log (2006/03/31 to 2006/04/06)

I'm still sort of out of words after all that frantic weblogging about my ZMM retreat. *8)

But let's see, what's sitting around in the in-box?

Ah; recently many sources have recommended Pandora dot com, and it seems indeed hoopy. Basically you tell it some music that you like (artists or individual songs or both), and it then streams infinite numbers of similar (in an apparently rather sophisticated sense of "similar") pieces right to your computer. Seems likely to take over the world and make its creators millions and completely change the way we listen to music and all.

Today's Quote o' the Day is from fafblog:

the next thing you know you're being tied up by a trio of polygamist lesbian powerbooks and you can't get out because the safety word is case sensistive!

No need to worry about the government, and especially the Department of Homeland Security, having extraordinary powers; after all, you have nothing to fear as long as you aren't a terrorist. Or a fourteen year old girl who uses the Internet.

Device o' the Day: The Mechanical Contrivium.

From rocketboom, some very funny anti-viral marketing (if you will); Chevy or somebody put up a site where random people could create and store custom commercials for their new SUV or whatever. And naturally people have been using it to make commercials against it instead.

(That's the fun about mass creativity: you can enable it, but you can't control it.)

Found while googling on "stark fist" (long story): some like toy soldiers and stuff being in like a comic strip or something.

A reader critiques and improves upon some recently-reprinted spam:

"A hockey player near a garbage can lazily seeks a nation inside a squid."

No, no, not even close to a pangram. The spammer is missing f, j, m, v, w, and x. I propose the following instead:

"A quoits player near a garbage can lazily views a jackhammer inside a fox."

It's no The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, but it's not bad given the starting material, I think.

Admirable indeed. And as Woody Allen observed, inside of a fox it's too dark to read.

Today's featured spam:

Subject: poetic license

that's to sect, algorithm
packing unprofessional, lawless,
optometrist, predominant an Kwanzaa bottled, maid of honor pursuit

Which clearly wraps things up.

So tonight we're going to follow up on yesterday's entry, by filling in some less strictly chronological observations from the Retreat, and maybe if we have time and energy including some actual like thoughts and stuff rather than just a raw memory-dump.

All Buddhas through space and time
All Bodhisattvas Mahasattvas
Maha Prajna Paramita

We'll do this as individual snippets with titles in some font, just because we feel like doing it that way. And we'll start it with the traditional (although quite likely completely inapplicable in this context because what do I know) dedication up there, because we feel like that also.

Dokusan: Okay, we'll dive right in with the Big Thing, but we'll get into it slowly.

Virtually all the time, the zendo is a calm and formal place, of silence and whispers, of chants recited in a (sometimes loud and energetic, but still controlled) monotone, of ordered rows of people sitting or walking or turning to bow to the Buddha as they enter and leave.

There are a couple of exceptions to that, though. One that I found just utterly adorable is at the call to interview; when the announcement comes that the interview line is open for a particular group of students to queue up to see the teacher one-on-one, the relevant students all rise and pick up their cushions, and run at full speed (the skirts of their robes flying out behind them and their bare or stockinged feet thudding on the wood floor) to the back of the zendo to get in line.

I assume this is just as much part of the tradition as the quiet and the calm at all those other times: demonstrating their eagerness to receive the teacher's teaching or whatever. But it's really cute.

When they said that the line for Daido Roshi was open to retreatants on the north side of the zendo, I took my cushion and didn't run but did move with some alacrity back to the line, and sat down again, behind one fellow (and faster) retreatant who was himself behind a couple of robed students left over from the previous line call. I had to cross the center of the zendo to get there, and I didn't pause to gassho to the Buddha on my way past. (I'm not sure that those running students do, either, although I suspect that there's some complex pattern in the running so that they in fact avoid crossing the center of the hall or something.) Note though that in the zendo Buddha doesn't get mad at you if you forget to do that; you've just missed an opportunity to contribute to the cohesiveness of the community, and there'll always be others.

It's tempting to describe the ritual around dokusan in detail, because there's quite a bit of it (the bell, the striker held in two hands, exactly where you wait and how the line moves up and where you leave your cushion while in the Roshi's room and so on; all intended to increase mindfulness and presence, although in small doses I think mostly encouraging nervousness), but I'll just say that I was really glad I'd asked Ryushin to explain the series of bows again to me beforehand, because his analytical explanation (the entire dokusan takes place, in some sense, in the midst of a prostration, which is cool) stuck with me quite well and at least I didn't mess that part up.

So. Here I am kneeling in front of John Daido Loori Roshi, a real live Zen master like in all those old Zen stories that I grew up loving. I've said "My name is David and my practice is counting the breaths" (the latter not being probably strictly true but as close as fit the traditional form I suppose and I couldn't bring myself to say something brilliant like "my practice is being nervous in front of Zen masters" because in person as it turns out I'm not really all that good at showing off (unlike in print, heh heh), although in retrospect it would have been fun to see what happened).

