file them away in the front of your mind for quick access, and then stare harder at the floor, or your boyfriend, or your phone bill, or whatever is in front of you at the moment. Then an answer comes up naturally, so I'm told. In reality, I end up spending an awful lot of time thinking about not thinking about kong-ans, and then thinking about how I probably shouldn't be thinking about that either.

But fresh from my still recent four kong-an sweep, I am approaching this second interview like a seasoned Olympian. Can she do it again? Will she break her own record? But a surprise. It's a different Zen teacher today. Hmm. I bow to him and sit down on the cushion. His greeting is also very friendly and casual and immediately puts me at ease. We chat for a minute or so, and then he asks me the first kong-an. Though I know that it's not supposed to be a hard one, I am disoriented this time as I listen and I can't grasp it at all. I shut my eyes and hit the floor. Nothing. "Don't know" I say. Shucks. He asks a second one, also not difficult, but my self-consciousness has gotten the better of me and my confidence is gone. I hit the floor…......."Don't know". Then he asks me if I have any questions. By this he means more personal questions, not pertaining to ancient monks in outhouses or errant donkeys, etc. In fact I do have a couple of things that have been weighing on my mind, and so I proceed to tell him, relieved we are out of the kong-an portion of the interview. Our conversation is brief but intense. I can tell he is paying complete attention to what I am saying and responding with a lot of presence of mind. I have a quiet revelation at that moment about how often in our lives we are being talked at, but how seldom we speak and are being spoken to. He is without question talking directly to me right now, and the quality is markedly different from what I'm used to.

Finally he has me read a passage from the kong-an book about monks doing an obscure domestic chore. Then he asks me a final kong-an. I listen to it and earnestly and hit the floor. "Don't know." This time I no longer care that I don't know. He nods and tells me to keep that "don't know" mind, that it's better than any clever answer. I thank him and bow goodbye.

Day Seven

My Morning Bell has improved a little bit over the week, though I'm in no danger of being pegged a prodigy and having my life ruined by sudden fame. It's now got the quality of a sticky 8-ball bouncing down the Eiffel Tower during a strong wind. This being the last full retreat day, I really want to pull out all the stops and deliver a bell that reflects all my spiritual progress over the past week. In fact, it succeeds in doing just that. Careful what you wish for.

Any hopes of ending the retreat on a cloud of wizened disinterest in worldly affairs are dashed this morning. It's like my mind packed up and left the retreat last night, while my body still has 24 hours to go. I've spent the morning sitting period absorbed in plans to rearrange my room when I get back so that it looks more Zen. The point of controversy seems to be around my sewing machine table. The question that keeps coming up is, which is more Zen, owning a sewing machine, which seems like a very Zen thing to have, or having less furniture in my room, which is also quite Zen. The length of time I spend actually pondering this question during meditation is so scandalous I can't even it report it here.

Sewing machines aside, I have been remarkably good this week about bottling up the silliness without which I usually can't function in normal life. This week has been, though not somber, exceptionally serious by my typical behavioral standards. Not being able to talk has a lot to do with that, of course. But this afternoon I can't stand it anymore. The gods of silliness are summoning me home ahead of schedule. During our after-lunch rest time, having dexterously shortened lunch clean-up by five minutes, I take a walk out into the middle of the woods, out of sight of the monastery and any wandering passer-by, and at the first natural clearing I come upon, explode into a line of cartwheels. This much physical exertion is now new to my retreat conditioned body, and I'm unsteady for the first few go rounds. But the childhood instincts come back pretty quickly. I realize that I haven't done cartwheels in years. Cartwheels, I observe, are good meditation practice, because to pull one off, you have to commit to it 100%. Any less can mean a really clumsy wipeout. I have some of those, too. After the cartwheels get old, I do some modern dance moves, now in my bare feet. I'm pretending I'm dancing in the forest for the entertainment of the trees. Trees make a very good audience, though I find myself projecting onto them a sadness that they, too, can't dance around and do cartwheels. As I said before, thoughts on a retreat can become profoundly absurd.

My favorite view from the Dharma Room is of the Temple Bell, perched on a small boulder-encrusted hill on the opposite side of the dirt road next to the monastery. As both the monastery and the Temple Bell are elevated from the road, you get the impression of looking out from one tree house across to another. The Temple Bell, with its own delicately arching roof, is mysteriously handsome, like the lonely, timeless structures you find in old silk paintings from Japan or China. Its beauty is more remarkable to me knowing that in fact, it was constructed less than five years ago by many of the same monks and lay people who are currently running the Zen center and our retreat. It is not a hollow, symbolic copy of some original architecture in Korea, like so many other western attempts at Asian affectation. It is, in its New England way, authentic and designed to be rung regularly, which it is every evening at 7 PM.

The only thing that eclipses the bell's visual presence is its sound when it is struck. The ringing of the evening Temple Bell is another job assigned to a lay retreatant every week of Kyol Che. If I think covering up my perceived bell-ringing inadequacy is difficult on the little Dharma Room bell, I should be thankful that it's not my job to ring the Temple Bell, whose every strike requires using the force of both your arms to swing a not so small log fastened to a rope against the bronze shell, which comes up to about your neck. The sound you make on that bell reflects where your mind is at that precise moment, no fudging. Its deep, shuddering gong permeates not only the buildings and grounds of the Zen center, but the entire suburban white-picket-fence neighborhood that surrounds it. (I often wonder what the neighbors make of it.) The bell-ringer on my week has done a good job, though I am reassured the occasional times he slips and the ring comes off noticeably weak. I feel a kind of camaraderie. Ringing big bronze bells well is just plain hard.

