Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My Experience at Zen Retreat


 This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my first Zen retreat. I say, opportunity, because when you're a full-time mom going away for four days is a major production involving--but not limited to--overnight accommodations for children, transportation to child's various activities all over town, explanations and reassurances in three-year-old language that "Mommy still loves you" and "Mommy will be back soon", the packing of children's clothing, "blankies", snacks, summer workbooks, play scripts, computers/video games/portable gaming systems, and leaving the house in general order in the hope that it will retain some of this order upon returning. Anyway, you get the idea. (TheDarkLord wishes everyone to know that the house did maintain some semblance of order upon my return. This is his personal accomplishment.)

I had been to this particular retreat location before, in the Appalachian hills, at least 100 miles from the nearest Wal-mart. As I drive in, I am greeted by a resident (someone who lives at the location usually as a zen teacher) with a Korean name. And I'm assigned a room, a double, which I am to share with a stranger, in silence, for the four days. 

At zen retreat, silence is maintained beginning with the first sitting period and ending with the final sitting period on the last day. The exception to this of course is during work period when you can speak what is "necessary" for completing tasks--cooking, cleaning, yard work, etc.--with others. 

Initially, the idea of complete silence for four days was greatly intriguing. I mean, currently I live in a house with a preschooler and an ADHD elementary school student who compete with each other over how many times they can say "Mama!" in a single day. But after the first 24 hours, I was surprised to find it a little lonely. To meditate, and eat and sleep next to someone and have no dialogue with them. To know nothing about them, sometimes not even their name.

The general retreat schedule was as follows: 5:30 wake up (A shower was not an option for me at this hour, as I could not possibly be awake enough to be sure I wouldn't drown.); 6:00 thirty minutes of chanting, mostly in Korean, ten minuets of walking meditation, and thirty minutes of sitting, another ten minutes of walking, and another thirty minutes of sitting (all of this without coffee or a morsel of breakfast).

Finally, it's time for breakfast, and all 17 of us march from the temple to our nourishment in silence. Just the crunching of shoes on the path. The batting away of bugs (eeeeeeeeeenpt!) which have the propensity to kamikaze into my ear, mouth or eyes. Breakfast is another ritual. (There are several youtube videos on Oryoki, mindful eating, though none of them were quite like the one I experienced.) Essentially, you have four nesting bowls wrapped inside a napkin which serves as a sort of place mat, a spoon and chopsticks on top of this, and everything underneath your lap napkin. A small piece of paper on top, so you know which seat is yours, as no one can speak to tell you such a thing. 

I won't go into the entire ritual as the obsessive-compulsiveness of it might just bore you to death. I found the entire ritual both soothing and pointless. Yes, there is a certain dance to all of it, the sound of water poured from bowl to bowl, the clicking of the spoons, the silence as each participant finishes and falls still, the fact that you have washed your own bowl (with hot tea) by the completion of the ritual without ever having left your seat. But this, among some of the other rituals felt like something "extra" to me. More on that below.

After breakfast was a work period, followed by alternating sitting and walking periods, 30 and 10 minutes respectively, so that by lunch time I have logged 3 hours of cushion time just for the one day. Yes, my ass was hurting. Who ever said it was easy just sitting around all day?

Lunch was much the same as dinner. I should mention that the food was excellent! And you were permitted to take as much as you wanted "but not more than you can eat". At the first afternoon sitting, the zen master gave a talk, followed by interviews. Interviews are conducted during sitting meditation. Interviews, as I have been told, are a chance to ask questions and/or receive instruction about your practice. So, one by one, mediators left the temple and then returned. More on my interviews later. 

We had a rest period from 4:30 until dinner at 5:30, which consisted of leftovers from lunch and dinner. Nothing to sneeze at. The leftovers were better than any meal at my house! The meal was informal (though silent) and only a handful of individuals came. We ate in silence and washed the dishes in silence and turned the light off when we left.

The evening of course was another 90 minutes of chanting and sitting, followed by a hike back to our quarters in the pitch black. At 9:30, lights out. At which point, I'm not too proud to confess, I played Plants vs. Zombies until I fell asleep.

Overall Impressions

From my very first encounter with zen what I found attractive about it was it's simplicity. Zen teachs that you didn't need anything extra to attain enlightenment. That enlightenment can be attained now, today. (By enlightenment, I am thinking of satisfaction, and contentment with the self and the universe.) That rituals and ceremonies aren't necessary. The work of zen is done on the cushion. It is you and your thoughts, and nothing else. Or, as my favorite Kung Fu panda would say: there is no secret ingredient, it's just you. 


For me, then, the practice of zen is: when it's time to sit, I sit. When it's time to walk, I walk. When it's time to eat, drink or lay down, I do that. That is all. There is nothing more that is needed. Nothing extra.

Most of what I have learned about zen has come from books. One of the most insightful reads has been, and continues to be, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. A classic by many counts. He writes, 
"If you do something in the  spirit of non-achievement, there is a good quality in it. So just to do something without any particular effort is enough. When you make some special effort to achieve something, some excessive quality, some extra element is involved in it ... you should get rid of that something which is extra ... When you practice zazen, just practice zazen ... if something extra comes, you should try to stop it ... try not to achieve anything special. You already have everything."
It was all the extras, then, which I found incredibly distracting during retreat. To just sit, and just walk, and just eat, it seemed, wasn't enough.

Interviews With the Zen Master

I had two interviews with the zen master during my four days. And these short one-on-one sessions left me with a similar feeling as the retreat rituals. Unessential, useless, extra. It was not a bad experience by any means, and being my first time speaking with the man, I'm sure it would be difficult to give personalized instruction.

The impression I have is that interviews are a chance to ask "the master" or the teacher deep and profound questions about one's practice or the nature of reality or other zen paradoxes. But, again, for me, zen is quite simple. It's usefulness and beauty are based solely on that simplicity. And complicated discussions about how many bodhisattvas can stand on the head of a needle, seem more like mental gymnastics, a hierarchy of fools, than actual practical advice.

So, upon entering my interviews, I am always asked the same question: do I have any questions. And you've probably figured out by now that the answer has always been "no". There's a paradox for you, boys and girls. Now what is the zen master to do with me (who presumes to know everything) for the rest of the ten minute interview? After all, this is the main event, no? This is what we all came here for. 

I bear the zen master no ill will. He is an intelligent and kind soul, and I'm sure he has brought insight and comfort to many. But, truth be told, I walked away from my interviews thinking, What was the point of that? Did I miss something? 

To sum up ... while zen meditation may very well be a solid tool for focusing one's mind, gaining a clarity of oneself and situation, like everything else, it has carelessly bogged itself down with religion. It almost seems like there is some human compulsion to take a small grain of truth, a sincere moment of clarity and build up myths and ritual structures around it. As if without them, the truth might disappear! All conjecture of course. 

Bottom line: a total lack of simplicity at retreat was disrupting my zen!