And not only am I forgetting to look Roshi in the eyes, I'm also finding it difficult to breathe, let alone speak. I do get out one witticism; I follow up the ritualistic statement of my practice by saying "although I hardly ever get above One". The effect is somewhat ruined by my saying it so fast and garbled and breathless that he has to ask me to repeat myself, but when I do get it out he nods slightly and says "of course", which is nice.

And then I make a little gasp of some kind in trying to get myself calmed down, and he combines that gasp with what I've just said about getting past one, and says (something like) that I shouldn't worry about little breath sounds, that this just happens when the attention has drifted from the breath, and I should just return to the breath and everything will be okay. And I consciously do that and it helps a little, and then very frighteningly he says "did you have another question?" suggesting that if I don't manage to say something he's going to ring his handbell to signal that the interview is over and yipes wouldn't that be a waste, so...

Now since I talked to the student Bodhisattva over supper I've been planning just what to say to Roshi. I figured that I'd talk about my own practice, my long exposure to Zen in various forms, the fact that I know that he and I and the doorstop are all enlightened Buddhas and that there is nothing to attain, and that I think this has benefitted me in my life in terms of compassion and all, and I'm wondering how I tell if there is a reason to deepen my practice, and what further benefit might come from that.

And I do get enough breath to say some of that, but I leave out all the self-aggrandizing stuff about being so comfortable with the paradoxes and all, and just say that I've been interested in Zen since my father had the books lying around when I was little, and that I feel that I've benefitted from it in my life, and that I don't have any burning dissatisfactions or anything, and so how do I tell if it makes sense to deepen my practice beyond where I am now?

Roshi nods, and says that Buddha didn't have any deep dissatisfaction with his life either, he just had some questions (and here I remember to look into his eyes, and they're just fine eyes), and that just having questions can be enough. And on whether it makes sense to deepen my practice he says "trust yourself; you'll know".

And then the interview is clearly over (and it's not like he just blatantly reached for his bell or anything, it was just sort of obviously over and I was bowing and saying "thank you for your teaching" at the same time he reached for his bell and I imagine "gently ending dokusan" is one of those Basic Roshi Skills). And I did the closing half of the prostration and stood up and backed to the door and opened it for the next person, and we bowed together to the altar behind him ("to the space", Ryushin said), and I left and went back to the zendo, and rejoined yesterday's story.

So there we are; I asked a nice patient guy who reminds me of Yoda (it's the head and the ears and the general attitude, and at the Sunday talk I think it was he even talked about how you shouldn't try you should just do and I'll bet I had a really silly grin on my face when he said that) a relatively obvious question, and he gave a relatively obvious answer, and it probably took like a minute and a half (next time I'll ask something deeper, and pay more attention, I tell myself). He didn't shoot sparks out of his eyes or anything, but he seemed kind and practical.

Which I suppose brings us to...

Roshi: In particular John Daido Loori Roshi, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order, holder of both Soto and Rinzai lineages, photographer, artist, author, etc, etc, etc.

Seems like a nice enough guy. The retreatant who had dokusan with him just after me was very impressed; "you can tell by looking at someone," she said "how much they really get it, how deep it is with them; with him it's just bottomless!". I didn't actually get that impression at all; he just seems like a nice patient guy, with lots of experience talking to people. No special aura or anything.

His talks seem a little dualistic to me sometimes, a little "West bad, East good", a little oblivious to (or, to be fair and probably more accurate, a little neglectful of) the paradoxes inherent in the whole thing, in the inadequacy of words. (But of course that's probably the part that I'm fondest of, so I'm not exactly unbiased.)

He also lets the place be significantly pervaded by him, and I find that sort of offputting. In the dining hall there's a big display of some photographs of his, and while they're just fine photographs I'd think that modesty would tend to advise against devoting too much wall space to the works of the Roshi. Similarly in the store there are normal bookshelves with works sorted by author, and then there's a whole vertical shelf devoted to "Works by John Daido Loori Roshi", which seems a bit much.

I mean, the store folks would presumably do whatever he said, and my ideal Zen master would have said: "What the heck are you thinking? Just file those things under 'L'!" There's so much danger of Roshi-worship anyway (see our references to Richard Baker and so on sometime last January); it would seem sensible to take more precautions.

And there's the whole "Daido Roshi" thing, which means "Great Way Respected Teacher" or whatever, which is entirely within the tradition but still seems a bit much. I hope that the "Daido" was assigned to him by his own teacher and not chosen by him, but still; the whole practice of taking on exalted Oriental names strikes me as bizarre. When I'm a Zen master maybe I'll call myself "Abramovitz" or something, just to keep them guessing (or maybe the Japanese for "clumsy talkative person").

(Did the first few generations of Japanese Zen types give themselves Chinese names, and the first few generations of Chinese (and Tibetan?) Buddhists give themselves Indian names? That'd be cool.)

On the other hand, while Roshi doesn't hang out constantly with the general monastery population and laugh and talk and work the store counter and everything like all the others seem to (have to maintain some mystery and distance if you're doing to run the place, I know), the other big thing that makes the zendo feel less formal and sparse (in addition to the adorable scampering of the students to the interview line) is Roshi himself, when he's sitting on the high seat and giving a talk. He's relaxed, at ease, friendly, informal, focused on communicating with the audience rather than on fulfilling some form. Not constantly cracking jokes, not laughing all that much himself, but definitely a person and not just some embodied Position of Authority.

