My First Retreat (Part 2 of 3)

| October 12, 2017 | 2 Comments

This is Part 2 of a series of 3 articles.  

For Part 1: http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/10/12/my-first-retreat-part-1-of-3-a-zen-sesshin-at-rocky-mountain-ecodharma/

continued:

Day 2:

We woke up at 5AM (successfully!), chanted, and sat (zazen). I couldn’t tell you much about what came up during that specific sit, but I do recall that most other retreat attendees took full advantage of any breaks to move about. Since my posture was more… sustainable… I often wanted to keep going / to challenge myself, so I often did. If you look at the link to the retreat schedule above, you’ll notice a lot of “optional” parts. I wonder how those parts are commonly treated. (There’s a lot of variables, of course, but I wonder how common it is for people to do more than is required at a retreat – especially at a retreat that is *trying* to tire you out.) I don’t think I necessarily did a lot more than “required,” but I did do some extra sitting here and there while others tended to stand out on the deck or do yoga (or eat or read the sutra book for that matter).

The next session was outdoor kinhin (walking meditation) and then sitting. In retrospect, I think we did some kinhin the night before so that we would understand what to do at this session. (Consider that this session was in the morning before breakfast and during the first “real” day instead of during a more introductory period, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Kritee had had the forethought to make sure we relative newbies had a proper foundation beforehand).

At any rate, we formed a line and focused only on the backs of the feet of the person directly in front of us. The “objective” is to synchronize your walking with theirs. At first, this is as simple as stepping with your right foot as they stepped with their right foot. However, the pace of the walking would be varied during the session. During very slow paces, you would come to focus on every micro-movement of the other person’s feet (i.e. the moment when weight was placed on the toes/ball of the foot, then the lifting of the arch, the accompanying movements of the calf/knee/etc complex, the lowering of the heel, the requisite shifting of the other leg in preparation for its step, etc). And this attention tended to remain even during faster paces or new kinhin sessions.

As with Zen chanting, I found that kinhin specifically had benefits that I could not have predicted. While I had no intention (at first) of coming to such concentration, the practice produced it in me, and I was able to fall right back into that level of concentration even when the pace changed or during a new session of kinhin. Yet again, the Zen-style of practice aided me in one of my weakest areas (Samadhi – concentration). If you take nothing else from the article, take the idea that if you are currently having trouble with concentration, specifically Zen styles of practice may help when others haven’t.

Other Notes: We did do indoor kinhin at some point (again, I think it was the night before) and that was in a circle. Also, I, personally, do not know much about kinhin or similar walking practices (although Mark Knicklebine probably does). I don’t know if what we did was traditional or some variation and just want to note that for readers. Finally, I haven’t really been inclined to carry kinhin (of this or any kind) into my regular practice. I’m not sure exactly why (although my guess is that it has to do with my generally sedentary lifestyle). But I probably should learn more about the practice simply because I don’t currently know much beyond this experience. I would encourage readers to also learn more.

Anyways, we walked along this path that led down from the lodge to the edge of a wood. We crossed a stream, then a meadow, then settled down at a spot further upstream for zazen. Meditating outdoors in a chair (in pleasant weather) is always easier for me. My focus shifted between the breath and attention to the various inputs of the river, the wind, and the bird and insect noises. Then at the end, Kritee invited us to consider one source of anxiety we had and to offer it to the river.

Although Kritee left it open to us how we would do so, predictably, most of us picked up a stone and threw it in. (A familiar idea to Americans and probably others. For me, I connect it to Episcopalian practices, but I know that it has been found in other, more secular arenas, like schools. It probably also has a history in a variety of non-Episcopalian belief systems that I’m just not aware of.) For once, I actually didn’t have an easy-to-call-to-mind anxiety and recalled asking myself, “Why would I want to give such a thing to the river even if I did?” It was the visceral comprehension of just what dukkha anxiety actually is that only an agoraphobic GAD and PTSD sufferer can have in combination with not wishing it on any other – even a non-sentient river. I just focused on the moving waters and my own thoughts for a moment. Then we headed back.

