Seven days in a monastery, with seven periods of meditation (zazen) per day and three hours of classes per day and working in the kitchen and washing dishes and getting up at 4:20 am – understandably I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do this. Even a young person, even a relatively healthy person would have difficulties. But, I was able to follow the schedule, and I loved it!
Sometimes I was so tired that I literally could not walk a straight line; I would not have been able to pass a test for a DUI. There were times in meditation that I felt as if hot lava was flowing down my neck and shoulders and back. There were times that I felt as if little bugs were crawling all over my face, but I managed to sit without moving. Why would I voluntarily do this to myself? But there were times that I felt a kind of peace and calm, and rather than going forward to the practice, it came forward to me. Make sense?
I especially loved the classes by Rev. Okumura on Dogen’s fascicle Only a Buddha and a Buddha. He mentioned “dropping away of body and mind,” an important experience for Dogen. I asked him, “I would like to know more about ‘dropping away of body and mind.’ I know I am entering the realm of trying to attain something (a kind of no-no in Zen), but I find it hard to believe that in my zazen there is dropping away of body and mind.” I was surprised by Rev. Okumura’s answer. In summary: don’t ask. We are always trying to understand meditation or aim for something in meditation, but this is not possible. This is all just conceptual. Just sit.
I did, however, experience a kind of dropping away of my mind. One morning I looked at the clock and it was 4:20. I got up and got dressed and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth before everyone else. I wondered why it was so quiet in the guest house. I looked at my clock again: 1:30 am. I was so embarrassed that I went back to bed fully clothed.
Once in the kitchen, I was supposed to crack 70 eggs. I cracked 17 and then added on a piece of paper the 30 eggs in the flat of eggs in the carton, and that equaled 47. Then I figured that 70 minus 47 equals 23, so I cracked 23 more eggs. The problem is, I forgot to add the 30. So, in all I cracked only 40 eggs. Since they were to be used for frittata, there would have been a lot of hungry people, if I had not remembered in zazen, “Oh my God, I didn’t actually crack the 30 eggs, I just wrote that number on a piece of paper.” Immediately I rushed to the kitchen to tell the cook. He just laughed. I was glad that zazen was good for something.
In a monastic setting, if you are alone, you know you must be in the wrong place. Several times I wondered, “Where is everybody?” And then I knew I was supposed to be washing dishes or attending a work meeting. Kind of humbling.
It is impossible to explain why this seven days was so wonderful. Certainly the classes were great, and the beauty and harmony of everyone moving in unison in the zendo was great. But ultimately it makes no sense that I now want to do a two month monastic retreat.