A painted vertical board runs down the piece of white plaster wall I will face for the seven days of my Zen retreat. It shines in the early morning light. By midday it is a boring slat and by night-time a familiar, friendly piece of my sitting-place furniture. Oppressed by a sleepy fog and sagging spine, I am longing for the day’s end, waiting for the half-sung end-of-day call: ‘Life and death is a serious a matter. All things pass quickly awaaaay.’ I have no idea how I will do this all again tomorrow and I wonder what I am doing here at all.
This year, our autumn retreat is at a Uniting Church camp near Ballarat. The journey to camp is a gentle way to enter another reality with different sounds and concepts of time. Leaving the busy city and travelling into the country and finally off the main roads to the quiet camp is part of the process.
On the way I pick up one of our two Sydney-based women teachers, Subhana Bargazhi Roshi, from the airport. We roll along the freeway catching up on news, negotiate the two T-intersections at the end of narrow country roads, pass the old bluestone church in the paddock, clunk over a white, wooden bridge and finally crunch along into the camp carpark. It’s quiet here but for the slam of car doors and voices drifting across the gravel. Many of us meet only at sesshin. Doctors, artists, nurses, teachers, mothers, husbands in another life – here we set up the dojo and sit long days together in silence. Some of us have been doing this twice a year for many years. It’s like having another family in a different reality that only occasionally arises.
I used to watch shyly as more experienced practitioners transformed the old church halls with their unpolished wooden floors and their crooked door frames into a dignified space, all furniture replaced by an altar table and a black cushioned rectangle. I was in awe of this ordered dojo with its incense, its black bowl bells on little coloured cushions, and the flat black cushions, each with a round one in the centre.
Now an old timer myself, I find a bed in a women’s bunk room and then I help set up the altar. I’m no longer in awe, but I am aware of the significance of each object. I unpack the cream china Buddha with its Indian inverted swastika, a gift from our Sydney teachers, and lay a black cloth, frayed edge to the back, over the yellow laminex table. I fill a small pottery bowl with incense ash, some of it bought from Bodhgaya in India and blessed by the Dalai Lama; set out incense sticks and the candles for a weeks’ supply; arrange flowers; and fill a tiny altar water bowl from the women’s showers and toilets next door. I enjoy the simplicity of these objects and am aware that they are vehicles of an ancient tradition developed in China and Japan and now present here in Australia.
After an informal supper of soup, cheese and bread, we are allocated jobs like chopping vegetables, serving the food, washing up, cleaning and cooking. Mine is washing up after lunch. I’m very happy with my job. It’s excellent for getting warm hands on cold days and it’s relaxingly different from my normal work life.
At about 7pm we leave our shoes neatly lined up outside the door, enter the dojo, and the silence and stillness begins. Sitting is in 25-minute blocks briefly broken by slow walking meditation (kinhin) in a line around the dojo. The time keeper (jiki) signals with wooden clappers and bells when to stop and start. I bow to the group and my cushion, settle into a kneeling pose with my back straight, take a deep breath and dive in. Crack! The clapper signals to keep us on task, to settle into stillness. Then comes the soft encouragement of the bowl bell’s rich pools of sound that spread wide.
There’s nothing else I am charged with doing but staying in the present (shikantaza), and I luxuriate in the sound until at last it dies away. There’s mental chatter in my head, but in the room itself there is no sound but the clicking of frogs. From the 20 or so people on cushions around the perimeter of the hall, minute after minute there is no sound, no movement at all.
As a child I loved singing the hymns in the Anglican church of my country town, and I reverently and carefully coloured in my Life of Jesus Sunday school prize colouring book. No one else in my immediate family was especially interested, so I explored the spiritual world on my own terms. As a student at university I read accounts of the lives of the mystical saints and experienced a Christian retreat. But by young adulthood, praying for the heathen no longer seemed sensible and an all-powerful male god exacerbated my feelings of invisibility and guilt.
In my search for a new spiritual vehicle I discovered meditation through Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind Beginners Mind and Tibetan Buddhist Chogyum Trungpa’s Freedom of no Escape. Both men, monks in their own traditions and highly influential in helping Westerners to understand Buddhism, presented Buddhist meditation as finding spiritual authority inside, rather than outside, oneself. I was immediately interested.
After some solo experimentation I joined a Tibetan Centre in Melbourne, participated in a teaching given by the Dalai Lama in one of the Sydney Showground pavilions, which had been made into a glorious gompa decorated in Tibetan style, and attended a Tibetan Buddhist retreat where we slept in candle-lit, converted red railway carriage compartments in the bush near Bendigo. I found Tibetan Buddhism sophisticated and profound. In the end, however, I couldn’t fit in. Bothered by a tradition of male teachers who were given almost unquestioned authority, the final straw for me was being led in a guided meditation that, similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, threatened us with the Tibetan version of the hell realms.
So I tried Zen, which it must be said is similarly male-dominated, and in the West has been occasionally compromised by sexual relationships between teachers and students. But I eventually I found two women Zen teachers with professional backgrounds who were very aware of these issues. Both teachers (roshis), Subhana Bargazhi and Dr Susan Murphy, belong to the Diamond Sangha, a Western lay sangha that traces its teacher lineage back to Japanese masters.