I think it was during a talk (teisho), but Kritee later addressed any religious concerns that anyone may have had about that moment. I don’t think any of us had any. I don’t want to veer off into a different topic of conversation, but I’d like to take a moment here to share something from my heart. Just because I don’t believe that a river has a literal spirit any more than I have a literal spirit (anatta) doesn’t mean that I am hostile towards or offended by a familiar and valuable practice. Not only is the “throwing the stone of my negative feeling into a river big and strong enough to hold it for me” practice usually symbolic even for those who do believe in the supernatural (at least in my experience), but it’s good for anyone regardless of whether or not they believe in a “spirit.” I can respect others’ beliefs while not sharing them. I can benefit from a practice without taking it literally. And this is not addressed to Kritee (etc) because I don’t think I was her specific concern (although I did worry about that since she knew I was a Secular Buddhist). This is more a burst of emotion directed towards some of the more hateful commentators on Secular Buddhism that came up as I was writing this. But that’s, again, another conversation.

~Breakfast!~

Okay, I’m now ready for y’all to judge me for this; let’s talk about this food.

I, personally, am not vegetarian. (Some international readers may not know or understand this, but a vegetarian diet is more expensive than a meat-based diet in the US. I can’t afford to be vegetarian. Additionally, as most anyone can probably imagine, my ethnic and cultural backgrounds both involve meat eating.) I am also not “trendy.” I know for sure that all of the food was vegetarian (as may be expected in many Buddhist settings). Beyond that, I know “vegan,” “gluten free,” and probably some questionable trendy stuff (just being real here) was floating around, but I’m not sure if they were options or if all of the food adhered to these. What I do know is that I learned to like oatmeal.

Oatmeal is what I ate when there were free packets of it at work, and I (*literally*) had nothing else to eat as a youth. It varies between “not enough water and is gooey” and “actually, this is kind of slimy.” Usually there’s fruit in it? Anyways, I think the majority of Americans favor this hot breakfast cereal. (International readers, please note that the US is huge, and there’s regional variation. I grew up in a place with a “Southern” culinary influence, so the favored hot breakfast cereal was grits. I LOVE GRITS. But your average American often maligns grits. Additionally, if you’re really curious, “cream of wheat” is another regional hot breakfast cereal, but I don’t personally know anyone who actually likes it. For me it’s like flavorless sand, but I know that in some places, it’s the preference.)

Oatmeal was what was for breakfast each day. I saw people putting milk-like (Almond milk? Soy milk? Hipsters!) liquids in it. I also saw the fruit thing. But when I went up for some, the person ahead of me put agave syrup on it. Since I have no real background with oatmeal and had seen “agave syrup” in a store before and was curious about its taste and uses, I just did the same thing. And I developed a serious taste for this combo. I would even go back for seconds. (And no joke – on the way home, I ordered oatmeal at McDonald’s. At a McDonald’s! When I did get home, I bought the exact same brands and have eaten it of my own volition about 3 times so far.) So, in addition to permanently transforming my practice, this retreat has also permanently altered my palate. Thanks, retreat!

~Lunch and Dinner!~

Forgive me for skipping ahead, but I figured that I should just get all of the food out of the way.

Three or four of these meals happened over the course of the retreat, and none of the food was bad. However, the foods that still stick in my memory are:

– This ragout made with garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chick peas or the beans that hummus is made from)

– A salad dressing that seemed to be a vinaigrette (made with left over mayo?) that was pink. I wasn’t ever averse to it, but when I first saw it, I didn’t know that it was a dressing. It was a pink liquid in a reused (mayo?) jar. It took me a bit to discover that it involved strawberries (hence the color), and that it really did work well in a salad.

– The sweetest beets, spiciest radishes, and some kind of bean sprouts (I still have no idea what kind of beans) all working together in one salad. I still crave those bean sprouts, but have no idea how to… accomplish… them again. (What were they? How much was due to preparation, and how much had to do with the dressing? Omnomnom.    Later edit: They were edamame. I’d never had them before, but would do them again) Oh, and yes, the radishes actually did have a noticeable bit of “bite” to them – even by my standards (again, I lived in a culinary culture that included some real and diverse spice). I wonder what cultivar they were because they were not the generic radishes that you buy in a store.

