It’s the Housemaster, standing, looking out the window, and points to a spot down the hill below the monastery. A fox, its bright orange and red fur stark against the white snow still on the ground, was happily wrestling the carcass of some small furry animal it had found, periodically checking around to make sure no intruders could steal its prize, smacking and licking its teeth.
This was Thursday, my 26th day of Kyol Che, at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, RI. Behind the fox was the pond, frozen over and dusted with snow, in drifts due to wind flow. Further away, the Providence Zen Center, looking like a New England farm house, in light yellow. There is something really idyllic and yet quite contemporary about it. Something quintessentially American about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fox with my own eyes before. There is a line in the temple rules about a man who spoke incorrectly and was reborn a fox for 500 generations. As I looked at this fire-colored creature, I wondered what it might have done in a previous life, if anything.
28 days. 430 wake up, 945 to bed. Intensive week, which for me was Week #4, midnight practice from 12 to 2 am. So, 945 sleep, 12 to 2 practice, sleep until 430, then wake up and do practice again. There was a flow to it, and intensity to it, and yet also this great normalcy to it. After Day 10 it really started to just become everyday life. And it was wonderfully clear, and wonderfully simple.
It was hard work, in that it can be difficult to keep your practice pure. By that I mean, it is really easy to sit there and want something out of the experience. Or to imagine, “when I get out, I’m going to do this and this and this.” Or even to think, this is a good sitting period, this is a bad sitting period. That’s all checking mind, and of course, a lot of that appeared for me on the cushion. But somehow I found the courage to keep coming back to the practice. Just do it. (Nike, I don’t owe you any copyright money ’cause Zen Master Seung Sahn came up with that shit first.) Seriously–only do it, because the result is not what matters. What matters is just doing your technique, moment, by moment, by moment.
And yet, periodically throughout the experience, there were some moments that were pleasantly surprising. Like the huge blizzard at the end of my 2nd week, blanketing everything in more than 2 ft of snow and overwhelming the pickup truck the Zen Center had for heavy-duty ploughing. I have shoveled snow in Brooklyn, but never this much snow, untouched and pure. It’s heavy. I shoveled the steps up to the big bell outside on a hill right across the access road from the monastery. At first I couldn’t see what I was doing, but I had some sense of how the path flowed, so I just dug. And dug. And dug. Eventually I felt the path going up hill, and found the first step. And then the second. In my excitement over this task I had forgotten to tell the Head Dharma Teacher of my plans, and was so engrossed in it that I did not hear the moktak for the afternoon sitting. I took a break, and as I walked back I heard some geese honking as they flew over head. I looked up to see them in V formation, flying over the blue-tiled roof of the monastery. Once I got back, seeing I was 15-minutes late, I went back into my room to change, and fell asleep on my bed. I woke up, groggy but rested, two sitting periods later. That evening, Kwang Haeng Sunim (the HDT) pulled me aside and said, “You know you have to tell me when you take off like that.” I sheepishly apologized for my error, and after dinner, went back out to finish shoveling the rest of the steps, which I completed with plenty of time to come back before the evening chants. If no one had done it, it would have made it quite difficult to ring the bell in the evening!
Coming back into this world, this dream world, has been interesting too. It’s been a little over a week now, but still the insights linger. Everyone is very busy, busy, busy all the time. Talking, walking, on the move. Cell phones, coffee, gym clothes, sweatpants. Business atire, and everything else in between. The T is constantly moving back and forth on Commonwealth Avenue. People complain about it. The world doesn’t stop moving for anyone, ever.
But there is a serenity that comes from being able to be in the world, but not of it. To become, as the Zen expression goes, “a cow with no nostrils.” A cow with nostrils can have a ring pierced through its nose and be led every which way. A cow with no nostrils means independence and freedom from life and death. Then, clear compassionate energy appears, we can function correctly and help the suffering in this world.
The the evening bell chant in the Kwan Um School, translated into english reads:
Hearing the sound of the bell, all thinking is cut off;
Wisdom grows; enlightenment appears; hell is left behind.
The three worlds are transcended.
Vowing to become Buddha and save all people.
The mantra of shattering hell:
Om Ga Ra Ji Ya Sa Ba Ha . . .
Cut off thinking, make your mind clear like space, and wisdom appears. Enlightenment appears. All on their own. Then, no past, no present, no future, but moment by moment by moment, what’s your function? How is it, just now?
Our inside job is to become clear. Our outside job is to be of service. How simple is that? There doesn’t have to be any lofty ideas, only in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, just DO it!