Two weeks have passed since my last update. The first of those two was spent in retreat, known as sesshin, which is a monthly practice of long hours of meditation. At this monastery each sesshin is themed with a particular Buddhist teaching. This month, akin to the monastery’s name: Great Vow, was about vows. At first, as you may be, I was a bit confused about what this entailed. As I found out through the retreat, it was essentially a koan practice on “What is our purpose?” What drives us, why are we here and how to use out life energy to manifest this intent. Unlike most of the sesshin retreats this one was peculiar because it had a 2 hour dedicated period to cohort groups (allowing close contact with Zen elders/teachers and a practice in absorptive listening) and a venue to work with the koan. Throughout the retreat we had what is known as Sanzen with the teachers, a one on one interview about our practice and our formation of vows (often which tend to be very formal and at times quite intimidating). Being able to go deep into practice and honing in on awareness, I was amazed how much wisdom (without needing to think about it) came up around this koan. It is fascinating how when you let go of cognition and open your awareness to the present how much creativity and effortlessness surfaces.
My vow was (much to my dismay):
I vow to awaken.
Now, I understand how cliché-Buddhisty this is, trust me, I tried my darndest to come up with something more creative, profound, wordy ect. But every single one of those that I formulated (especially through the process of Sanzen practice) was cut down, chopped away to this essential building block of this particular vow. So, alas, I was stuck.
To me this means a lot of things, most of which I will not (and probably could not) encapsulate here. However, one of them is the flexibility of the word “awaken.” I realized that there were three veins of thought that kept resurfacing for me: the desire to be part of truth, which involves considerable waking up, waking up others to the beauty of this truth, as well as be involved in a creative process (ranging from teaching in some sort or another in the future, writing, or planting seeds). The first two are conveniently part of the Bodhisattva vow: to awaken yourself in order to relieve all beings from suffering. The last is in regards to awakening not myself or others, but potential. There is also a temporal flexibility to the idea of awaken. It can be both momentary, as well as a fixed goal, which I appreciated.
Since this was a large (probably impossible) vow, the teachers and I decided that I needed subsidiary vows (means). These were as follows:
To become inwardly simple.
To keep heart and body active.
To admit softness.
That’s all I want to say about that for now.
This past week has been one of sinking in deeper to practice and monastery life, as well as realizing the incredible idiosyncrasies of the place I have come. To name a few (and keep in mind this is a Zen monastery!): I am part of a Zen marimba band, have gone square dancing with the abbots, and days often end with a hot tub and laughter. Yesterday Roshi passed around a dead bird during breakfast as part of her teaching. The day before she set up microscopes with poinsettia leaves and told us to see the science AND art of nature. I have been swimming with the postulants at a local elementary school pool and have been spending hours a day in a Jizo garden (Bodhisattva of travelers, women and crossroads) picking up sticks that have fallen from large trees as my work practice. This past week I was assigned the potential task of heading up the creation of a Zen mushroom garden and the possibility of keeping bees. I feel like this experience is not just one of spiritual deepening, but one of deepening a lifestyle.
Another exciting event that has transpired this past week is I have now been asked to be part of the temple rituals (since I came at the same time another long term resident was leaving). Because of this I get to dress in a samuegi, a traditional Japanese work robe and be part of the morning and evening services, which entails lighting candles, offering incense, ringing a massive hanging bell in a specific sequence, and bowing with the teachers before chanting. It is super exciting.
Aside from that I am just learning bits and bits every day. It is wonderful to be living in community with people who all share a similar vow. I have found myself engrossed in conversation about lucid dreaming while washing spinach with a Buddhist nun and sharing a sunset with a stranger in complete, comfortable silence. So much goodness, so much learning, so much gratitude.
Oh and p.s. Another great teaching: "the skillful means of caffeination." Matcha, you are my beloved.