a day of no giver, no receiver and no gift
A zazenkai is a retreat day in the Zen Buddhist tradition. It provides periods of focused meditation free from the usual interruptions and distractions of everyday life. It nurtures spiritual development.
Participants often experience a deep sense of stillness and solitude while sitting almost elbow to elbow for a day with a group of individuals they may have never met. There is complete silence, neither conversation nor eye contact.
Together, the group moves through a carefully considered series of meditation activities. Yet, individually they experience the day in many different ways. I felt drawn to describe my own experience as a way to deepen my understanding of this day. I also wondered how the experience of others, in this and similar events, contrasted with mine. I considered those who might participate in a zazenkai if they knew a bit more about what they might be getting into. This experience is not for everyone. In fact, many people find it very distressing to be alone with themselves and their thoughts for more than a few minutes.
The interior landscapes of meditation and solitude are challenging to convey. The language of these realms can be heard in the flow of poetry, music and art. I am so grateful to fellow travelers for personally exploring and describing their experiences of solitude. Jane Dobisz’s The Wisdom of Solitude: A Zen Retreat in the Woods, books by David Cooper about the retreat experience in different religious traditions, and the rich journals of Thomas Merton, David Thoreau, John Muir have encouraged me. I have felt the strength of the countless explorers of solitude who remained silent.
May 20, 2006 Atlantic Highlands, NJ
“Do I really want to do this”, my mind queries as I scan the vast ocean horizon that dominates my cliff cottage. “I’m leaving this to go sit all day with strangers in a closed room?”
I know the answer. Over many years, I’ve learned that quieting my chattering mind really does allow me to live in the land of the present moment. Less often do I wonder, “where have I been all day, where did the day disappear to”? My life and world more often seem like a sparkling kingdom with delicious sounds, smells and tastes carried by the flow of a soft wind.
The zazenkai is scheduled for 9am just minutes away. I’ll be there.
As I leave home in loose drawstring pants and t-shirt. I notice the buds of flowers in my yard, still waiting to unfold in the warmth. This day will unfold on its own and in its own way.
My friend and colleague, Merle, whose spiritual name is Kodo has just returned from a year of intense study at the Los Angeles Zen Center. The long-awaited return of a respected teacher must be an ancient joy. We suspect that she brims with new found wisdom which we strive diligently to extract from her. Zen wisdom is not easily conveyed through words.
I respect Merle, the friend, and Kodo, the sensei, a great deal and I admire her for overcoming sizeable obstacles in order to continue her Buddhist studies and practices. The best teachers are those whose students continue to learn in the teacher’s absence. Our little zen sitting group, known as the Lincroft Zen Sangha, has not skipped a beat in continuing our regular Wednesday night two-hour sittings during the past year while our sensei studied and practiced in Los Angeles.
I took on a regular role in the group this year. I call myself “The Wood Man“ since I used two wooden ritual instruments. During parts of the ritual I create a sharp sound by striking two hardwood sticks together. I strike a hollow wooden instrument, called a “mok”, to produce a hollow duk-duk-duk sound.
When Kodo is with us she usually leaves the ritual to us do and appears to attend the group just like anyone else. She often gives a “Dharma” talk which was e-mailed and read to us during her absence.
There are eight 8 of us here today. Some are new to me and others I’ve sat beside for many many hours but exchanged no more than a few sentences for years. As sojourners, We share the special closeness of sharing a path .
Our usual sitting group ranges in age from early twenties to late 80s. We are proud of our sweet 87 year old lifelong Zen practitioner who keeps up with the best of us as she spins around in her rolling walker during a walking meditation.
The practice of zazen has been a welcome and comfortable space in my life since I first learned it from a Zen Master in Korea over 35 years ago as a young exchange professor With minor breaks I have continued this practice over the years, but usually on my own, lacking the opportunity to sit with a group.
Peter is the timekeeper who keeps us on track and rings the bells, Jason leads the chants. They share in creating our meditation space.
We assemble in a small room with two parallel rows of floor-sitting pillows. A Golden Buddha smiles at us from a heavy wooden altar adorned (or adored) with some sprigs of flowers, an incense holder and a candle.
It is 5 minutes before our beginning time. I strike the mok and begin the sequence of a precise numerical progression of hits that builds in intensity until there is no doubt when the beginning time has arrived.
We settle into the cushions or chairs where we will spend much of the day.
With a short hardwood mallet/stick, Peter strikes a small bell which rests in its silken nest on the floor in front of him. The tone shimmers in the air as it slowly fades and diminishes so gradually that there is no clear point it no longer rings and where the quiet begins.
I adjust my sitting pillow and keep repositioning myself until I find that place where I am so balanced and relaxed that the sitting is effortless.
The sitting space I inhabit is a brown cushion a yard square which holds my round black sitting pillow. It was in the Spring of 1971 when I first sat like this in the tatami-floored temple in Seoul, Korea. I sit on the very edge of the round pillow allowing me to balance the weight of my back and to cross my legs in front of me. I sway slightly forward and back, right and left to find the place where I can sit effortlessly. During the 25 minute meditation periods there are many methods of breathing that are practiced and I have used one for many years.
