A Japanese Interlude 1987
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Tokyo was hot and sticky in August. The heat hung down like heavy wet blankets in the cloudless sky; the noise of traffic and hawking and gaming parlors had nowhere to escape, so it reverberated in the steaming shell of the city. In the Shinjuku train station I stopped to offer a donation to a Zen monk standing silently in the midst of all the chaos holding his begging bowl in one hand while his other hand rang a small bell for attention. His face was almost invisible under the wide straw hat, but as I looked up at its calmness, I knew what I would do.
"What? A Buddhist monastery? To meditate? Whatever for?" Such was the reaction of my Japanese friends to the disclosure that I was leaving for the mountains to participate in an 8-day retreat, a sesshin. But it was time. Since becoming a student of yoga I had yearly retreated to a quiet place, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group, to meditate and do spiritual practice. The few loosely formed yoga clubs I found in Japan offered only classes in hatha postures. The meditation groups, (most of them Buddhist) were sparsely attended and peopled mainly with curious foreigners. I longed to taste the quiet again and be part of a supportive community of meditators. This could be found nowhere but in a handful of monasteries sprinkled around the island.
Now, after five hours of travel on four trains, one bus, and an uphill climb on foot, I arrive at the Zen monastery. It is nestled tightly into the only flat spot available: butted up against the rock wall of the mountain on one side, close to the cliff edge hanging above the river on the other. I am greeted with deep bows, handed black monastery clothing and white bedding, and given a space in the shoe cabinet where my outdoor footwear will stay for the next eight days. I follow the silent, black-robed figure as he points to my place in the dorm for sleeping and then to my place in the zendo, the meditation room, for sitting. With another bow I am alone.
This first afternoon and evening will be orientation, so I explore the building. It is a series of large tatami mat* rooms and long, empty wooden corridors which fold around enclosed courtyards. The house stands on stilts three feet off the ground and its shoji screens open upon the trees and grasses, the elements and insects of this mountain region.
* Tatami mats are 3-inch thick straw flooring sections. All Japanese rooms are measured in mats, which are 1 meter by 2 meters. Thus a two tatami room is 2 x 2 meters, a four tatami room is 2 x 4 meters.
Private quarters are tatami mat rooms with curtains hung across the doorways. The 4-mat rooms hold two people; the 48-mat rooms hold ten. Assigned to the latter, I lay out my futon four inches from that of my neighbor. The two-foot space between my bed and the wall at my feet is for personal belongings.
The air is close, hot, humid. Summer insects scream outside in the trees and bang furiously against the inside walls. Since there are no windows, no screening, many small creatures find their way inside. My body is streaming. With two hours until the first official function, I search for the shower room to cool off. I find a small wooden room with a long, tin sink and two baskets on the floor. Signs tell me to strip here, place my clothes in the basket, and enter the inner room. Inside the 6 by 6 foot enclosure are two sets of water taps about a foot from the cement floor, two little wooden stools, and two blue plastic bowls. I splash water on myself as I sit on the stool, soap up, and then splash again, pleased to have the space all to myself.
In the corridor leading to my dorm I stop to look out the window opening at the river and its little falls. It's sound is nothing like the roar of the Ganges in the Himalayas, but I am strangely reminded of there as I look out on the wildness of the deep drop just a few feet away.
With the sun setting, the air cools slightly as the monastery fills with lay people joining the monks. It will be a large sesshin. There are whispers here and there in Japanese, futons being carried to dorms, excited meditators donning the long, black skirts, white tunics and brown crepe-soled slippers of the monks as I have. Without food since 11 A.M. I am beginning to feel faint.
At 5:30 I am in my place in the zendo, getting the feel of this spot which will hold me so many times in the next days. Directly in front of me is my married name printed on a sheet of rice paper. I notice that the other places are tagged too, but all in Japanese. The little papers hang vertically, lettered in beautiful kanji letters. Mine is horizontal. Someone attempted to print O'Brien across the paper but ran out of space after the B. I look at the curious result: "O'B" in large black letters and squeezed in under them is "rien" printed much smaller.
The zendo is filling up now. Monks are up front on three sides, facing the walls; guests are closer to the door and fill the small annex around the corner. There is the usual jiggling to arrange cushions and clothes, the clearing of throats, the nervous coughs. Eventually we all settle down to begin our first group meditation.