– A ragout or soup made of those same beans (as the sprouts)

Again, the food *really agreed* with me; I wasn’t doing 30 minutes of sh*tting meditation. In fact, it was one of the things that pretty much everyone praised at the end of the retreat. At which point, Kritee quickly pointed out that she didn’t actually make a darn thing. Her husband prepped everything and then gave her instructions on how to finish it for the retreat meal times. (She was unsure of what resources the lodge would have, there wasn’t going to be a dedicated cook, and we were all relatively new to retreats, so preparing meals that just needed to be finished seemed like a good way to simplify some of the logistics of the retreat… and I can’t disagree.) We all had a good laugh. Thanks, Kritee’s husband!

Teisho (“Dharma Talk”)

To return to our schedule, the next session was a teisho (“Dharma Talk”). I was about to sit here and try to recall and describe it when I realized that Kritee had emailed us links to recordings of the retreat’s teisho:

http://boundlessinmotion.org/dharma-talks-articles/

(1) That explains why she had her phone and earbuds in during each teisho; she was recording. (I really didn’t know. I kind of guessed that she might have been listening to soft music or a mnemonic of some kind. I’ve heard of such techniques to help with public speaking. She also speaks with her eyes closed – a habit she picked up from her teacher. When she explained that, it lent credence to my guess.)

(2) Many readers will be at least somewhat familiar with this, but in the Zen tradition, there are specific times when students meet privately with teachers for a check-in and to “answer the koan” (Dokusan). Since Kritee had made it clear that she was not striving for an archetypal Zen retreat (not at all a criticism in case some are tempted to read it that way), I let go of what I had heard or learned about “typical” Dokusan (or at least the “answering the koan” part). All the same, I did “develop” an answer to “Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two.” (It was, basically, fun for me to do so, and I wanted a taste of the typical experience.) Again, it can be said of Zen that it’s about letting go of some of the typical intellectualizing that we can be prone to. Unavoidably (for me at this point in my life), my answer did have some intellectualizing to it or behind it. But it was also born of instinct, which is arguably closer to what Zen strives for. Keep these in mind for when I get to the Dokusan below.

The Looong (“Optional Shower”) Break

Okay, time for the tangential fun.

Remember how I mentioned that people are often too tired to hike and such when they’re at a retreat? Well, having heard such tales, I refused to be that tired. (It was a remote Colorado mountain filled with wildlife that I drove miles and hours to, bros. I had to get my trip’s worth.) Other people were having tea and …hipster milks?… on breaks. Me? I made sure that I took hits of my Nestle cafe con leche (i.e. Cuban coffee mix). When the long break came, I ran off into that godd*mn forest.

Now, Kritee told us during the rules to leave a note if we ventured out. So I did:

Gonna look for a bear or moose. ~Jen

Well, that’s not an exact quote because I can’t exactly remember what I wrote, but it’s very close. They had a map of the center and surrounding property (in the main hall) that included a cave on it, so I think I also mentioned going to look for the cave.

(Note: My background is in biological science, and I’ve done fieldwork with large and “dangerous” wildlife in their natural habitats before. So of course I wanted to see a bear free in its natural habitat since I haven’t before. And at the same time, it also means that I’m better equipped than most to see one from a safe distance and to deal with a situation in which a bear might become aggressive. In other words, rest assured that nothing and no one was in danger here. I just wanted to see a bear in a way that I had not before since I’m from the sub/tropics.)

Anyways, when we had gone outside earlier in the day, there wasn’t really an opportunity to look around. (Kinhin requires focus on the feet and a small patch of ground right in front of you.) However, I’m pretty good at retracing my steps, so I decided to head out on a similar route, but with a focus on observation and enjoyment. (Also, I mistakenly thought the cave was somewhere near that same route when it was actually before the stream and closer to the lodge. I didn’t want to take the only map out with me, so I just took a quick look and made a guess from memory.)