Subhana is a psychologist by profession, resident teacher of the Sydney Zen Centre and also a teacher in the Insight (Theravada) Buddhist tradition (that includes Jack Kornfield, the respected North American Buddhist teacher and writer of books such as After the Ecstasy the Laundry). Susan is an academic and filmmaker, and the author of Upside Down Zen. Both have been practising for many years. I was also encouraged by finding that Zen is especially characterised by its emphasis on meditation (zazen) as the way, by its belief in a reality that transcends dogma and the rational mind. There are sayings in Zen such as ‘Kill the Buddha’ and bowing to the Buddha involves lifting your hands over your shoulders to symbolise a throwing away of all concepts. I liked this emphasis on the placing of authority in oneself and testing one’s own doubts.
At 4.30am on the first full day of sesshin we are summoned by the jiki ringing the tiny inkin bell as she walks by our bunk rooms. I used to be confronted by my own fury at being woken so early. Thankfully, now I can get up peacefully and quickly.
We begin with fast kinhin in a circle outside where we won’t trip in the dark. My muscles wake and stretch and I welcome the fresh night air on my face. Back in the dojo we settle on our cushions and are served tea from tiny cups. It’s hot, refreshing, and the willow pattern flower at the base looks unexpectedly beautiful at the bottom of the tiny green tea lake. Then we settle into mediation for a couple of hours until breakfast.
Within the predictable and reassuring time marks of bells, meals and sleep, each sesshin is different, with rhythms that I can never predict. But the first day often brings peaceful rest from previous busyness and the second may be hours of dull, sleepy fog and self doubt, or agonies of anger and guilty memories. Sleepiness is always part of sesshin for me and there’s often embarrassing jerking awake from almost falling forward off my cushion. Sometimes there’s also quiet sobbing in the dojo, by myself or by others. No one interrupts. It feels a safe place to grieve and the leaders and teacher are there if it all gets too difficult.
These patterns within sesshin are well known and in one half-hour block of sitting per half day the jiki leader tries to encourage us. Out of the silence he may suddenly call a brief message to ring us back to the present: ‘Just this … just the buzz of that fly.’ He can also give a shoulder massage (if we silently indicate we want it, definitely a Western addition) or a wack on the shoulder or the back muscles with the Zen stick.
After sitting for hours alone with increased awareness of my body, a shoulder massage is like a warm bath. I sigh with relief at receiving this helpful support with no expectation of repayment or response. The Zen stick also refreshes and wakens. I am no longer intimidated by it; the sharp sound of its thwack on people’s shoulders is now familiar, friendly. Importantly, our leaders take part with the group in all the mediation sessions and they change each sesshin according to who has learnt how to do the role and who is available to stay all week long. The position carries no privileges beyond that of serving the group. I have always felt safe within this structure.
I try to be patient with my fog, sleepiness and aches, and eventually my mind does slow down and relax. My body finds once again it can indeed sit in this balanced position for nine hours a day without harm. Finally, easy and awake at last, I can feel each new breath, enjoy my shoulderblades moving on my back, or my tongue licking a spoon, or seeing ordinary taps and laminated tabletops. In the breaks I may find myself just standing at a window, wondrously watching the gum trees near the old church hall moving with me through time.
My meditation at this stage can feel sometimes like an immersion in a wondrous, thick sea that shields me from shocks of pain or fear, a place where time is slowed. At this depth the division between the world and my perception of it decreases and sometimes disappears altogether.
Sesshin literally means touching the heart/mind. It opens up a world where I have time to separate from my usual life and let challenges and problems emerge, time to sit in the sun and look at glossy, button- tailed ants making their way through the bark on the ground, or to lie flat-out on a rough wooden seat and look at the clouds passing by.
Mid-morning, we walk in a silent line through the bush. If my mind has quietened I see new intricacy and significance in the bark on the trees, the folds in the flowers or the cracks in the concrete. The litter under a tree fern may become a sheltered beach of nested treasure, the earth underfoot connected to past and future volcanic journeys. It’s a drug trip without the drugs. If there’s a freezing wind, however, I’m likely to see nothing much at all, instead spending the walk trying to feel what it’s really like to be cold and accept it, as the animals must do.
At 11.30 am there’s a clanging of two big pan lids by the servers from the kitchen. Our dignified bells respond in the dojo. We stand up, bow to the altar and our fellow meditators, and walk to the kitchen where there is a long table with garish pink-and-white checked plastic cloth and green plastic chairs. Actual eating is still a long way off. We sit, we chant, kept in time by the chant leader, the ino, with wooden clappers:
First we consider in detail the merit of this food and consider how it came to us; Second we evaluate our own virtue, lacking or complete as we receive this offering; Third we are careful about greed, hatred and ignorance; Fourth we take this good medicine to save our bodies form emaciation…
Food as medicine is still pause for thought in my Western world of plenty. And then there are the hungry ghosts to think of:
Oh all you hungry ghosts
We now offer this food to you.
May all of you everywhere
Share it with us together.