After a while an older monk taps me on the shoulder and whispers that I should come to pay my respects to the roshi, head of the monastery. Too stunned to be nervous, I enter his room, make my bows, and look up into the kind, dark eyes and gaunt face of the chief meditator. He is dressed entirely in white, his tall, but stooped frame controlled and quiet. He welcomes me and formally wishes me satori—enlightenment—at this sesshin.
Back in my seat I recall all the sages and yogis I met in the Himalayas of India and Nepal. They all had a certain 'something,' a presence, a calm, a deep feeling of knowing, and always incredibly deep, piercing eyes. There was consistently an aura of power surrounding them that I find missing in the roshi. But the kindness is there, so I am not worried.
A wooden clapper sounds and we all turn around, reach down for sandals, slip our feet into them and stand with hands folded: right fingers curled around thumb in a fist, left hand covering the fist held against the chest, elbows out. We follow the lead monk walking briskly, silently, eyes down, single file. Down one corridor, up another, past the courtyards, into the dining room, round the tables to the very end, we stop at the nearest chair until all the places are filled. The roshi enters and intones a low chant. The short Japanese prayer is taken up by the monks, fills the room, and as quickly stops. Chairs scrape the floor and everyone sits silently before an empty table. Across from me is an obvious latecomer. Not yet in monastic garb, he sports a t-shirt with large red letters: Goddess Surf Boards.
We sit in silence until a tray of dishes is brought in and slid down the table, each of us taking a rice bowl, a soup bowl, a plate, and a pair of chopsticks after bowing carefully. A small monk ceremoniously carries in a huge pot of soup and places it at the head of the table. Again the first two seated monks bow before the pot, ladle soup into their bowls, and slide the pot down to the next bowing couple. A bowl of white rice follows, then a platter of noodles, and finally a dish of pickle slices, all passed and served in the same manner. Two monks in aprons then remove the serving bowls at the end of each table and slowly march back to the head while the diners bow in unison and begin to eat. I am amazed at the speed. Not a word said, not an extraneous movement, as the room fills with the slurp of soup and the soft clink of chopsticks.
By the time the servers reach the head of the table and set the food down again, the monks there are ready for second helpings. I eat as fast as I can but have to pass on the pots without taking more or I will never finish on time. As if on cue, when I take my last bite all chopsticks are set down, all hands are placed in laps as two pots of tea are set at the heads of the tables. Two by two the monks bow again, pour tea into their soup bowls and slide the tea pots down. I see that they pour their tea from the soup bowl into the rice bowl, from there unto the plate, and then back into the bowl. They lift their chopsticks and grab the pickle slice left in their bowls. Using it like a miniature brillo pad, they scrub away at the sticky bowl with the pickle. Finally, they lift the bowl of muddy liquid to their lips, drink it up, chew the pickle, and set the "clean" dishes down. Trays are pushed along the table to collect the sets of dishes and chopsticks in reverse order, and we all rise for another chant. The monks walk in procession back to the zendo and we guests are told to stay for orientation.
A short, brittle monk stands before us attempting to look taller. He tells us that the procedures and rules are an important part of Zen. They have been followed for centuries and must continue to be so by all of us. We are to follow the schedule precisely, unless sick, for which untimely distraction we will need permission. There will be no speaking, no laughing, no reading, no leaving the building, no food outside meals, no running or quick walking, no loud noises. A second monk, taller and gentler, comes to explain more procedures: how to take dishes off the tray, how to take food from the pots, how to show by hand movements that we wish more—or no more—food or tea, how to fold tea cup and plate in the linen napkin with precise folds in a precise manner, how to open the folded napkin bundle properly and hold the cup for tea, how to walk, how to sit (no leaning back!), how to practice custody of the eyes, how to clean the dishes, how to sweep the floor and dust. There is so much it becomes funny. It is as if every slightest detail of our lives must be changed, or at least thought out step by step, like a Montessori children's activity.