I found where we had sat for meditation earlier, then wandered past towards a farther meadow and some stone outcroppings that seemed like a good place to find a cave. There was mild evidence of people (some barbed wire and rebar, trees that had clearly been cut down as part of wildlife management, trails made by frequent tread, etc). But knowing just how common the big, potentially dangerous wildlife was in this area added a light seasoning of adrenaline to the short, quick (even by my sedentary, low-lander standards), daytime hike. I would stop for every noise, hoping it was a bear and not wanting to scare it away before seeing it. I’d pause to closely examine distant shapes, hoping it was a bear and not wanting to scare it away before seeing it. I’d hunt for scat, tree damage, and other bear sign… And there was just that … “hair and heart rate raised,” “I’m being watched,” dizzy, “I’m somewhere forbidden”… kind of sensation throughout since I knew that big wildlife was watching me even if I couldn’t watch it back – in the quiet, isolated wood.

~It was great!~

Anyways, I suddenly start hearing a bunch of people yelling. It sounded like it could be my name (Jennifer), but that would be weird as heck. I was clearly imagining it like my mind kept wanting to see distant stumps as bears. But all the same, I started to head back if for no other reason than to see if something was the matter. Then I got closer and realized that the racket was, in fact, “Jennifer.”

Am I somehow in trouble?” Jen asked herself as the adrenaline of adventure suddenly soured into the adrenaline of anxiety. “I left a note. I took a phone so I wouldn’t be late to the next session… No. It couldn’t be.

I got to the meadow (which is separated from the lodge by a strand of trees, but from which you can see the lodge because the lodge is on a ridge a bit higher than the meadow). I looked up at the lodge and saw a line of people yelling from the deck.

/sigh

Maybe they didn’t find the note, then couldn’t find me…” I waved my hands so they could see me. At least one of them did. Then they started yelling something about, “There’s a bear in the woods.”

Well, duh. We were told there was. That’s the point.

Then they kept yelling about, “Make some noise.” Meanwhile, I slowed and quieted down because I’d love to see the bear. (Part of me already knew that my venture was spoiled, but I hoped that maybe the bear would run away from the gaggle of noisy humans along a path that would allow me to see her.)

They notice this, then look confused and quiet down.

As I get closer, I hear Kritee’s tremulous voice calling my name and warning about a bear and telling me to make some noise.

/sigh. “Jesus Christ. They’ve got Kritee all spooked. And they’ve probably scared off my bear with their hysterical yelling.” I just gave in and began to sing as I walked towards Kritee.

On a lark, I affected a fake “Southern” or folk accent, as well as a faux-folk or country tune, and began to narrate in rhyming couplets as I walked towards her. The main refrain was, “Mama Bear, don’t you maul me!” The content was generally about just wanting to see the mama bear, not bother her. There were also parts about how Kritee shouldn’t worry about me / I studied biology. I also kept her informed of my location on the trail (“…entering the stream…” “…reaching the farther shore…”)

She was laughing lightly when I got to her and took her back to the lodge. I learned (from Kritee, I think) that a mama bear and cub had walked between the lodge and that strand of woods. Knowing I was out, everybody decided to scream.

(Note: This would be my first saccharine encounter with what I would come to call “Colorado Nice.” More on that later.)

Kritee had mentioned something earlier (I think during the teisho) about allowing anger (specifically) to be during the retreat. Something about how someone was bound to do something to irritate us during the retreat. (Apparently, that’s common – especially when people are freed of having to speak or to follow the usual courtesies required by typical American society.) That put it in my head that I should have some kind of anger, so I kind of forced it for a minute or two. I mean, that was probably a reasonable response to everyone but me seeing the bear and then all of them scaring it away despite a note specifically stating my goals. But I really wasn’t angry and couldn’t fake it to myself for long.

I was irritated and disappointed. (And even those were probably more about me coming down off that anxious adrenaline than any actual feelings towards actual retreat attendees.) But even those passed within minutes, and I just resolved to try again later. I think I told Kritee or left a note saying as much. (Knowing I was so close, I was considering an even more intense night time hike.)

Misc.

By the end of the break, things had settled back down. As for the next few sessions, they are similar to those previously described.

I can note that the next outdoor sit was not by the river, but instead near a kind of “farm house” (barn? caretaker’s quarters?) closer to the lodge and in the opposite direction. I had planned on exploring that way at some point (just beyond it is an outcropping of rock that, no joke, looks like Pride Rock from The Lion King), so I was glad we went there. This trail is also where I noticed pebble-sized “red rock,” and the thought occurred to me to get a distinctive rock from each state I traveled in as souvenirs for my dad. The next / last day, I ended up collecting one “for Colorado.”