Which is very good.

April Fool's Day in the Monastery: important Zen fact: the monks and students in Zen Mountain Monastery do in fact play April Fool's Day tricks on each other, and aren't shy about discussing the subject ("I really had you going, didn't I? You were all pale!") in front of retreatants.

I don't know if anyone played a trick on Roshi, or vice-versa.

The Stick: I didn't notice the stick in use at all at Fire Lotus, but at ZMM it's definitely there. During zazen the monitors pace slowly around, and each monitor carries a stick (the kayosaku, Manjushri's sword, although our zazen intro teacher didn't call it either of those things, she just said "the stick of compassion" and laughed). If someone feels like they need to be bashed with the stick, they gassho (palms together, bowing slightly) as the monitor goes by, and the monitor gasshos back, and the sitter leans forward with the head to one side and the monitor bashes the other shoulder with the stick, and then the sitter puts the head to the other side and the monitor bashes the opposite shoulder, and then they gassho to each other and they're done.

I'd heard the stick now and then on Friday and Saturday but not been sure if that was what it was. On Sunday morning for whatever reason it seemed like a good half of the people sitting in the row in front of me were asking for the stick, and I was naughty and looked up through my eyelashes and actually got to see a couple of people get bashed.

The stick is, I think, made of a number of separate laths ("laths"?) of wood, and so when someone gets bashed with it the laths knock together and it's real loud (and it sounds more like wood hitting wood than like anything hitting shoulder). My theory on the physiological effect is that it just gets you a little shot of adrenalin because your body is surprised, and that helps with focus and energy. I'm sure there's a more spiritual explanation as well.

And, I can attest, just having the person sitting next to you get bashed provides a certain energy all by itself. Bang! Bang!

No Oryoki: turns out that I was wrong the other week when I said that I'd be able to report back about how bad I was at Oryoki, because this retreat doesn't involve any. If I eventually do a few days of sesshin or something (extremely intense zazen with meals taken formally and in silence in the zendo), then I'll be able to report back on how bad I am at it.

Validation: various moments of validation: Roshi's "of course" when I said I didn't generally get past one in my breath counting (at least I'm pretty sure that's what he said!); a comradely squeeze on the arm from the Bodhisattva registrar as she went off to get in the meal line after I told her what had happened in dokusan and thanked her again for encouraging me; one of the other retreatants asking me at some meal whether I always smiled so much; the tour guide on my second round of monastery tours looking over at me when thinking whether there was anything else she should cover (probably because I had muttered something about pillowcases when she was telling the tour group what we should be fetching from the office when we went up to our rooms; yeah, I could have entirely imagined this one but imagined validation is good too); one of my roommates saying something about how ramrod straight I'd been keeping my back during zazen; someone at The Club this morning saying that I had a real energy and glow about me (this was after I'd told him where I'd been all weekend, so no health claims should be inferred); and the young jewelery designer with her cigarette chatting willingly to me despite that I'm a strange old guy who talks too fast.

Dwelling on validation events, note, is not necessarily the best way to realize the true underlying nature of reality or the general inapplicability of concepts. *8)

Whitebread: Nearly all of the retreatants, and most of the Monastery staff, struck me as very whitebread: caucasian, well-fed, well-educated. Buddhism, someone says in the latest issue of Buddhadharma (a copy of which, by the way, was sitting in the cabinet under the sink in one of the bathrooms I cleaned on Saturday at Dharma Communications, which I thought was funny), has often tended to be a religion of the affluent.

Whatever that might mean.

Face Drawing: In yesterday's entry I somehow skipped over the most interesting part of Art Practice! After the parts that I did describe, the leader first told us to make sure that there was someone directly across the table from us, and then to apologize to that person (at which point we all laughed nervously), and then to look right into that person's face, and try to draw them using our brushes without looking down at the paper.


The person across the table from me was the one non-whitebread face that I recall among the retreatants, a lovely well nourished black woman with her hair spilling forward over one shoulder and an urban accent and a really interesting face. I didn't, of course, capture anything about her face at all; my picture was probably the least recognizably face-like of the bunch (her picture of me at least had eyes).

Once we'd all drawn each other's faces we took our drawings and crossed the room and put them all in a grid on the floor in front of the big fireplace and laughed and talked about the experience and stuff, and that was great fun. It was very comradely standing there shoulder to shoulder with at least one person that you'd just spent some time staring directly into the face of (something we all agreed was a rare and intimate thing).

And then we all went up to the zendo to hear about the teacher-student relationship, or whatever it was that came next.

Wheat bread: At every meal during the retreat there were big piles of hot whole-grain bread to eat, which everyone loved and everyone asked "do you make the bread here?", and the residents all said no we get it from a place called "Bread Alone" (Bread Alone) which is right up route 28, and I remembered in fact passing it on the way up.