We march single file into the zendo with our wrapped cups and plates and learn how to place them on the little shelf before our meditation seat. We are carefully instructed in entering the zendo, bowing from the waist at the door, at our place, to the monks present. We practice walking in the two speeds for kinhin—walking meditation—and learn how to recognize the clapper sound to change speed. We practice arranging slippers below our seat and move our legs into the lotus posture for meditation. I am amazed that the place on which I sit (1 meter wide by 2 meters long and 2/3 meter off the floor) traditionally held the monk for sleeping, relaxing, and eating, as well as for meditating. He left it only to relieve himself twice during the day! I am glad for the decadence of the dining room and dorm. We are taught the procedure for entering the roshi's room with sets of low bows and walking respectfully out backwards. And apparently when the monk decides someone is not meditating properly, he will walk behind the slaggard and bow, touching his meter-long flat stick to the shoulder area. The selected monk or student would then realize that he needed to raise his palms above his head and bow, thus requesting the service of a sharp slap with the stick on the area between the neck and the shoulder bones. We are told how to move our head down toward the opposite shoulder so the stick will have enough room and then to bow in thanks and repeat the procedure on the opposite side. For the first time I am frightened; this does not look like fun at all.
At last it is 9 PM and with the bell sounding we all walk slowly and quietly away to our beds.
Four o'clock in the morning came as a relief from the hot, humid night. Sleep was elusive in the closed-in, airless room and the too-thick pillow. I could not believe the woman next to me slept and snored beneath sheet, wool blanket, and Japanese quilt! I broke the rules and used only a sheet, sticking my feet out the sides in an attempt cool off.
After quickly dressing, we assembled in the zendo for the first of our eight and a half hours of daily meditation. My feet died after 30 minutes as usual, but it was no problem until the clapper for kinhin got me down from my seat and walking in the circle like Frankenstein. The poor Goddess Surfboard man took one step and fell over, feet apparently deader than mine. I wanted to go to help him up, but I noticed the monks in front of me simply stepping over him. So I also step over, smiling sympathetically at his plight as he lay there turning purple in embarrassment.
Back in my seat for the second sitting, I cannot get used to the sound of the stick beatings. Within the first five minutes, just as I was getting relaxed, came a loud WHACK! reverberating throughout the hall. Someone couldn't be sleeping already. Eight more slaps followed and soon the whacker, whom my mind immedicably named the SS (sadistic skulker) came slinking down to my section of the zendo. My neighbor, with raised, folded hands, requested a beating and it was duly given. My neighbor on the other side did likewise. Of course all thought of meditating was now gone. SS stood behind me with his obstructed nostrils, each of his breaths labored, noisy, threatening. I listened to his breaths and waited. Finally, probably disgruntled that I was awake, he crept away with little squeaks of his sandals.
Breakfast was a bowl of rice, a spoon of ground sesame seeds, a very salty plum, and two pickle slices. My empty stomach balked at the salt and vinegar. Hot water was served and poured into the rice bowl instead of tea to clean the dishes today.
Work time. The wall chart showed me in a yellow area. It was tricky trying to figure out where that was. It seemed to be the hallway by the office so I went there with a rag and dusted everything in sight. Twenty-five minutes to go. I dust everything again. A monk brings two more women to assist in the cleaning of this corridor. I tell him it was all done and get a short lecture on Buddhist work. "The work does not matter, the motions do. Where is the mind when the hands move? How do you move your hands, your head, your feet?", he asks. So we three begin again. We dust the walls, the windowsills, the floorboards with slow, purposeful motions, like paralysis victims in therapy. It feels so good to stretch my muscles. As I dust the hanging lamps, I reach as high as I can; I bend to the ground to dust the baseboards. Slowly, slowly, watch every movement, every thought. A ringing bell lets us know that work time is over. Free time now, just enough time to brush my teeth, drink some water, change to cooler clothes, write a few lines in my diary, and get back to the zendo before the bang of the wooden mallet tells us to begin again.
During the Japanese teaching lecture (teisho) I am diverted to the office where I have my personal set up: an English tape of the roshi. I am the only non-Japanese in the sesshin and am touched that the monastery went to the trouble to make sure I also receive teachings. I listen for 50 minutes perched on the edge of a hard-wooden chair while the office monk watches me. He stares at me with unblinking eyes, writing on a sheet of paper whenever I write in my notebook. I wonder what he is doing. When I arrived the first evening this monk assured me that Zen is too difficult for Americans. "You people have no discipline" he assured me. He even placed my shoes at the end of the row in the cabinet because "I know you will leave in only a few days like all the other Americans."