Also, at some point while Kritee was directing the preparation and set-up of a meal (breakfast? lunch?), she left the yoga instructor (name unknown) in charge for a bit. I recall that before the retreat, Kritee had learned that this attendee was a certified yoga instructor and was very excited to include activities guided by her into the schedule. She sent out an email telling us about this and to bring yoga mats.

A lot of people tend to have the assumption that if someone (North American) meditates, they also do yoga. It’s not entirely unjustified. For example, Tara Brach “began” in an ashram with a yogic and/or Brahmanical heritage before becoming more connected with Buddhism. (Note: this is a simplification of the story, but close enough for our purposes.) And a progression like hers is not uncommon. Since Buddhism awoke within a Brahmanical milieu and often directly responded to Brahmanical ideas or practices, a continued connection makes a lot of sense.

As both systems came to “the West,” we interacted with both, and the overall result is that many see meditation as a “psychological” (mental, emotional, spiritual) necessity more connected to Buddhism while yoga is for the body and more connected to “Hinduism.” (It can also be seen as a form of “body” meditation with influences on the psychological as well, which is perhaps closer to its perception in India itself, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.) And since both aspects of a person need to be cared for, both practices tend to be done. This, too, isn’t exactly an “unjustified” view.

However, I’m not a “yoga person.” Unfortunately, yoga in North America is strongly connected to “white” girls doing something trendy in form-fitting clothing. (THAT LINK IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK – nor is it “yoga,” but gosh if it isn’t close enough to what comes to mind.) Even more unfortunately, this isn’t entirely unjustified either. (And yes, the instructor in this specific case was a European American woman. But it was more than clear that her practice was authentic, and no one should simply assume otherwise based on her skin color. ::steps between her and hateful commentators::) Personally, I don’t do things because they are “trendy” or “sexy” – and that’s what far too many yoga settings in North America tend to be. (Which, again, is not to say that they all are or that Indian/Americans and other POC do not have an important role in many or most yoga settings.)

Moreover, I lead a sedentary lifestyle (for better or worse), and so don’t engage in “exercises” like dance, yoga, etc. (And yoga, being a physical activity, is often seen as a kind of “exercise” in North America along with whatever else it can be seen as.) I don’t have the kinds of physical health issues that might have led me to seek out yoga, either. Instead, I have issues of anxiety (etc) that led me to therapy, Buddhism, and meditation (in that order).

Anyways, I had just gone to my first yoga class ever a week or so prior to this. I only went because I was already at the gym (for the hot tub), it was free for me, and a person I knew was in the class and wanted me to go. It was okay. Certainly some of the positions made my body feel good. Some seemed to be aiming to improve my flexibility. But that’s about it. Nothing that got me “hooked.” I didn’t end up going again.

Still, I knew that having quality yoga at the retreat was a rare, probably beneficial thing that everyone was going to be super-excited about. I even bought a mat (which I intended to use for other stuff when I got back from the retreat) so I could properly participate. And when the first yoga session came up, I did my best to follow along because we had all agreed the night before to remain a group (unless something crazy happened, we were all going to do all of the “required” sessions together; no one could sit one out). Also, I kind of felt like trying and didn’t feel like “fighting” / being the odd one out.

And it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, now that I think about it, I think this was before breakfast, and it really helped to wake and warm me up from the early morning sitting. But I think the poor instructor was just not expecting someone to watch her and then imperfectly imitate her. She was a pro and adjusted, but I suspect she was like, “Wait, someone here doesn’t know how to do every yoga pose that I name?” LOL.

I didn’t feel any of the customary social anxiety that I might have felt (being the “worst horse” of the group activity*), but all the same, I just didn’t feel jazzed about yoga. I know they had sessions at least 2 more times (and one of those was flat-out optional), and I’m so glad that we had such an opportunity. It was a certified person really giving of themselves. I could tell she was such a good leader …at? of?… yoga (not only because of how easily she adapted to the needs of our group, but because she would do yoga on her own during breaks and such). Also, others loved it so much, and I loved that for them. But after that first time, I just sat in a chair (with a bow to the instructor to show gratitude and respect and located nearby to keep our communal goal) for extra zazen and didn’t go to optional stuff because I just didn’t get much out of it. I’m just not a yoga person. But much love to those who are.

