I kept imagining I’d sit down one day and write up my impressions of my stay at the Great Sky Zen Sesshin in a nice, concise fashion. Y’know, like the kind of thing a professional writer might do. But I seem to be incapable of that. Or really there’s just too much piled up work for me to spend that much time. So here are my general impressions wrote down directly into the Blogger template without spell-checking ‘em or nuthin’.
Hokyoji monastery is wayyyyy the Hell out in the middle of nowhere. First you fly into La Crosse airport in La Crosse Wisconsin, which looks more like a bus stop than an airport. Makes Akron’s tiny airport look like La Guardia. Then you gotta drive about an hour through the rolling hills alongside the Mississippi, passing briefly through Iowa and on into Minnesota. Officially Hokyoji is in Eitzen, Minesotta. But the actual nearest town is a little hamlet in Iowa whose name I’ve forgotten, population 200. Though I can’t recall the name of the town I can recall the name of the guy who’s been working the gas station for 40 years. It’s Jug Darling. I kid you not. For real kicks you can drive about another 45 minutes into Iowa and visit another town whose name I’ve also forgotten, but whose poulation is a whopping 2000.
But we didn’t go to any of those places during the week of the sesshin. For seven days we were to be residents of Hokyoji, eating Hokyoji food and shitting Hokyoji shit, to paraphrase an old Zen poem. The monastery consists of four main buildings spread out over a couple acres of cleared woodland at the end of a mile long driveway. The main building for us was the 30-seater Zendo near the center. Apart from that was a building they called “the cabin” because it once had been a real one-room cabin with no electricity or running water when they first established the place. Now it’s a house with electricity and running water, thank you Jesus. But I didn’t crash there. They put me in another building they called “the workshop” way down at the ass end of the place. This had once been, as the name suggests, a workshop for sawing wood and doing the other stuff they needed to do to build the other buildings on the property. Now the upstairs has been converted to fairly spartan living quarters. No running water here, but at least we had electricity. The other building is called “the tea house.” It stands near the Zendo and, besides having a little tea room, also has showers that spray a fine mist of water on your head in your choice of either lukewarm or boiling hot. I never worked out how to get the water down to my feet efficiently.
There were 9 forty-minute periods of Zazen each day beginning at 5 AM and ending at 10 till 9 PM. Wake up bell was at 4:30. This is pretty standard. But Nishijima’s retreats are a tad bit easier on the amount of Zazen. I was concerned for the health of my knees. But I’m happy to say that I made it thru the whole thing with no discernable damage. Zazen periods are broken up by first a service at which the Heart Sutra is chanted, then breakfast oryoki style, a short break, a Dharma talk, another service at which Dogens Jijuyu Zanmai (Samadhi of Recieving and Using the Self) is chanted, lunch, a very long break and work period (more on that later), another God damned service at which Dai Shin Darani is chanted, and a final service at which Dogen’s Fukanzazengi (Universal Recommendation to Practice Zazen) is chanted. Between each of these things is all either sitting staring at walls or doing kinhin (walking Zazen). Or these things come between Zazen periods. Take your pick.
Some of this was new to me. Nishijima’s retreats feature no services or chanting of any kind. So I knew none of the chants. Also work periods at his to-do’s usually just means cleaning the toilets or sweeping out the sleeping rooms. At Great Sky they have you doing hard labor. This is necessary because, even after some 30 or 40 years in operation the place is still largely unfinished. So we worked mostly on making the gardens presentable and fixing stuff that needed fixing around the place. Oh, and chasing wasps out of the sleeping rooms. I was exhausted by the end of each work period. But it was good, too. It definitely got your legs moving again after all that sitting. Plus you got some decent exersize which is hard to come by at some Zen retreats.
About 30 people attended including five (count ‘em) Zen teachers. Let’s see how many I can remember. There was Tonen O’Connor of the Milwaukee Zen Center, Zuiko Redding of Cedar Rapids Zen Center, Dokai Georgesen of Hokyokji itself, Rosan Yoshida of some place in Iowa, I think, Genmyo Smith of I can’t remember where and me. I could go look up all this info I’m forgetting but that’s kinda not the point of the spontaneousness of this post. Tonen and Zuiko are womenfolk and the rest of us teachers were dudes. I was really impressed with Zuiko. She studied with the same strict-as-Hell Zen Master (also female) as Taijun Saito a female monk who studied with Nishijima. Both of them had been drilled on the Zen routines so well they knew ‘em backwards and forwards. Me, I don’t know shit about the rituals. I don’t have any kind of contempt for those who do. I just don’t. And it’s not likely I’m ever gonna because, to be honest with you, I’m just not very interested. Still it’s interesting to see and learn a bit from people who do.
What else can I tell ya? A lot actually. And I probably will in upcoming postings. But I want to be brief here.
What did I learn? OK. I learned that it doesn’t fucking matter what you think while sitting. I knew that. But on the 4th day I got that in a big way. There I was, as I often am, getting a little cranky and achy and also thinking, “Man the wheels are just spinning away up there, how come they don’t just stop some time?” I should back up & tell you that a huge lot of stuff was dumped on me just before the sesshin. Not the least of which was the bombshell that the company I work for decided top close its Los Angeles Office. The Los Angeles Office is me. More on this later. But suffice it to say that, along with about a couple dozen other things would have to be dealt with when the sesshin was done. Which I’m sorta doing now, which is why this piece is short and spontaneous.
ANYWAY stuff was just churning and churning and churning up there. Set in motion, it wasn’t gonna quit till it ran out of energy. And all at once I just noticed that it didn’t fucking matter. Thinking was just something going on during practice. Yet the practice was still completely valid. This wasn’t an idea, mind you. This came as a real experience. There’s an old koan about a monk who says, “If a clear mind comes let it come, if a cloudy mind comes let it come.” The master asks him, “What if neither a clear mind nor a cloudy mind comes?” And the monk says something like, “I hear they’re having a sale on underwear at JC Pennys.” That’s kinda what it was like. Cool.
It’s funny how this stuff works. I’d known, forgotten and relearned this same lesson dozens of times. And I’m sure I’ll learn it again a couple dozen more before they burn me up and scatter my ashes behind JB’s Down in Kent, Ohio.
Ummmmmm… What else? I did a dharma talk. All the other teachers did Zen talks and mine was like a Krusty the Klown routine. Such is life. I rutted up the yard trying to figure out reverse gear in the monastery’s pick-up. I did other stuff.
But now I gotta go. Sorry. More later! Ask me stuff. Maybe it’ll jog my memory…