I had heard many of the senior dharma teachers in Everyday Zen say that Zen is a “body practice.” I never really understood what they were saying. Zazen is sitting in the body, but isn’t every meditation technique also in the body? What could this mean?
I would say that one of my greatest insights during this Practice Period is that Zen is indeed “washing your bowls.” Or, in more rustic terms, “chopping wood and carrying water.”
The monastic schedule was very rigorous. I was up at 4:15 am to take a shower (primarily to wake up, but it also seemed like the only luxury, since the lavender scented shampoo smelled so good). There were two periods of zazen, and the rest of the time I was working in the kitchen until 2 pm, with breaks for breakfast and lunch. There was a rest period between 2 and 4 pm. I learned to fall asleep the moment I lay down! At 4 pm there was a study period, but I have to admit that as much as I love reading Buddhist books, I was not interested in this at all. Then zazen, dinner, and two final periods of zazen.
The kitchen work was fun but really exhausting. I became one of the official onion choppers, since I was one of the few people who could tolerate this work. We chopped in very close quarters, and as fast and efficiently as possible. I was concentrating so hard that once Martha de Barros came to stand right by my side, and I didn’t notice her, until she softy said, “Hi, Barbara.”
There were days that we have a half day sit, with 5 periods of zazen in the morning. On the full day sits and during sesshin, we had ten periods of zazen.
The thoughts in my mind were no more intellectual or “spiritual” than asking myself, “What’s next?” "Do I have dishes tonight?" "Do I ring the Bonsho bell today?" On the way from the kitchen to my room in Cloud Hall, I would often look at the mud and leaves on the path and think, “Just one foot in front of the other.”
In zazen, my thoughts did not race. In fact, as I look back, I am not sure I was thinking of anything other than how to hold my posture in such a way that I could make it to the end of the meditation period. Sometimes I actually counted my breath. Sometimes I did deep breathing, not because it was recommended that I breathe from the “hara” (an area around the navel), but because it felt good to get oxygen to as many cells as possible!
So, my awareness was literally in my body – either sitting upright, or paying attention to the sharp knife so I wouldn’t chop a finger off.
Perhaps this body practice is good because it keeps you very mindful in the present moment. The “be here now” sort of thing. I think that we mostly don’t do this in our usual everyday lives, so it was an important experience for me to live this way for two months.
“Everyday mind is the way,” as it is said in a famous koan.