Last week-end I attended the Rohatsu retreat held by Chris Fortin and Bruce Fortin.
In some traditions, the pilgrimage is as important as the sacred site, or, in this case, the shared intention to sit together at the important time of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
For me, the trip to St Dorothy’s Rest, the retreat site outside Occidental, was upsetting and even scary. I left at 2:15 pm, allowing almost three hours to drive up through San Francisco and up highway 101. On 19th street, in San Francisco, I saw a somewhat demolished motorcycle and worried about the driver, who was no longer present on the street. I hit snail traffic at San Rafael. I get claustrophobic in this kind of traffic, so I decided to exit at Lucas Valley Road and drive up the coast. It began to rain and get dark.
On the climb up Lucas Valley road, I pulled over so that a car – the driver was in a big hurry – could pass me. A few minutes up the road I could see that he had side-swiped a car, and both cars both were limping off of the road. I had no map, and I have refused to get a smarty-pants phone, so I didn’t know the way to Occidental. I periodically made wrong turns and had to call Brad for instructions. I reached Occidental in the dark. The redwoods were dark and rainy. I got lost on the way up to St. Dorothy’s and found myself on a one lane road, high in the redwoods, with no side rails. I arrived in tears.
Usually people talk about the difficulties of meeting oneself “on the cushion.” I have now reached the point in my practice where zazen is actually restful. Often the “bliss and repose” that Dogen described. The retreat itself was very quiet – practicing alone and together.
I meet the longing and sadness and anxiety in my life off the cushion. When I listened to various people at the retreat share their own grief and physical pain, I thought that this suffering has to be the fabric of our lives, and there will never be some mystical, end-point enlightenment.
At the moment, I am sewing a black okesa. I hold it in my hands and wonder, “What is this?” It seems dark and beautiful and sacred, but somehow “other.” At the retreat I had a vision of the actual Buddha’s robe: it is made of shimmering, translucent fibers of silver and gold and pinks and blues. It is the robe made of the beautiful and sorrowful and ever-changing patterns of human existence. It is my skin and the skin of others. It is actually “wearing the Tathagatha’s teaching,” as we say in the Robe Chant.
On the way home, I decided again to drive down the coast, but this time it was a low light, golden winter day in California. I stopped at a seafood restaurant at Tomales Bay that had once been a kind of shack, but had now become upscaled. A woman at a table next to me said, “If I drink one more Napa Chardonnay, I’ll scream.” I felt sick at heart. On the way home, there was bumper to bumper traffic approaching the Golden Bridge. It seemed early in the day to be so slow. People had slowed to watch a man, who was perched on the rail of the bridge, while police were “talking him down.”
I can’t actually ordain with the robe I had imagined. But I think I will go to Britex to find this fabric and make my own, special robe: Buddha’s rainbow body: car accidents and ice cold rain and getting lost and peaceful zazen and suicides. And love.