Hungry ghosts are those who eat but are never satisfied. I’m one of those often enough, so I’m glad I still get to share. The small offerings that we contribute to a passed plate are later respectfully placed on the ground, and there is usually a camp dog there to enjoy them. Finally I get to eat the food. It tastes so good. I’ve cooked some of the recipes at home but it’s just not the same. Dogen, Zen master of thirteenth- century Japan, knew how important food was at sesshin. In Unfolds: The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Dogen, author Tanahashi describes how the Zen master instructed the cook:
Thus, monks in the monastery, coming from all over, both ordinary and wise, are equally worthy of offerings of finely prepared and sufficient meals. You prepare it as an offering for buddhas and ancestors, as an offering for clouds and water.
A shower on retreat can be magic. Sitting in meditation for so long is athletic and hard. If it’s an icy day the warmth of the water on my cold feet and down my back is luxurious as is the uninterrupted silence in which to register it all. There’s time to feel and watch my own body’s presence, my stomach muscles moving, my lungs rising and falling, and there’s the simple pleasure of seeing water falling onto the concrete floor.
I also find it rare and restful to have time off from talking, eye contact and other social greetings. Black in Zen is ‘no colour’, the colour of emptiness from which all potential comes, but our black clothes are mainly to allow us to blend in with each other. The silence, the unguarded face and the crumpled clothes of the woman I walk behind in kinhin build unspoken bonds between us. Unspoken anger also arises and so do occasional fits of giggles. But because our human noise is kept to a minimum I hear other messages: the wind, hour after hour, as the air moves round the planet; the birds announcing the dawn or punctuating the air all day with delicate or raucous messages; and the frogs that take over at night.
I meet with Subhana most days. I wait on my cushions in a line with others who want to see her and, when the previous interview is over, strike a bell to announce my coming. Our bell is a fire extinguisher carefully cut in half, painted black and hung from a wooden frame. Interviews (dokosan) with the teacher are expected to be confidential, brief and to the point – and it is here that my relationships with my teachers have been built and tested. Finding and trusting oneself and a teacher is a traditional and challenging part of the Buddhist journey.
Subhana is my primary teacher. With her guidance eight years ago I undertook jukai. This optional ceremony entails taking Buddhist precepts such as refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and renouncing practices such as killing, stealing, and false speaking. Each participant reads their own interpretation of each precept and this enabled me to feel sure I was undertaking only vows with which I was entirely comfortable. I also loved making the accompanying rakasu, a tiny apron-like garment made of small pieces of material sewn into a pattern of uneven rice paddy like rectangles. Mine is made of pieces of material given by my friends, a reference to Buddha’s humble use of found scraps of material for his robes. Its tiny size enabled hidden use during periods of persecution in China, and the embroidered, broken pine needle on the back of the neck strap represents the reassuring normality of our mistakes and woundings. My Zen name given to me by Subhana is written on the back of my rakasu. It is Ju Shin, which in English is Joyful Heart/Mind.
Our teachers usually give a talk (teisho) each afternoon. No matter how profound, and they often are, I usually have to fight sleep and discomfort during the teisho. The teishos by both our teachers are based on the extensive and sophisticated Zen literature of koans, cases and commentaries by Zen masters. There’s one story I love about a woman who ran away from her family to marry because they disapproved of the man she loved. She raised her children, happy enough in her exile, until one day she felt they needed to return. On arrival at her father’s house she discovered she’d been there, ill in bed, all the time. The return was her healing and the reintegration of her selves.
I am delighted by the wonderful possibility and impossibility of her being in two places at once and the emphasis on the importance of her deep feelings. Some of the stories of students and teachers striking each other and eliciting sudden enlightenment experiences are more challenging and culturally foreign to me. The Diamond Sangha has both the sudden (rinsai) and gradual (soto) schools of enlightenment within their heritage and I feel more at home with the soto approach. But both schools have an emphasis on going beyond the rational that I like. This emphasis is integral to koan study and is inherent in the impossibility of the vows we sing each evening:
The many beings are numberless I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred and anger rise endlessly. I vow to abandon them.
Dharma gates are countless I vow to wake to them.
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassed. I vow to embody it fully.
At sesshin there’s no email, phone (except for emergency), TV, radio, books or writing, no elegant furniture, private room or coffee shop. But there are places to walk in the bush, time to be, time to think, and time to watch the shadows move as the earth turns. In this environment, this place of basic communal showers, drab dorms and fellow snorers, laminex tables and plastic chairs, I can have times of the greatest happiness. We stop sitting at 9pm each day and most of us are in bed by 9.30pm. It’s delicious to at last lie down and rest, and sleep can sometimes be strangely like being joyfully awake and continuing to meditate. Don’t get me wrong – often the days and days of sleepiness, the fog, aching hips and knees still make me wonder why I came.
But I do return again and again. It’s because I see there is another rich and peaceful world when I stop my busy outside one; a world that can answer some of my deepest questions and fears. By the time I drive back down the gravel path out of the camp, my belly is alive with energy and my eyes and chest feel open. All the way home down the Calder Highway and on the V/Line train trip to work next day, I still see arrestingly beautiful patterns on rocks or food packets. The experiences remain and grow within me like a buried compass.