Now the tape repeats a lecture the roshi gave last year. "There will be no lagging behind HERE. Not here. This is serious business we are doing; nothing is left to chance. It is obvious that we are all here to do one thing and one thing only: zazen. Japanese Zen has its own particular flavor. When Zen traveled to Japan from China via Korea, it underwent the usual culture changes. The word zen itself is a translation of the Chinese chuon, which is a translation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning "meditation." This was already practiced for many centuries by the yogis and rishis of India. It mixed well with the existing Shinto religion in Japan, which is itself based on earlier Confusion moral behaviors." It felt good to put my mind and memory to work, to have thoughts other than my own to mull over.
9:20, another drink of water, a little stretch when no one is looking, and back to the Zendo for more practice. This time SS is having a field day in our section. My mind jumps with every crack of his stick. Wish him away. . . wish him away. My legs and feet hurt, but I concentrate on my breath and the pain is less apparent.
The gong rings for kinhin. Good, it feels great to move, even slowly. But my neighbor of the Goddess Surf Boards is limping very badly. Looks like he may fall over. At the sixth circle around he is better. I am just wishing that we could walk for an hour when we are sent back to sitting. There is a short break, which the monks call a pause, and I stand in the doorway to inhale some air. The hall is so stuffy. Under my heavy black skirt I do some yogic knee exercises and then go back to sit again.
At 11:00 the bell rings for lunch. We all follow the Pied Piper monk through the halls to the dining room with our hands folded on our chest and our eyes cast down to the floor. We stand for prayers and then sit to begin the food ritual again. This time I am seated across from the roshi. In my surprise at being seated first at the table, I almost make a mistake by taking dishes from the wrong tray. The roshi sets me right and we are off. Miso soup, rice, vegetables. Today I can recognize them: potatoes, carrots, chopped cabbage, and sprouts. This is followed, of course, by the inevitable pickles.
Everyone eats so fast that I cannot keep up. In self-defense, I take small portions and skip the seconds as the pots of food come down the table again. This time, instead of hot water there is tea for washing the dishes. As I sit waiting for everyone to pour their tea into the rice bowl, I feign custody of the eyes and take a peek down the table. I see two rows of plates, each with a pickle held over it. My mind races: Oh no! I must have eaten my pickle! What will they do to me? Will I get the stick treatment for lack of a pickle? I decide on a ruse when we begin the cleanup and pretend that I still have a pickle, scrubbing extra hard with my chopsticks. The roshi gives me a queer look but says nothing. He's probably still feeling guilty for spilling his soup earlier.
At last the trays to collect the dishes arrives and the damp cloths to wash our section of table and pass along down the line. We process back to the zendo where the dish crew is read out, and then we all go to our rooms. I take a few notes and with one hour left of free time, I lie down on my futon to join the snoring women in the dormitory.
At 1:15 a bell rings to awaken us so we would be in our places in the zendo by 1:30. Once there I am motioned to sit facing outwards on my knees with my little package of tea things in front of me. On signal we unwrap the package: top flap first, then bottom, right and then left corners open, place teacup on left, saucer on right. Two tea pourers come in and we all hold up our cups to receive thick, black tea. Again on signal, everyone drinks the tea with loud slurps, Japanese style. A second round comes, but my bow lets the server know that I want no more. After the second session of slurps we all bow and wrap the little package again in the prescribed manner, twirl around on our knees, set the wrapped tea things on the shelf before us and take our meditation position. I find it very strange for the monastery to give us a caffeine stimulant and then tell us to meditate for the next three hours. Do the Buddhists not know about the body/mind connection? Simulating the nervous system and then telling the mind to calm down is not possible.
I attempt a yogic centering practice, concentrating on specific points in the body, but I have to force my mind to each point, so full of energy is my throat. The rest of the next two hours I can only witness the pulsating energy, containing it carefully so my body does not move.
The last meditation session was too much. My legs kept crying for relief, and time seemed to stop. I could feel the drops of sweat between my breasts as built up to good size and then rolled slowly down my torso to be absorbed by my waistband. Fatigued and disappointed in myself I followed the prescribed risings and bowings and processings to the dining room for supper. Tonight was rice gruel with pieces of potato with a dish of cooked squash. Of course there were pickles as well as hot water to clean with and drink up. Back in the zendo, the dish washers were announced. Then I am free!
I grab my towel and soap and go off to the shower. I have to wait in line, wondering how the two bathers inside were able to beat me. At last, I, too, can enter, disrobe, and scrub myself perched on the little wooden platform, splashed by the vigorous ministrations of my bathing partner. The water feels blissful indeed. Powdered and wrapped in my yukata, I return to my futon for an hour's rest before the next (and last) two and a half hours of meditation.
Evening work is boring until I am ordered to go for a consultation with the roshi. I find myself open and very pleased to speak with this man, whose greatness is well known. After two bows to the floor before him. His voice breaks the silence of the monastery.
"How long have you been doing Zen?"
"I am just beginning, Roshi."
"Who taught you meditation?"
"My spiritual teacher, from whom I have been studying for thirteen years."
"Yoga! Hmmm. Then you meditate in lotus."
"No. Our tradition uses other postures for meditation, so I am doing the half lotus here."
"Hmmmm. What do you use in meditation to control your mind?"
"I use my mantra." "Mantra? That is not Zen. You cannot use a mantra here. You can only use Zen here. You cannot use mantra. You can count your breath. Do you know how? You should begin counting from 1 and count until 10. Then do it again. Inhalation or exhalation does not matter. Just count and breathing any way you want. Just count. Numbers, no mantra."
"Yes, roshi. I am also familiar with watching my breath. I will do what you say."
"Yes, we will see. No yoga here. Later on perhaps I will give you a koan. Any problems?"
"No, only my legs hurt from so much sitting."
"Ha! Yes, we are not like yoga here, only 10 minutes of meditation. That's yoga. Zen does meditation. You are not used to more than ten minutes."
"I usually sit at least 30 minutes twice a day, sir, but I am used to much physical activity during the day."
"Hmmmm. OK. You can go."
I leave him amidst the sets of formal bows. Anger wants to arise in me but I tell myself, "What's the use?" I am surprised that the roshi seemed almost afraid of mantra, while recommending breath, which in his tape today he said Zen took from yoga. Since I am here, I will meditate the Zen way and see what happens.
Another sitting followed and then tea and cookies were served in the zendo. As before we unwrap our tea sets, receive tea in the cup and two cookies on the plate. I listen to the slurping and the munching and wonder at the Zen tea party on my meditation seat ten minutes before going to sleep.
In the dormitory, two more women have just arrived. I help one with her bedding and then lie down for a deep, welcome sleep.
Much easier sitting this morning. SS came behind me, stood there breathing heavily, then tapped my should with his hand and arranged the angle of my head. I thought that was very kind of him. He gave me a little whack with his hand but mercifully did not raise his stick. I wish I could give him a neti pot and teach him the nasal wash.
The day grew very, very hot. Twice I change clothes during the rest periods. I sit and watch myself melt. By the afternoon my body feels as if someone beat me up. The restless night and all the sittings are adding up. My legs want to run, even walk, even climb stairs. My back wants to slouch. But I push on, watching my breath.
Nothing feels so good as the five-minute shower. Water seems the greatest gift of creation these days. Today we ate tofu, carrots, turnips, and squash along with the rice at the combined meals. I am not hungry but crave fruit.
Two more women arrive and are placed next to me. The air is denser still; not a breeze reaches in the building. I am soaked ten minutes after bathing.
At the evening meditation I am distracted by the huge beetles flying around us, crashing into the walls. They buzz like fat bees and seem to have no coordination at all. It is hard not to watch them, hard to be immune to their landings, their falls. One crashes into the wall just in front of me and falls to the wooden platform on its back. It buzzes angrily, kicking its legs wildly and forcing its trapped wings to move, which only makes it turn faster and faster in circles. Its buzzing got louder and louder as its circling got faster until it was exhausted. It then lay there quietly for a moment, gave another kick and turned over. As soon as that happened it flew off into the night air. What a wonderful parable! It was just like the mind trying to find the meaning of life. It keeps itself so busy, thinks so many thoughts, tries out so many schemes, remembers so many events that it gets all confused and goes crashing into a wall. Landing upside down, it is then convinced that everyone is trying to get it, people are overpowering, it is impossible to ever be free, life is not worth living. If we could just be quiet for a while, just lie quietly and stop buffeting ourselves, we would see that our mind itself is causing all the pain. Once that happens we can turn ourselves over and fly away into a peaceful existence just like that huge bug.