(Also note that at least once this was of benefit to Kritee. I helped her with a meal prep once because I was the only person NOT doing yoga, so she could easily grab me to help.)

Dokusan

The next session of note was zazen/Dokusan. Kritee set up a specific room upstairs with mood lighting, flowers, a cushion, and herself. Meanwhile, we attendees were all downstairs doing a standard seated meditation. One at a time (in a prearranged order), we’d go up and speak privately with Kritee. Because the lodge did not have insulation, we could always hear when it was our turn (i.e. footsteps on the stairs). I wonder how Dokusan might be different in a more insulated or smaller location – or how turns and such are managed in more traditional settings…

Anyways, I was first. I gave Kritee time to settle herself upstairs, then followed. I remember being a little unsure if there was a point or place in which it was most traditional or respectful to bow for this part, but I also remember managing it. I remember Kritee telling me to close the door behind me for privacy, which makes sense. I am customarily open and simply forgot at first because I just didn’t care about my privacy. But also…

Kritee had spoken about how she was the first female priestess in her lineage (going all the way back to Gautama Buddha). At another point, she had also acknowledged all of the known instances of sexual misconduct in various Zen institutions in relatively recent history. These were in the back of my mind, and as I came around the corner to this mood-lit room where I was instructed to “close the door” (which was similar enough to “lock the door,” a deeply disturbing phrase from the recent revelations of sexual misconduct in some Tibetan circles), I was just suddenly very viscerally aware that if Kritee had been male (as is almost always the case in Zen), this would have been an ideal moment for something to be attempted. It had nothing to do with Kritee (who is as far from such misconduct “as the east is from the west”), but in the mere seconds it took to turn, close the door, and turn back, I lived that entire realization with such intensity that I remember it even now.

Fortunately, as fast and intense as it had arisen, it also receded. I sat before Kritee on the cushion. We giggled like girls at a sleep-over, then Kritee asked, essentially, how I was. I don’t quite remember the flow of the conversation, but she mentioned how delightfully surprised she was at my resilience in sitting (since she knew that I hadn’t really sat for extended periods in traditional rigid posture, etc). I asked about my chanting, and she said it was fine. I talked about how, even in silence, liberated from social concern, I still had an urge to make sure that others had what they needed. (It came out in ways like sharing my sutra book with a latecomer or how I would set up for meals.) She expressed understanding – African American culture emphasizes such things – but also reminded me that that was her concern alone.

I also talked about rising to challenges – including the chores. (Certain household errands can trigger flashbacks or panic attacks for me. But for short bursts, I can do them in certain ways and had come prepared for such.) I suspect she may have changed things a bit afterwards to free me from at least one turn of cleaning (trading me with another person so that I would do another meal setup). It was unnecessary, but kind and appreciated. I had made the great journey. I was not bothered by the routine. I intended to face the challenge of sitting, and I had. And I was ready for chores. I was doing well.

Oh, and I mentioned how I had never chanted the Heart Sutra out loud before and how unexpectedly moving that was for me. (As I said before, I’m still doing it regularly.) I mentioned being a little tired, and she spoke of how normal that was (the retreat is kind of meant to tire you on top of all of that driving I did). I think it was also here that I asked if she was always reassuring us about the bowing and such because I (the Secular Buddhist) was there. She assured me that there were others with actual concern. I just wanted her to know not to worry about me, so that was fine.

I’m not sure if I was “dismissed” or if I had stood naturally, but that was about it, and I was starting to leave. Then I remembered, and turned to Kritee and said, “I have an answer for the koan if I may” (or something very similar. She had not asked, but I just wanted to do it.) She smiled and motioned for me to proceed. I gave her a hug. I had really wanted to for a bit, but also “how to turn two into one – with a hug, of course.” She seemed highly amused and appreciated the hug. Then I left (probably bowing… I can’t quite remember). I returned to zazen downstairs feeling energized and warm. Then the next person went upstairs. (Note: I think doing Dokusan for all of us actually took a pretty long time, so Kritee split them up. Half happened, then there was a meal or session, then we returned to Dokusan for the second half.)

After all of the interviews were finished (etc), we sat for the last sit of the night. I think in my interview I had also mentioned how I wanted to challenge myself to see just how far I could go with my sitting (as a personal thing), how I had been sitting extra, and a curiosity about facing a more traditional experience (again, not meant as any kind of criticism of the experience Kritee had created in case it reads that way). Perhaps others said something like this as well…. Or Kritee just didn’t want me to go out for a nighttime hike in search of a bear, lol. In any event, she decided to use this session to give us a taste of a more rigorous experience and kept us sitting for the longest time of the whole retreat – over an hour, maybe two.

I ended up wavering (adjusting, etc) and “striving” to get through the physical meditation itself rather than falling into my usual attention. (And maybe that’s the point, a kind of first step? I’m not a Zen master.) I think it was because I was not mentally ready for the longer sit. But part of me wants to go back and take the challenge again (lol)!

In other words, I’m grateful for the taste. I’m vaguely disappointed that I didn’t “do well” (or at least as well as I suspect I could?) in that particular surprise instance. But I’m still curious about going into such a sit mentally prepared and what I could attain. (I don’t think I’m in a place to do well when not mentally prepared, but that’s something that I can later develop.) So this might have been a moment of discouragement (because of my own tendencies), but it wasn’t. I’m still interested in further exploration and spotted yet more positive self-growth. As for that night, I did sit… then went right upstairs to bed.

This article has been broken into parts to make it more website-friendly. You have reached the end of Part 2 of 3, but not the end of the story. So please continue on to

Part 3: http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/10/12/my-first-retreat-part-3/

Geek References / Citations

*In our scriptures (Samyuktagama Sutra, volume 33), it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one does, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run! When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best. This is, I think, the usual understanding of this story, and of Zen. You may think that when you sit in zazen you will find out whether you are one of the best horses or one of the worst ones. Here, however, there is a misunderstanding of Zen. If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best  worse or the worst one. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses ? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one. When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the
basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst horse, and the worst horse can be the best one. (Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. Shambala Publications, 2011. Part 1. “The Marrow of Zen.” pg. 21-22.)

 

PS – Thanks for buying me this book for my birthday, Ted Meissner. I’ve read enough to want to quote it in this article where apropos.

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Jennifer Hawkins

About the Author ()

"Reading my articles will tell you more than a summary here." Jennifer is the Community Director for the Secular Buddhist Association and a mentor for the Coursera: Buddhism and Modern Psychology online course from Princeton University. She also sells artwork in her local area and aspires to manage a secular meditation center / lending library in her local area.

Comments (2)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    The form of kinhin I practiced was done as a break between sittings, and involved us walking rather quickly in a circle (no specific instruction to contemplate the feet in front of you, but it was a practical necessity.

    I’m glad you mentioned the food! I’ve always loved the food on retreat, even the crappy convenience-store stuff I’ve brought to one-days! I really do think that stilling the mind and opening the senses, especially if you are eating mindfully, just makes anything look and taste better. I remember times when a bowl of cut fruit could bring me to tears. And in Zen too you have the Tenzo tradition where the cook sees his (traditionally) cooking as a form of practice and sacrifice.

    Re: Dokusan, I think receiving and responding to a koan in dokusan is a Rinzai thing. It sounds like your dokusan was more of the Soto style.

    I’m glad you didn’t get mauled by a bear!

    • Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

      Kinhin was placed between sits here as well (it was just considered a ‘session’ in and of itself rather than being considered a ‘break’). That seems like a good way to run things from a practical or logistical side, so I’m not too surprised.

      I love your description of the food. I don’t think food would have made me cry, but I like the idea that it might have happened to you, lol.

      Re: Dokusan. You are probably right. Again, I’m not up on all of the details of the distinct Japanese schools (for Zen and others).

      As for the bear… I could go either way, j/k lol. In other words, I accepted the danger with the adventure. That’s how it works. But the danger was really at a minimum.

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