This evening is the last time I will get to hear the evening bell. As we all sit in silence after the first chanting period, waiting for the bell-ringer to put on his boots outside and climb the rock steps up to the bell, I am trying to channel all of my attention and presence of mind onto the imminent strikes. I have a fantasy of completely opening myself up to the sound and letting the bell's vibrations dissolve me, gong by gong. When the bell finally does sound outside, three fast gongs, three slow gongs, three fast gongs, I am envisioning an evening at a Buddhist temple in China 1000 years ago, where the monks in the meditation hall are hearing the exact same gong that we are now hearing, having the same mundane thoughts and feeling the same physical pain that I am now feeling. Each throbbing echo of the bell seems bottomless, like a deep pool of sound that we jump into for a moment to revive ourselves every evening at 7. I'm not sure I can think of another experience in my life that has been so exotic and so routine at the same time.

I want to take in and enjoy everything tonight, the chanting, the sitting, the nighttime creatures scuffling along the roof beams amid the Dharma Room silence, so I'm disappointed to see how impatient and restless I actually am. My thinking mind may be sentimental, but my body and twenty eight years of karma are not. They are more than ready to bow thanks and goodbye and hit the road. My final evening of practice proves to be really long and hard to get through. But when the final chant is chanted, the Four Great Vows are said, the candles are extinguished and the exiting bows are done, it doesn't feel right to go directly to bed. So I put on my shoes and step outside to catch a final breezy whiff of the monastery at night. Wouldn't you know, as if it were a perk in the one-week-retreat-package-deal, there is a giant full white moon glowing through the toothpick bare trees behind the monastery building. It is almost too unreal to be true. As I stand there listening to the wind and digesting the view, part of me, the sentimental part, for a minute tries to grab hold of that full moon and slather it in a thick coat of symbolism about the innate perfection of all things. But then I stop. Put it all down, I hear our Zen master saying. It's a pretty moon. It's a nice evening. I'm really happy to be here tonight, and I'm glad to be going home tomorrow.

* * * * * *

The comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, when he would film a new scene for a movie, was known to rehearse an action sequence with his actors over and over, sometimes hundreds of times to a point of excess. Then when the cameras were finally rolling, he'd instruct those same actors to walk through the sequence 50%, to just mark it. Through this painstaking and often maddening rehearsal process, he wanted his actors to completely internalize the nature, quality and motivation of each of their choreographed actions. Then, in the immediacy of the recorded moment, he wanted them to relax, let go, and let their own personalities humanize and breathe life into the scene. I find that a Zen meditation retreat has much the same intent to it. As one of our Zen teacher emphasized to me, a retreat is a period of training, tight practice, a chance to step back from the physical, emotional and intellectual automation of your regular life and arduously rehearse another way of being - a way of being which is, sadly ironically, who you truly are when you are able to observe and let go of those old automations.

When we are freed from our life conditioning, this true way of being, our original nature, has the same original intention inside every human being, namely, compassion for the suffering world. But original nature manifests itself differently in each individual. And so the synchronized together action that we practice and struggle with on a retreat, will now be taken by each of the fifteen retreatants and applied to the world in fifteen completely unique ways, with no end to surprises, disappointments and mistakes. In the uplifting and hopeful words of our founding teacher Zen Master Seung Sahn, being born as human being is Number One Big Mistake! Well, it takes the pressure off, anyway.

* * * * * * *

I'm stalled in an ocean of cars a good mile away from my exit coming into Boston. All around me are lifeless bulldozers and cranes of the Big Dig, dormant for the weekend, and the towering, surreal skeleton of the half-finished new highway ramp. There is an ambiguous yellowish haze in the air, the weather unable to decide if it wants to storm or smolder over the gridlocked traffic. The front-page newspaper photo at the cafe where our Zen Master took us for pastries and coffee this morning showed a spectacular fiery explosion from the latest bombing in the West Bank. The graphic details are rattled out in a news sound bite on the car radio, in between an Eagles song and a commercial for outpatient plastic surgery.

Wow. What a disaster. I start giggling again. I am totally mesmerized by the chaos bombarding me from every direction. Everything in this faceless, concrete holding tank is super vivid and loud to my newly purged senses, the not-so-metaphorical hell after my week in utopia, now sixty five miles behind me and out of reach. But instead of feeling like a stranger to it all, as I had feared, a traveler who comes back and can no longer relate to the once familiar landmarks, I feel more drawn to this chaos than ever. What a pathetic, hopeless, vulnerable, tender, amazing mess. Sitting on the highway at this moment, I can tangibly feel our self-destruction in the air, like the murky, charged haze around me. And like the imminent storm brewing in the air, perhaps tomorrow or the next day it will condense and descend on us. But my inner being won't even let me drift to thoughts of tomorrow. I am in a great mood right now. Right here, right now, everything is OK. Nothing needs to be fixed this morning. I am still watching this bizarre movie safely from my theater seat, in the soothing darkness of this transitional space, and I still have about thirty minutes more to go. As for how things will be when the lights come up, I leave this theater, pull into my very real driveway and step out of the car, I have no idea. But I have, at least, rehearsed.

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