Winter Retreat

On the last week of the year, ZCSV holds a “Zen 7” meant to give all the serious practitioners one last kick in the pants before the New Year. Since they don’t officially charge for this* and since–for that reason-enrollment has been on a “first come first serve” basis…this year there  were “qualifications” for attendance. Let’s see…in order for us to torture you for a whole week, getting you up before 5, having you sit 9 periods a day on a cabbage & broccoli diet, you have to have 1) enrolled in classes and 2) have some history with Buddhist practice and 3) have sat at least 5 “mini-retreats” on Sundays, from 9-12:30 throughout the preceding year. (There’s a card. The monks will sign it for you!) Ummm…why not just charge, you ask? Dunno. (Other organizations charge $200-$250+ for a Seven.)

Anyway, this year I didn’t enroll in the retreat because I thought my daughter would be here for Christmas. Turned out she was traveling in Mexico, so I volunteered in the kitchen every day after work until 8pm. Now–you know that stuff about dharmas working either way? Positive and negative? Well, everyone in the kitchen was chatting in Chinese and–since Chinese makes as much sense to me as the language of chickens–I was totally excluded from hearing the jokes or the local gossip and I was able to stay focused on my assigned work and meditation the whole time! Prayers, mantras and Sutras ran through my head as I chopped, re-chopped the carrots, sorted out the cabbage leaves and then resorted the cabbage leaves in a cook-pleasing manner. At the end of one evening, a friend taught me how to wash rice 4 times. I was supposed to recite the Heart Sutra 7 times as I was washing it, but I just squinted at her. “This is a trick you play on the new kids, huh?” It was funny because I had recited that Sutra maybe a hundred times that day already! But, oh no. She was serious! It was “an opportunity to have good luck and eliminate karma” in the New Year. Ooooo-kay. The next day I was told to teach one of the new Western students to wash rice that way and I was like: “Recite the Heart Sutra while you’re doing it!” Well, she didn’t know it–she had just read it off the card every time before class. I’d been basically ignoring this woman, so later I sat down with her and asked “Would you like to learn the Heart Sutra?” Okay. But, even slowly reciting, I couldn’t get her to say it along with me. Scraping asparagus and memorizing at the same time was too tough. (I’ve been there!) I suggested that she break up the Sutra into stanzas as I had. The Heart Sutra is one half of a dialog, I explained: One man speaking wisdom to another from the equipoise of his deep realization (prajna paramita.) It isn’t conventionally logical, but has the paradoxical logic of mystic literature. I then left her to her asparagus since I really didn’t want to chat in English or hear a bunch of random “Is that so?” s or “Oh, I see!”s  or “Uh-huh. Uh-huh”s. A little of that stuff goes a long way. Ah, sweet silence!

Do you ever think to yourself: there are “cat people” and “dog people?” The person above mentioned is a “dog person.” Cat people have this basic indifference. Dog people just try to relate to others constantly. I work for this guy, a lawyer. His girlfriend is a big puppy, all wide eyed and smiling and coming up to you. And he’s…somewhat colorless. That is, the house and everything in the house he’s chosen is brown or tan. (You get the picture.) Maybe opposites attract! My mom was a dog person. My dad is a cat person. (Although he actually dislikes cats!) And I am a cat person who likes cats. My koan is “Nansen Cuts the Cat.” Since I’m basically incompetent at just about everything I think–if Buddhists are correct about reincarnation–that I was either an animal or royalty in my previous life. On second thought, for sure an animal. Purrrrrr………..

The retreat ended on Jan 1, and Happy New Year to us and to you, readers! I was hoping to get some grounds keeping done todayat the monastery but with a 70% chance of precipitation here in SC…Probably I will stick to home and clean up the front garden. Or just yawn.

*Donations only

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