So on the way out again I stopped there and got a loaf of a very multi-grain bread (sliced) to bring home, and a round loaf of some other random bread (not sliced) to rip apart with my fingers and eat half of on the drive and bring the rest home.

(I also stopped at the ramshackle Good Used Books storefront down the road and bought a used copy of "Wittgenstein's Nephew" with some of the last of my cash.)

Minimalism: the reason it was the last of my cash is that I left all the tons of stuff that I usually keep in my pockets at home (in a plastic toy-storage tub sitting on the table next to my side of the bed). All I brought was my car key, my house key, the remote for my annoying car alarm, my driver's license, my credit card, and a twenty dollar bill.

In retrospect a fingernail clipper and a comb would have been useful additions. A watch would have been also, as it turned out, but it was interesting going without one. I'd expected not to need a watch from the example of Farm and Wilderness (see many previous stories here in the weblog) where everything is run by bells and there's no point to a watch.

At ZMM everything is also run by bells, but there are so many different things going on at once that there are always bells ringing (and gongs sounding and drums rolling), and if you're a novice like me they aren't very helpful since you don't know which are which. So I pretty much had to spend most of my free time downstairs in the office or the dining hall (where there are clocks), which was an interesting constraint.

But next time I'll probably take a watch so I can wander further afield.

Farm and Wilderness: speaking of which, the one thing in my previous experience that the Retreat reminded me of most was Spring Work Weekend at Farm and Wilderness (see for instance the first epiphany).

It's a place up north, dense with interesting and intelligent and very kind and to some extent left-leaning people, where you go to do some mundane work, and some sitting in silence, and some communal sound-making, and you sleep in bunk beds with friendly strangers as roommates, and there are good vegetarian meals that you stand in line to take from long tables and help to clean up after. (And come to think of it even hikes.) What could be better?

Now that the little daughter's probably not going to F and W anymore (sniff!) having pretty much aged out of the parts that interest her, maybe ZMM's going to serve some kind of similar (and/or very different) place in my life.

(Is the future version of me who reaches back with his time machine to arrange things being too blatant here?)

First, this food is for the three treasures.
Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nation,
  and all sentient beings.
Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds.
Thus we eat this food with everyone.

Liturgy: Nothing really profound to say about the chanting and bowing and stuff, except again that I didn't find it nearly as offputting this time as at Fire Lotus, because it was better explained and in a wider context. The lines above are a fragment of the meal gatha, said in approximate unison during a tiny ceremony before various meals, after the bell has been rung and the person lighting the incense has lit the incense and all.

The unison is very approximate. It seems to be part of the process of all the chants at ZMM that the voices aren't actually in sync, aren't even as much in sync as untrained voices are capable of being; I'm pretty sure that the experienced chanters are more or less intentionally and explicitly keeping things rough, broken up, not quite in step. It makes the tone richer, I think, and memorable. And the last syllable of every chant tails off suddenly into a ragged anticlimax even when just one person is chanting (so it's not due to any group confusion over how to end, as I thought at first).

I noticed the tailing-off at Fire Lotus and sent them email asking why that was, and whoever replied said they didn't really know, it was just tradition.

It's pretty neat, really. An appealing sort of anti-grandiosity; at least that's how it feels to me.

Sentient beings are numberless,
  I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustable,
  I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless,
  I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable,
  I vow to attain it.

The Vows: so having gotten convincing explanations from both Roshi and Ryushin, I've finally chanted the Four Vows (so I'm in line for Bodhisattva myself as soon as I get that little "feeling compassion for all sentient beings even when they're annoying me" thing down). Gotta love a religion whose basic doctine is so clearly self-contradictory.

I still don't like the Desire vow much. The esoteric meaning is fine, but for the other three vows the exoteric one is also fine (saving sentient beings is good, ruling the universe is good, attaining the Buddha Way is good). But the exoteric meaning of the Desire one is some kind of asceticism or self-denial or something, and how lame is that?

But still, I'm fine with realizing the unity of myself with all possible objects of desire (or anger or loathing or indifference or fear or suspicion or low-interest loans), so it seems unfriendly to hold out over details of wording.

Maybe someday I'll make my own translation that I like better.

Nerd stuff: Ryushin is also (see the page about the senior monastics for details and pictures and stuff of some of these people I've been mentioning) "responsible for Monastery fund-raising and cybermedia at Dharma Communications", which is cool. Not long after Roshi's Sunday talk, someone walked into the store saying "we've got this morning's talk available if anyone wants it"; so they've got quick CD production down.

They also have WZEN, which has streaming and podcasts and stuff, and they've been experimenting with online mondo for students, and before long they hope to have live audio streams of dharma talks and all. Apparently Roshi's said that if Buddha were around today he'd be using every means of communication at his disposal, so there you are. They've been online quite awhile, it seems; someone said they thought that the "cybermonk at mro org" address had been operating to answer random practice questions since the days of Gopher or before. Also pretty cool.

Going back: So! That was extremely cool. I stayed in a monastery, and did zazen, and had dokusan with a Zen master (and beyond doubt failed to impress him as anyone in the least unusual, which is no doubt a good thing for controlling the size of my ego), and got validated in all sorts of various ways, and generally had a great time (and I haven't even told you about the lovely windstorm, the birds, the building, or any of that).

Now what?

First off, I've resolved to try making my zazen an actual daily practice rather than just something I do sleepily at night now and then, by setting a second alarm clock twenty minutes earlier than my usual alarm clock, and sitting faithfully in the time thus created.

(It worked interestingly this morning, in that after waking up to the first alarm and sitting for quite awhile I told myself that although it probably hadn't been twenty minutes yet it really did feel like it (and my legs were asleep), and since it was the very first time there was no shame in just glancing at the clock to see how many minutes were left before the second alarm went off, and when I did it turned out I'd forgotten to set the second alarm clock an hour ahead so it's a good thing I looked and in fact I got about 35 ninutes of zazen and had to rush about a bit to get everything launched in time in the rest of the morning.)

Also I've written off to ZMM in email and looked around on their web site to follow up on some of the talking I did while there, about other things that one can do, and maybe sometime I'll do a weekend of sesshin, or take the whole family up on a Sunday if that makes sense, or even just go up there randomly some weekend when nothing special's going on and do whatever everyone else is doing (people seemed to think that this was definitely possible to anyone who's taken the introductory retreat, but I don't know the details yet; presumably there's at least room and board to pay and advance warning to give).

And maybe sometime I'll be sitting in that little room with Roshi again, or Ryushin, and keep my wits about me long enough to exchange more than two sentences. *8)

Or maybe we can just talk over lunch...

I tell ya, there's nothing like being woken up at 4:25am by a guy coming up the stairs ringing a handbell, when you've been kept up most of the night by your roommates' snoring. It's wonderful!

Which is to say, I did as resolved and went up to Zen Mountain Monastery on Friday for the Introduction to Zen Practice Retreat, and it was great; I just got back some small number of hours ago (small when I started writing this entry anyway).

An Important Zen Fact: things to avoid while doing zazen include:

  • having ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" (Bruce!) stuck in your head, and
  • mentally composing weblog entries.

I want to describe it all in utter detail to I don't forget any of it, but I probably won't (and therefore will). I'll at least take a crack at it, though, so there'll be lots of detail that might be of less interest to time-strapped readers before we get to any summing-up or profundities or anything. (In fact given how late it's getting, the profundities and summings-up will have to wait until tomorrow!)

We did lots of zazen, and we chanted lots of chants and bowed lots of bows. When I went down to Fire Lotus (over a year ago; sheesh!), I found the chanting and bowing sort of silly and offputting. I was much more comfortable with it this time, because it was all better explained, and experienced for longer and in a wider context.

Friday: I drove up on Friday (taking route 6 to route 87), a fine drive, and got there a little after five pea em; called home from the last gas station before the monastery, as my cellphone had had no signal for miles, and I wasn't sure if the monastery would let us make routine outgoing calls. (Funny scene: the Adopt a Highway sign a ways before the turn, saying next whatever miles, "Zen Mountain Monastary". Sic and all.)

At ZMM I parked where the kind young person suggested I park, and I went into the building and registered with the nice registration people, and was shown to my room (five bunk beds for eventually six or seven people, 'way up on the top floor of the main building up various flights of narrow and/or twisty stairs), and had a little informal tour of the place (two tours, really; on the first one the zendo was in use so we didn't get to see it except through the little second floor viewing windows, so I tagged along on another tour later to see the zendo after some more people had arrived) and sat around talking until sevenish when we had a good vegetarian dinner, and an introduction to zazen in the Buddha Hall while the regulars did their first sitting in the Zendo, and then John Daido Loori Roshi the Abbot came in to give us the general introduction to the retreat.

But it had been hot in the Buddha Hall so they'd opened the windows, and since the windows were open the moths flew in, and when Roshi saw the heat and the moths he decided we'd have our introduction in the main zendo.

(Once we were in the zendo and getting settled, he said something amusing about the moths and said "let's get the screens up today" or something like that; and later on I heard one of the students or monks or something say "yeah, he was looking right at me when he said it, but they're not going to get put up today and he's going to be mad at me!" or other heartwarming words to that effect.)

I don't remember anything specific Roshi said in that introduction (which shows what a good student I am, since one is supposed to let the words of the teacher flow in and by without clinging to them); afterward we sat our first half-hour of zazen, which went very well although (or because) I was sleepy and my legs fell asleep so I toppled over slightly when I tried to stand up the first time.

And then we went to bed (lights-out bell at 9:30pm). During the night at least three of the six men in the room snored, some astonishingly loudly and some distressingly persistently, and some of them (of us), possibly including some of the snorers, sighed and groaned (and even giggled) and tossed and turned because of the snoring, and since it was a strange bed and I was sort of hyped up with the newness of everything I probably wouldn't have slept well anyway. But, I told myself, it's just one more thing to practice with: accept the snoring and let it go.

That, and wrapping my T-shirt from the day before around my ears, got me through the night. The bell-ringer was very welcome.

(Oh, also: the monastery has mostly deep-set artistic single-pane windows. Modern practicality has added wooden forms shaped to go into the windows covered in cling-wrap to increase insulation. Sometime in the middle of the night and the snoring, the wooden form in the window just above my bed decided to topple inward into the room and clack loudly against the bedpost of my bed. This startled me, but for the rest of the night there was a nice stream of cool air flowing over me. Before that, the room had been getting decidedly stuffy.)

Saturday morning: As we'd been told the night before, the morning was conducted in silence: to the bathrooms to brush teeth and excrete, changing clothes in the pre-dawn bedroom, down for zazen in the zendo, with the dawn gradually lightening the windows. Half an hour of sitting (my legs asleep again), then kinhin (walking meditation) to get out the kinks (and I messed up the kinhin line, because with my glasses dangling around my neck rather than on my eyes I couldn't see the instructional arrows of masking tape on the zendo floor and the person ahead of me had vanished, and I stood at the end of the row in confusion for a few long seconds and I had started to go the wrong way when one of the monitors alertly touched me on the arm and pointed where I should go; I kept my glasses on my eyes more after that), and then another half hour of zazen, and then chanting and bowing and stuff, and the end of silence, and then breakfast.

I was on breakfast crew, so I went into the kitchen afterward (where the "Kitchen practice is silent practice" and "Silence is observed in the kitchen" signs aren't obeyed as studiously as they might be), and took a bucket of warm water and some cloths and went around making tables cleaner and hoping that those last few people would get up and go sit on the couches instead so I could wipe their tables also. And then I wiped the shiny silver fronts of the refrigerators.

After breakfast was I think our first Caretaking Practice, which is also done in silence (where "silence" of course means "silence unless you actually need to say something, in which case say it very quietly"). The work supervisor person (all of these staff people that I'm referring to, by the way, eventualy turned out to be students and/or residents and/or monks of various stripes; no mere employees here) broke us into groups and said who should go where to work with whom on what (including Shugen Sensei and someone else who were working at Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn, various people who were working front desk, and Web, and Research Projects, and so on for pretty much everyone in the place), and I went with a couple of fellow retreatants over to by the Ox-Herding Pictures on the wall where our leader person (a rather Martha Stewart looking woman in nice L. L. Beanish clothes and frosted hair and a somewhat annoyed expression who turned out to be I think a rather senior student or at any rate someone who turned up in robes at zazen when she wasn't looking like she'd just stepped off a sailboat in the Hamptons and who was actually very nice although she never quite lost that expression and didn't laugh much) told us we'd be going over to DC to clean.

So I spent an hour or so (I didn't bring a watch, which turned out to be a disadvantage, although an interesting one) cleaning bathrooms at the headquarters of Dharma Communications, which was cool because I have various things from them. It's a nice sparsely-furnished and very neat building.

(And yeah although Work Practice is presented as a way to continue one's work with the breath and being in touch with present reality into daily life, I imagine it probably does save them some money in maintenance cost also, which would be fine with me. Or for that matter maybe we retreatants on Work Practice botch things up so much that it's a net loss in terms of work productivity; who knows?)

After that the silence was lifted and we could talk again, and we got into the more program-like part of the program. (And I probably have the order of this next bit wrong, and I may already have messed up the order of some of the previous bits, and oh well.) Ryushin (one of the very senior monastics) talked to us about zazen, and koan practice, and shikantaza and stuff, and entertained questions. He said all sortsa stuff that sounded exactly right to me (and quite Ariadnite), and when I asked if it wasn't therefore the case that even delusion is an aspect of perfection, so even in our delusion and for that matter our suffering we're still perfect and all (see previous discussion) and he said yes that was a wonderful point (or other extremely validating words to that effect) but that of course it was one thing to say that, and another to really believe / experience / live it.

Which is quite right.

Then John Daido Loori Roshi himself came in, nominally to talk to us about the role of liturgy and the moral precepts and all in Buddhist practice, but in fact he did a question and answer session (sort of mondo-like) about those things or anything else we felt like asking about. People asked various things, and he answered them very straightforwardly (he's a very straightforward kind of guy; I have the feeling he'd consider my love for the paradoxes and mindbendingnesses of Zen to be sort of beside the point).

He talked about how Buddhism is non-theistic but that doesn't mean you can't have liturgy, and how the chants that aren't translated aren't really words at all but more like music, and all like that.

I asked about the Great Vow that's about desire, and since desire is part of the perfection of the Dharma also why do we pick on poor desire so? And he answered very straightforwardly that desire can be good or bad, and that the way to put an end to desire is to realize that one is not different from the desired thing and all, and that was fine as far as it went and I didn't try to pester him with followup questions or anything. (Outside, it was raining.)

Saturday afternoon: And then we had dinner (noon dinner, the main meal of the day) which was something again vegetarian and again very good, and then (as I recall, if I don't have the order all wrong) we helped move all the tables in the dining hall (a big stone space with a huge fireplace at one end, and the zendo up above on the other side of the ceiling) to the side, and we had Body Practice where we learned a couple of (um, I think) qigong (not Qui-Gon) moves, "Swimming Dragon" and "Holding the Moon", which were fun and stretchy and energetic in a calm Zennish way and all.

After that we moved to the other end of the dining hall, where the tables were pushed together and there were paper mats and sheets of paper and big thick caligraphy brushes and bowls holding the blackest ink you ever saw, and we did Art Practice with a woman who lives nearby and is a prominent lay member of the sangha. We drew some lines with our brushes in time with our breathing, and we drew the sounds that we heard (dish and pot sounds from the kitchen, mysterious thuds and clatters from here and there, and lots of each other's brushstrokes), and we drew how it felt to be various things she read us from a piece of paper (leaves falling, pride, generosity, walking over hot coals, walking through honey), and then we all picked one of our pieces of paper (variously sparse or dense or spotty or graceful) and held it up and said a word about it ("this curve is generosity", "this is the sound of Daphne's brush"; and one woman had drawn a representational picture of a graveyard, which puzzled us all but what the heck). And then we all helped clean all that up.

And then (or somewhere around here anyway) Jimon (another senior monastic, and former dancer), who is the same person who gave my little group our elementary sitting instruction down at Fire Lotus last year and who has a great smile and who anyone would like to have around at any time, talked to us about various forms of the teacher-student relationship, including funny stories about her own experiences with Roshi and so on, and we asked questions and stuff.

And then relatedly we went down to the dining area and sat around with various of the other monastics and the person who'd done Art Practice with us and we talked about the various relationships that one can have with the Monastery, and how being an official Student is more or less orthogonal to being a Resident of the place, and the various options for being a part-time resident, or a student who lives far away, or just an ordinary non-resident non-student who maybe shows up once in awhile and gets support from the website and like that. And that was informative and stuff.

And at some point in there I cornered Ryushin and asked him about the vow about desire also and asked why we pick on desire and not say anger or whatever and he said that the word desire there really includes anger and for that matter all other preferential connections to external reality (not his exact words, but y'know), and that we put an end to them by transcending the duality between self and other and stuff, and then we talked about various different layers of Buddhist thought, hinayana and mahayana and vajrayana and all, and that was extremely neat also because my god how often do you get to sit and talk to someone about that kind of thing who really knows what they're talking about?

Saturday night: And then we had supper, which was smaller than dinner but still very good, and we sat around and talked. I was next to the person who'd checked me in on Friday (and who I'd emailed about having messed up the Web form when I'd first registered online, but that's another story and not worth telling) and it turns out that she's an official Student as well as a full-time resident, and also one of those people who when you're talking to them the idea that everyone's really a Buddha / bodhisattva / fully enlightened being while still being a perfectly ordinary person seems entirely plausible, and we talked about our experiences of practice and what reasons there might be or might not be for sitting and for doing Zen stuff in general, and I wondered if there was anything to be gained by deepening my practice any or if the sort of random dilletantism that I've done up to now was the right thing, and she said well why don't you take that question to Roshi or Ryushin?

She said that because part of the Retreat weekend was that each of us retreatants could have a face-to-face session with one of the teachers, and Jimon had told us earlier that we'd be able to choose between Roshi himself (for those who thought there was some chance, now or in the future, that they might want to become official Students) and Ryushin (for anyone who wanted). And I'd been thinking about omg do I want to have dokusan with a real live Zen Master and yeah of course I do I can show off my cleverness and all but yipes and what should I actually say to him and maybe maybe whoa; and so her saying this was a Good Thing.

And them sometime after that (I think I must have left something important out of Saturday afternoon, because it had more hours in it than that) it was time for zazen again, and just as I was getting settled they announced that the interview line for Daido Roshi was open to Introduction to Zen Training retreatants on the north side of the zendo, and that was me and I got up with my cushion and went and sat in line and was amazed (and maybe pleased and maybe abashed) to find that my heart was all like thumping about and my breath a little uneven and that was just while waiting in the line for Pete's sake.

So hm. For tonight I think I'm going to skip the interview with Roshi 'cause it's getting late and I'm not likely to forget it between now and tomorrow (basically I asked a nice patient man who reminds me of Yoda a relatively obvious question and he gave a relatively obvious answer and I wouldn't have missed it for the world).

After my dokusan I went back to my place in the zendo and just as I was getting settled on my cushion the bell rang for kinhin and this time I didn't mess anything up, and we sat down again and my leg fell asleep and I tried to stay awake and to count my breath and let the little thoughts come and go unheeded with about the usual joyous and drowsy lack of success and then the bell rang again and we probably did some chanting and bowing and stuff but we were all pretty much unconscious by then anyway so we somehow managed to get upstairs and fell asleep.

Lots of people, no doubt including me, no doubt snored Saturday night also, but I slept right through them. Sunday the Monastery sleeps in, so the bell ringer didn't come until after 6am (although because of the Daylight Savings Time thing we lost an hour's sleep; the Monastery doesn't make any allowances for such trivia).

Sunday: Wow, Sunday is just today, isn't it? So this morning we got up (I heard the bell and was awake and up instantly, while the bell ringer was still on the floor below) and brushed our teeth and had breakfast (no silence required, except sort of in the kitchen where this time I washed dishes), and gathered for Caretaking practice again (and this time the work supervisor forgot to call the names in my group so we all went up after and said "I didn't hear my name?"), and it turned out I was with the same woman again (she was still kind and annoyed-looking), and we went out and spent some time raking a bit of grass next to the road between the main building and the little store that didn't really seem to my eye to need raking at all but I tried to return to my breathing and let questions of the need for raking dissolve; almost entirely without success but that's okay.

(Also I got a nasty set of scratches on my arm from a shrub that was in the way of the raking, and now I have a big Band Aid on it because it was stinging pretty much all the way home because my shirt-sleeve kept irritating it but it feels better now and thanks for asking.)

Then we went back to the main building and since it was Sunday one of the monastics was sitting behind the little table in the foyer greeting the random (and non-random) people who were filtering in for the Sunday Open To The Public service, and since I had forgotten to wear a headband for the raking I was pretty much drenched with sweat and I went upstairs quickly and tried to wash up a bit but it didn't really help so there I was in the zendo during the first bowing and chanting and so on and the start of the first zazen (while the newcomers were in the Buddha hall having their zazen introductions), with sweat running down from my hairline down my nose and into my mouth and down my neck and stuff.

But no one seemed to notice.

The air in the zendo was crisp and cool this morning, and the sun was pouring through the windows (the clouds and rain from Saturday were gone and the sky was a deep and a cloudless blue). I felt alert and energetic (and the sweat all dried pretty quickly) and my mind was leaping about here and there like (I decided) a puppy: "ooh, look at this!" "here, think about this!" "we haven't thought about this for awhile!" "you know what this sunlight reminds me of?"

Which isn't what's supposed to happen, but which was perfectly okay.

And after two zazens with a kinhin in the middle Roshi came in and sat on the high seat (which is "high" in the sense of being like four inches higher than most of the others except for the people with bad knees who sit in chairs), and gave one of his usual Dharma talks based on his own commentary (and his own commentary on his own commentary) on a koan gathered a zillion years by his pal Dogen, which was fine although as he said himself quite amusingly during the talk he doesn't know of anyone having become enlightened during a Dharma talk ("certainly not one of mine" he said, which got a good laugh), but it probably sort of lays the groundwork.

(If, that is, there were any groundwork to lay, and if we weren't already all enlightened.)

After that we all went downstairs and had lunch (which included cookies oooooh whereas the previous meals had had dessert only in the form of peanut butter and jelly that one could optionally put on the bread (more on the bread later, probably tomorrow)) and went and sat on the stairs behind the building, under the big Christ up on the wall (one of the neater things about the building is that big Christ, which various people told me some Socialists or Communists or Neo-Nazis or something had pulled down and tossed into the woods and/or used for target practice in past years, and the Buddhists when they bought the place had lovingly restored to his position), with the sun streaming down and talked to each other about stuff.

(I talked inter alia to a lovely artistic young woman with red-enhanced hair who is a jewelery designer and who draws and wants to be a writer and who also smokes and has an endearing nervous laugh and between her and the registrar student I want the little daughter to get out and start meeting this kind of person some time last week, and although I intended to ask both of them about what it had been like to be fifteen I didn't actually manage to work that into the conversation and the little daughter says it's just as well because they would have thought I was weird.)

After talking about stuff for awhile I remembered that they'd said that the store would be open between lunch and starting out for the mountain and so not wanting to miss the store I went over and looked around and talked to people and bought a copy of the liturgy book that they hand around to those who need it during services, and the obvious ZMM T-shirt, and I sympathized while the student or monk struggled with the misbehavior of their credit-card machine (not having brought much cash with me), and like that.

(Between the main building and the store I walked barefoot, it was such a lovely day. As I kicked off my sandals on the way back, one of my fellow retreatants walking in the same direction said "now you're enlightened". "Oh, that happened a long time ago," I said. Such wags, we laymen are.)

And then I pretty much went upstairs and got my stuff together and said a few good-byes (earlier on in some meal line I had talked to the registrar student again about my dokusan and thanked her for encouraging me and all), and got in my car and left. (Some people were going to climb Mt. Tremper and have a service up there to mark the beginning of Ango, but that would have added like five hours and I wanted to get home to the family, lovely as that climb would have been.)

On the way home I stopped to get some bread, and to get a fingernail clipper, and to try and fail to find some bandaids for my arm, and to call home again from that same payphone. On 87 south I saw the exit for 84, and decided that Yahoo Maps to the contrary notwithstanding it would be fun to take the Newburg-Beacon Bridge and the Taconic Parkway home, so I did that and now here I am.

Pretty fascinating, eh? *8)

There's still bunches of stuff I want to write about it, but I think I have enough written down now that I won't forget the rest, and it is way late at night, and I do plan to get up twenty minutes earlier than usual tomorrow morning for some zazen, so I'll stop now, and I hope finish with more words tomorrow. Well, not "finish", but...