My eyes settle onto a small spot in the floor in front of me and rest in a soft focus. My hands rest comfortably on my lap with my left palm inside my right palm. The tips of my thumbs barely touch each other as they form a circle in front of my abdomen.
I imagine the first breath entering my body through this circle formed by my hands. The breath proceeds upward and enters the bottom of my lungs, slowly filling them with air, as I count to myself 1..2… . I pause for a moment when my lungs are full and then slowly let the air drain back down through my abdomen and out through the circle my palms form at my abdomen. I feel grounded and rooted in the earth.
The second set of 10 breaths raise my focus to my heart. Then my attention shifts upward to a small area inside my head an inch or so behind my eyes. I experience a kind of soothing warmth there as I pay attention to the coming and goings of 10 more breaths. For my final 10 breaths, my attention shifts to the top of my head where I can experience a “sky hook” gently lifting me upward with my body dangling pleasantly below.
The bell sounds as I am suspended by a sky hook watching my breath flow in and out.
I join my palms and lean forward in a respectful bow and note whether my legs have fallen asleep. The group slowly rises to its feet and we stand in front of our pillows.
Clack!! I strike the two wooden sticks together to produce a sharp sound. We turn and I lead the group in a walking meditation. We move forward in very very slow and short steps. At this slowed down pace, it is easy to notice the weight of my body shifting in a steady, pendulum-like flow forward.
After a dozen of these very slow steps I strike the hardwood sticks sharply again and we walk at a regular pace, still focusing on the shifting of weight and balance. We walk single file out of our meditation room and follow a circular path around the house.
Clack!! I signal the end of the walking meditation and we return back to our meditation room.
I settle atop my black round cushion.
My hands rest comfortably in my lap.
My first breath enters my abdomen and fills my lungs and another 40 breath session of zazen begins.
Clack!! The slow walking meditation.
After following our circuitous path a number of times, we return to the meditation room and settle into our cushions.
The ringing sound lingers in the air and fades so gradually that it is impossible to determine when it is ringing only in your mind.
Breathe 1..2..pause… exhale 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8 pause
After another 25 minute meditation period, Peter announces “Tea break”.
We silently file out and have tea. We maintain the absence of speaking or eye contact – to do otherwise at this point would seem an unnatural break from the deep quietness.
Donnnnnnngggg… The deep sound of a large gong calls us back to the meditation room.
Tinnnnnngggggg…. Inhale 1..2..pause, exhale 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8 pause
Our teacher gives a short talk during this second round of meditation. She tells of a person who had to leave the Zen monastery unexpectedly and who had sent e-mail to her fellow students thanking them for the great gift of her experience at the monastery. Someone in the sangha responded “What gift?”
“What we experience through zazen is not a gift, there is no giver and no receiver”, our teacher says. What we experience has always been there and always will be. There is no gift, only flow.
After another round of sitting and walking meditation and it is time for our silent lunch together. The tofu kielbasa and sauerkraut never tasted so good. We rest for a few minutes in the silence. And then we return to our meditation cushions.
Tinnnnggg…breathe in 1..2..pause, exhale 1..2..3..4…5..6..7..8..pause
Clack!! We stand and walk.
Someone has decided that we our walking meditation could be done outside the house so we file out into the yard walking in a quiet and focused manner as we circle the house. A nearby lawnmower sound drifts into the silence and I remember that we are in a suburban neighborhood. I consider how this procession must look to a neighbor and hope he doesn’t call the police about the strange behavior he seeing next door. Secretly, I’m glad this isn’t my neighborhood! And then, discovering myself lost in my thoughts, I return to a focus on breathing.
Tinnnnnnnnnngggggggg …. Inhale 1..2..pause, exhale 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8.. pause
Tinnnnnnnnnngggggggg …. Inhale 1..2..pause, exhale 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8.. pause
Another silent tea break, another gong to invite our return to our meditation room. A schedule posted on a wall tells me that the next segment is the final one of the day.
In this final session, we follow the short service often used in our weekly meditation sessions. We chant the Japanese and English chants from the printed pages of our liturgy. Jason, leads the chants, I maintain the tempo with a tok-tok-tok-tok-tok on every syllable.
We end the day as Jason intones:
Let me respectfully remind you…
Life and Death are of supreme importance …
Time passes swiftly by and opportunity is lost
Each of us must take heed and awaken, awaken…
Do not squander your life.
Now at the end of the day, I share a few words and smiles with my fellow sojourners. I feel exhausted by the effort of staying focused all day and not taken away by my thoughts. But the outside world intrudes when I hear someone mention a frustrating situation and I find myself in a bad mood as I leave.
Returning to the quiet of my own home, on the other side of the hill, relaxes me but the bad mood remains, compounded by a stomach ache, maybe from that wonderful sauerkraut, or perhaps from the big glass of chocolate milk I savored in a fully present moment.
I sleep fitfully, with the sauerkraut and chocolate quarreling inside.
The song of a lone bird awakens me, the melody piercing the dense early morning fog drifting up from the ocean. With a soft wind gently dispersing the fog I discover the birth of a new morning. More birds join the chorus and the sky seems to lighten, I slide into a cozy sweat suit and soon find myself by the brightening Ocean full of salty mist and the cries of the seagulls as the sun rises from the edge of the Ocean.
The flow is here, just as it always has been. And all is well.
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD