I have just finished my first week at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon, and like with many new adventures, it feels like a century has already passed. Whoa. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact every day here is long. Wake up is as early as 3:30 in the morning, followed by several hours of zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), follwed by oriyoki (a silent breakfast that follows a strict Japanese ceremony), a group discussion on an article that the Roshi picks out (usually from Scientific American, Discovery or National Geographic, which I find hilarious and awesome) chanting Buddhist texts in Japanese, Pali and English, prostrations in front of the Buddha (which is quite a workout), working meditation (tasks have included: scraping moss off of the parking lot, trimming blackberry bushes, weeding Roshi’s garden, working in the library, putting together oriyoki packages for guests, sweeping pine needles, and clearing out ravines in the forest), followed by another session of chanting, lunch, a break, zazen, prostrations, interviews with the teachers and on Wednesdays and Sundays a dharma class. Lights out is at ten when a group of people come around with a lantern and two wooden blocks chanting and banging the blocks together.
I live in the residential part of the monastery in a dorm with the other residents. Since this monastery is known for primarily being a place for ordination training most of the residents have been here for several years and are planning on becoming priests. Much to my surprise most residents are also quite young! Which has been really refreshing, since in many sanghas I am usually one of the youngest members. As a result there is a vivacity and creativity here that is also unlike most places I have been. There is a literary magazine, art projects, a library full of not only Buddhist scriptures, but also modern day books, and movies nights (Last week was Princess Mananoke, yessssss). There is also a large emphasis here on community and absorptive listening. Although it is a bit intimidating coming into a setting where people know each other very well, at a heart level, everyone has taken time to meet me and get to know who I am. As community becomes something I am increasingly interested in, I value this presence here a lot.
One interesting aspect of a Zen monastery is most communication happens non-verbally, there are wooden blocks, bells, chimes and even things like hitting ground, holding your hands in a certain way, and different ways of bowing that all indicate very particular meanings. Being here has been a test in implicit learning at its best, considering you are thrown into this complex matrix of rituals and expected to adhere without anyone explaining what to do or when. As you can imagine this can be quite intimidating and embarrassing, which is most certainly has been. Luckily the confusion and bit of fear seems to imprint the information rather quickly, making it a pretty fast learning curve. After a few days of this though, my typically rational mind started asking questions: “Why do I have to do this? What is the reason for all of this ceremony? This is silly, this is stupid, I hate this” etc etc. But now I have come to the realization that all of this ritualization makes mundane tasks like eating or even walking a practice in mindfulness, you HAVE to become aware of the present moment or else. Haha. After I realized this I have started taking great joy in the process. It also allows me to be in relationship with others and my environment in a fresh way, making me appreciate those relationships as if I was a child learning them all again. In a lot of ways I find this exciting, that I am able to look at breakfast or working in a garden with curiosity.
My second day here I partook in a practice known as tangaryo, which dates back to a tradition in ancient Japan when a person wanted to join a monastery they were put through an intense meditation period (often around 5 days) where they were expected not to move in order to show their sincerity and strength of mind. Luckily it is the 21st century and the tradition has soften here in America resulting in a 12 hour period of not moving and meditation practice. After completing this session, I was asked to memorize a complicated ceremony and perform it in front of the entire sangha, asking to be accepted into the community. After completing both of these tasks sucsessfuly (phew) I was then officially given permission to stay at the monastery by the presiding Roshi, Chozen Bays.
Roshi Chozen Bays is a former pediatrician and has been a Zen teacher for 30 years. I couldn’t like her more. Not only is she a potter, painter, author, speaker, teacher, and doctor, she is also incredibly funny and down to earth. This weekend I sat in 3 day “Mindful Eating workshop” by her and was amazed by her teaching and openness. It is not uncommon for rooms of people here to be full of laughter or discussion of the philosophy of science— an atmosphere promoted by Roshi. In the morning chants we worship great Buddhist teachers of the past, which Roshi has insisted should included the great Buddhist women of Indian, Sri Lankan, Japanese and Tibetan history. Like I said, I couldn’t like her more.
The other teacher I am excited about here is the forest. Behind the monastery is miles of wooded trails, surrounded by Oregonian rainforest. I cannot express the beauty of this place. The trees are covered in thick, bright green moss, huge ferns line the path, and every rock and patch of earth is totally, almost impossibly, inundated with life forms. It feels like the entire landscape is inhaling and exhaling. My first day here I took a night walk up into the trails and found a large, moss covered maple tree that I climbed and sat in. When I was getting down I found a sign that had some history about the place and how Lewis and Clark and written about this tree in their journals! I was amazed by how many people had walked underneath its branches. There is so much wisdom in nature. On my way back to the monastery I saw something on the path ahead of me that had stopped and was looking at me. As I got closer I realized it was two huge coyotes who, much to my surprise/dismay were totally not afraid of me, but were instead watching me from about 12 feet away. I stood there in total amazement for a few minutes before my fear got the better of me and I ran away getting my shoes stuck in the mud all the way back. Awesome.
Yesterday I drove a group of the residents here down to Portland where we attended a workshop that will go on for the next 4 weeks on “Mindful Dating” taught by one of the ordained members here. As funny as this was to me, I actually learned a lot. We are being trained in the principals of Non-Violent Communication and how to communicate in a way that is more authentic. Me gusta this.
Starting this afternoon is a monthly practice known as sesshin, which is a 7 day period of long meditation (9 hours) that is conducted entirely in silence. I am really looking forward to this opportunity and feel lucky it is right at the start of my stay here, because it will be a way to hit the ground running. At the end of this first week I cannot express how lucky I feel to be here. Although there are often moments of difficulty, both in meditation and learning the rules of a new and complicated environment, this will be a good place for me. I know that already. In the time being, I am constantly nudging myself to remember to keep an open and flexible mind in the introduction of all of these new ideas.
The only days I can really use internet is on Monday, so I hope to write a blog post over the week and have weekly updates every Monday. So stay tuned y'all! So much love to everyone!