If Bees Make Honey In the Lion’s Head, What Do Wasps Do?

Friday night.  16 retreatants and two trainees kneeling on meditation mats, comprising three sides of a square in the center of Chan Meditation Hall, Dharma Drum Retreat Center, Pine Bush, New York, autumn.  At the 4th side a just larger than life statue of the Buddha and, in front of it, Simon, our teacher.  He asks,

“Why are you here?  What are your expectations?”

Everyone, it seems, expects the others–or at least an other–to answer first.  This is my 4th Western Zen Retreat.  I’ve been through this before…know what to expect.  At  home on my desk in a rubberbanded collection of randomness, there is a note from a previous such retreat,

“A chaotic retreat–emotional roller coaster, feet, legs, upper arm, toes, squeaky sides.”

The longer I wait for an other to answer, the later I’ll get to bed.  So the first voice is mine:

“I’m here because these things have become part of my life.  I  have no expectations.”

Yeah.  Right.

*   *   *   *   *

Saturday morning.  Everything usual.  Up at 5 am.  Out of the dorm and on the 5 minute walk to Chan Hall for exercises by 5:10.  Meditation begun at 5:30.  Morning ritual…more meditation…first private interview with Simon, a trainee sitting in.  The purpose of the interview is  for me to receive a huatou, a question, not necessarily answerable, to be used as an exit from my logical thinking and an entry way into whatever is beyond it.  Pleasantries…a pause…the pause continues, then without warning or permission a voice comes from my mouth, a voice that surely is my own, but one not connected to my thoughts or even my mind–a voice coming from somewhere deeper, much deeper:

“There’s something going on.  I don’t know…People I love, care about, they tell me I’m being hostile, nasty to them.  My words, my presentation…they’re really hurt…I’m really hurting them.  I’m not like that.  That’s not me.  I don’t know…

Simon just looks at me.  He’s really good at that.

“I’ve been meditating for 7 years now and I can’t hold focus for more than 4 seconds at a time and I’ve had this pain in my foot since the end of winter, beginning of last spring…neuroma…shots didn’t work.  Neither does this dumb-ass overpriced over-the-counter insole that doesn’t even fit in my shoes when my foot’s in there…Probably need surgery.  I love walking.  I live in a city made for it, and I can’t do it without real pain.  Now my Achilles tendon is messed up and my hip on the other side and sometimes my back because of the way I walk to try to minimize the damned pain.  And other stuff: shoulder and my forearm and my memory–ever since the crash and the concussion a year ago May and nothing’s coming back and when my parents were my age they’d both been dead for 6 years each…”

O my God!

Simon is still silent.

“O…my…God, it’s death, isn’t it?  I’m afraid of dying (or at least the pain of it) and I haven’t even been able to tell myself.  I’m scared shitless and my fucking fear is covered over by anger.  My fucking anger at mortality is coming out as anger toward others…o my God…”

Simon speaks. My huatou:, What is impermanence?  For an undetermined length of time I am to use the tools of silent meditation and monolog presentation when paired with other retreatants to pursue this wherever it might lead.  I fold my hands in prayer-like gassho and bow.  Simon and the trainee respond similarly, and I leave the interview room.

By noon my depression, my sadness is so intense that I seriously consider skipping lunch, going straight to the dorm to pack, hitch hike to the closest railroad station and return to the city.  Yes, I remembered previous retreats.  Yes, I remembered thinking on the way up that there’d be periods of misery like this.  But this was like nothing I’d anticipated.  This was hell! I followed the group into the dining hall, went through the motions of the before-meal prayer, ate, rinsed my plate and bowl and went into the kitchen.

My work meditation assignment was to wash the pots, pans, serving plates and whatever else might find its way to the three sinks after each meal.  Here I was, obsessed with, grappling with an aching body and a mind full of death, and I had to wash the pots.  Here, too, was that something larger and mightier and  vastly truer than my ego-dominated mind.  This manifested at first from my sense of community.  I couldn’t very well skip town leaving sinks full of lunch pots for another.

(Sigh) So I started washing.  At home, at Still Mind Zendo, each Saturday morning meditation concludes with a period of samu, work meditation.  The focus is on the work and only the work, making it a transition from the formality of zazen, sitting meditation to the world at large.  Here to…here too.  As the warm, soapy water embraced my hands, all my attention went to the task.  No awareness of the neuroma, the arthritis, the pulled muscle.  No awareness of missing my mother and father, of the fear of pain and death.  Nothing but the awareness of cleaning pots.

With the work of the moment completed, I went out onto the porch to put on my shoes.  Shoes on retreat, you see, are just a means of transportation like cars and bicycles in other places.  They are used to get from one location to another and are not worn inside.  The air was crisp, cool, midday sunny and upstate crystal clear.  As I wriggled into my boots and back into my sadness, I became aware of the temporary magic or miracle or just Zen-stuff back at the sink.  I remembered that wonderful half hour without suffering.  Then I looked up!


The tree

directly in front of me

looking just like this

was this!             

…and it was surrounded by full, glorious autumn!  And, yes, I was aware of what I had been so overwhelmed by and it was now, again, no more than a set of thoughts and feelings, no more than neurons bouncing around in my brain.  There are innumerable koans, brief stories of Zen monks and masters in which the monk, in the midst some perfectly mundane activity, suddenly realizes enlightenment.  Now I’m not claiming that for myself.  No, I simply rediscovered that there’s nothing like focusing on the real world to get me out of the constructions in my head.  I’ve known this for quite a while now.  I even teach it to my clients, men and women in recovery from suffering, delusion and drugs, directing them to “Get out of your minds and into the world!”

This is simply being mindful.  And, of course, many teachers have pointed out that being simply mindful is not at all difficult.  Remembering to be mindful, however, is another story.

*   *   *   *   *

At the next interview Simon brought me to the next step.  My second huatou, “What is an other?”, was designed to examine my relationship to others–particularly, perhaps, those I’ve hurt with my anger.  And then a third interview, this one completing the circle, the one in which I was again asked, “Why am I here?”

My response, of course, I am here to learn–again–that reality is just fine with me!

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Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Pain can do that. Living does that. It’s one of the ways that you know you are alive. The more pain the more alive! (more humor) “I’m happy for your misery” You are alive!

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