Restful sleep, because it is cooler. The day is overcast, damp. During the morning sitting I am drawn inward and do not notice until I hear the whack of SS's stick next to me that I am sitting with my hands on my knees, finger and thumb forming the yogic mudra, eyes closed. I think perhaps he will correct my posture, but he moves on and I return inward following my breath. If I leave my breath and just listen I hear my mantra repeating itself deep within. No roshi can order me to stop my mantra. It is part of my being. it is constantly there, repeating over and over and over. I have only to listen and follow it within. Now it takes me beyond the coughs and movements of my companions, the attacks of the insects, the flickering light, even the intermittent claps of the ever-vigilant stick. I go within.
Like an alarm clock my mind calls me back just before the gong for kinhin. The walk, and the sitting that follow, pass quickly and peacefully. And so to breakfast and work and another day. I notice there are fewer people at the tables; some have already left the monastery.
The toilet facilities remind me of being a little girl on vacation in the north woods of Wisconsin. Only now I needn't watch out for bears, only dive-bombing moths and beetles. It is an art to balance on the wooden footrests above the hole in the floor, but I have practice from India and Nepal, so it would be easy if only there were some light in the little room. I think of the grand bathrooms of the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago and laugh to myself. "What difference does it make?" my mind asks me and I have no answer.
Today, rather than just walking, walking, walking in kinhin I added breath coordination to each step. One breath inhaled with the first step, exhale with the second step, and so on. It helped me remember my breathing and kept the steps more even.
Again rice gruel and pickles for supper. I fantasize a huge grapefruit set before me. Is it possible for all of us to get beri beri? In any case, this diet is sadly lacking in calcium (not a single dairy or fish product) and probably B-12 as well. Even though I take very small amounts of all the white rice, I feel heavy with its stickiness.
The last sitting tonight was awful. After the slow walk, when we all reluctantly crawled back up on our cushions, I heard many sighs and groans. It is evident everyone is tired and in pain. They all rub knees and ankles and backs and there is a noticeable slouch in the general posture. SS tried, but he is outnumbered with the weary. As I sat down with an empty mind to begin my practice, what should happen but my mind began singing a cheery chorus of "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think!"
This morning a gentle rain greeted us at rising. I tried to breathe in the freshness and had to stick my head out the few windows not covered with bamboo shades. It smells like spring and mountains and childhood and home and far away. I sat with the background silvery sound until I did not hear it anymore.
It is amazing how few thoughts are in my mind these days. I have had to pay attention to the right way of doing things, to the schedule. But it has been check schedule, blank mind, do next thing, blank mind, sit, blank mind, with now and again a stray thought popping up. Then I give the thought no energy and it goes away. Except for the time I recollect to write in my diary each day, there seems to be very little in my head. Only observe the breath and notice. I am very aware of the power of my mantra and am just pulled inside by it. I am aware of pressure at the ajna chakra but it is as usual and I ignore it or sometimes witness it.
It is raining heavily, a beautiful sound and scent. I had asked for cool weather, and once again my wishes have been granted for two days. On my way to afternoon meditation, I looked out the window and saw a wonderful surprise. A huge spider web was hung from the rafters and each string shown with sparkling drops of water. It was silvery in the light and the dark pines behind it grew fresh and green on their way down the steep slope to the river. It was an expanded version of the many-tiered diamond necklaces displayed on velvet in the jewelry shops I admired in Geneva. I thought of my mind as such a web. Daily I sit, and like an adventurous moth, make my way, rung by rung, to the mysterious center where, I am sure, I shall be completely annihilated by the divine spider waiting there.
Lunch today was cold and oily tempura. It left me heavy, lethargic, fatigued all afternoon and evening. After fried foods, cold grease at that, how were we to sleep and then meditate? Impossible. My mind is disturbed and critical.
As I walk to my place for the evening meditation, a monk comes behind me and taps my shoulder. He reaches for my tea set, motions for me to pick up my zafu cushion and follow him. We walk past all the lay guests into the main section of the zendo. There he stops near the center of the room and points to a seat between two monks. My little paper name tag hangs on the wall here. I look at him questioning; he motions for me to stay there, hands me my cup and napkin and walks silently away. As I climb up to my new meditation seat I cannot tell if I have been promoted or if the monks think they need to keep a better eye on me.
I watch the rope of my breath until it becomes twine, and then refines to string, and finally the thinnest filament of gossamer. Am I breathing?
Lunch today was rice, cold noodles, potatoes, fried wheat gluten and miso soup. My body is rebelling. It wants fresh fruit and vegetables and some exercise. It says, "May I have some spinach, please? How about a shoulderstand? Huh, pretty please?" My legs want to get back on their running schedule. But I tell them to wait. Our only free time is immediately after lunch for almost two hours and immediately after supper for one hour. I cannot do postures then with a full stomach, even if everyone else in the dorm was not following instructions to sleep. But the heaviness and stiffness of my body fight with my mind during zazen. perhaps that is why so many of the group, particularly the experienced meditators, run to the office for tea and coffee during each pause in the zazen schedule.
This afternoon I was asked to report to the Zen master my progress. I entered his presence and bowed low:
"Have you been following your breath or did I give you a koan?"
"You instructed me to follow my breath, sir."
"My breath becomes ever more and more subtle and refined as I observe it. Finally it seems to stop completely and then I am drawn inwards. Sometimes I go so far inside that I hear nothing around me, not even the beatings of the stick."
Roshi nods slowly as I speak and seems a bit surprised. "And you concentrate?"
"I make no effort to concentrate, Roshi. I am just drawn inward and there is great pressure here, between my eyebrows. I just observe."
The roshi is now very agitated. "That is very bad, very bad! Hmmm. You must not concentrate there! Not there! Hmmm. You have done yoga in the past?"
"Yes, I have."
"Hmmm. In yoga they have some practices for the forehead and other areas. But not in Zen. It is very bad. You must concentrate only at the hara, only at the stomach."
"Roshi, should I make an effort to concentrate at the hara during zazen?"
"Yes. Concentrate at the hara, the hara, and then just let everything else go by as you are doing. Keep your eyes open. Concentrate hard at the hara. Good. Go now."
I did make attempts to concentrate on my hara, but it was very odd. Any time the energy was there, any time I became one-pointed, I automatically found myself at the ajna chakra again.
The evening was a series of past and future scenes. I could not shake them off. I kept thinking, "If I am here, now, then past and future cannot happen. Be here now, now, now." Suddenly it hit me that Swamiji's words years ago really meant something I did not realize at the time. "Your past karmas are now all burned up. They have no power over you. You now have no past karma at all." That means I really have no past except in my memory and the memories of those who experienced things with me.
Last night I managed to get ready for bed quickly and then I did yoga postures on my futon. It felt wonderful, although I was stiff from using only certain muscles in extremis. I was in the shoulderstand when the lights went out!
Today again is very gray, after another day of rain. The spider web is badly ripped and mangled, with a fat beetle lying wrapped in the center. Already the spider has made a new web and is busy expanding it. So like our mind. One event or problem is complete and another life scenario is begun. The question is “How do I recognize that I am the spinning spider, the seeking beetle, and the all-consuming divine center as well?”
After two hours of peaceful meditation, as I began the slow walking, tremendous insight burst upon me. It really took away my breath. "There is only now." This very moment, when all of me is pulled together in intense concentration before that inner light, this now is always there; it is always happening. The rest, the past events, the future events, are merely unimportant details that happen, that play themselves out around me. There is only that one now, and I am thus totally free. past things that I was afraid of, people who hurt me, places in which I had painful experiences, events I would rather not have done, all are not. They are swallowed up in the eternal now I experience. I feel it so strongly that it seems I could answer, "No, I was not born; I did not live there; I did not do such things" and be completely truthful. As for the future, it all stands open. I can do anything, choose anything, and it will not matter. Eventually, and through everything, there will be the NOW.
This insight caught me so unawares, and hit me so hard, that I had to make an effort to recall where I was. Leaving the zendo, I found that the sun had broken through after four days and all the garden was bathed in wondrous light.
This final retreat day dawns gray and misty here in the mountains. Four o'clock came too soon today. Last evening, as we just completed the last sitting for the day, the master said he had a special treat for all of us. We were permitted to do extra meditation into the night outdoors. I was tired from the two and a half hours I just completed, but I could not pass up the chance to go outside. I have been looking out the windows with longing for days; I was craving fresh air and being in nature. So at nine o'clock I chose from the pile of linoleum floor mats, gathered my meditation shawl and set out. I knew exactly where I wanted to go behind the zendo near the six-foot ledge leading upwards to the mountains and dropping 30 feet below me to the rushing river, which there fills a little pool and then cascades down in a waterfall. I sat down near the edge, almost hidden in the bushes and grasses, with a huge pine tree next to me. The moon was very bright and I could make out every branch near me and every tree on the mountain across the narrow river. It felt wonderful to breathe fully and the sound was like the Ganges at Yamunotri in the Himalayas. I stayed meditating, full of peace, for another hour and then tip-toed into the dormitory and to my bed.
Today is very warm again, making it initially more difficult to sit for practice. During one such time I heard overhead the drone of an airplane, followed shortly by the oddly whirring siren of a Japanese ambulance. it was a surprise to hear them and be reminded that there is another world beyond these shoji screens, long corridors, and tatami mats. Everything here is peaceful and painful. There are no distractions, no comforts, nothing to detract from the serious business of meditation.
But my body fights to be recognized. This afternoon, as the thick, hot tea was brought to our meditation seat, I drank it thinking of Abbess Hoshino, who told me that Buddhist monks and nuns are pudgy because of the interminable cups of tea and, she added, the cookies which must, of course, go with them.
Immediately after the tea, we swing around on our cushions and attempt to meditate for the next two and a half hours. I watch my breath but notice immediately that my heart has speeded up with the caffeine. I feel it getting faster and hear it beating stronger than usual. I can feel my inner body begin to shake and a fine, thin line of pain crawls up the back of my head to my temples and remains. The perspiration droplets start up on my back and chest and my stomach rumbles in displeasure. For nearly 30 minutes I watch these events form, build, and then diminish, leaving me queasy and exhausted. Tea, sugar, and meditation definitely do not mix.
Since the sesshin is ending, the evening brought a talk by the master, encouraging us to continue zazen after we leave the monastery.
Already the packing has begun, there is sign of planning, of minds being elsewhere, of hours being counted.
Heavy rain again as I wake to the sound of the bell for the last time. My zafu cushion today is quietly set aside and I easily slip into a deep meditation against the background of rain beating on the roofs and in the garden. The river sounds wild with all the extra water, but soon I do not hear it. My breath has carried me inward to silence. The 40 minutes seemed like 10 and I am late to stand and bow, not having heard the gong. We walk around the zendo for the last time, hands folded, eyes downcast, my mind not wanting to return yet to activity. More bows, more following lines of shuffling slippers, more passing of food, lining up of bowls, bowing to servers drinking the scraps of my breakfast lest anything be wasted. The wooden mallet on the wooden board outside the zendo sent heavy claps of sound around the hall, signaling the end of sesshin. Slowly, heavily, loudly, it pounds out the counts, increasing in speed and intensity until it is a major insistence echoing throughout the monastery and then diminishing into little puffs of sound. Four times the mallet rings out the message and finally we are dispersed to our dorms, our baggage, our buses and trains, our former lives.
Throughout I am grateful for the experience to "come away for a while," but equally grateful for the teachings of my yoga master who, long ago, showed me how to discriminate as a swan, between what is essential and what is non-essential, between external ritual and internal worship, between apparent order and true discipline.
So now I leave my Zen cousins to return to my daily life. But unlike them, I do not need to live in a monastery, because I am a yogi. My monastery is inside. I have been given the teachings of the lotus: be in the water and bloom above it at the same time. I can live in the world, but not wholly of it. My spirit can unfold above the hustle and bustle of life while my life is spent firmly rooted to the here and now.