Saturday, November 12, 2011
The day after I came back from my first retreat, I knew I could thank the man who offered to smack me with a stick, the tea that almost scalded me, and all the serious people who didn't speak to me, for the high that I was feeling. I was hiking back up Potrero Hill with two bags full of cheap and heavy groceries from Trader Joe's, singing under my labouring breath and composing in my head an umpromising poem I would never write down. How had I gotten there? It had started with Wind in Grass organizer Michael urging me to go (on retreat, or as he called it, sesshin), and making it easy for me by telling me I need pay only what I could and arranging a ride for me from the city.
The drive up to Santa Rosa was quiet - there was a man next to me that we'd picked up from the airport who gave one-word answers to my friend Ashley's attempts at conversation, and who I decided must either be very Zen or very rude (or both). When we got to the Angela Center (usually used for Christian retreats) we went up in the elevator and stepped out into an inchoate zendo. There were two stern-looking older men talking about Zen and Christianity and complaining about how the people materializing out of the elevator were wearing shoes in the meditation hall. Almost immediately I was coopted by a tiny Asian man who directed me like a mechanical crane to hang several of his paintings high up on the walls.
I was shown to a room where I met my room-mate, a physics professor who seemed anxious about his allotted task of ringing the bells for the week. The bells? I was soon familiar with them, since they woke me at 4:30 the next morning. I stumbled into the meditation hall where there was a man who looked like Socrates bowing and pouring tea to the people seated next to me, one at a time. He was pouring steaming tea into my cup in the dark, and suddenly I realized the cup was filled to the glowing brim, the hot liquid about to spill over and scald my hands. Later Socrates approached me in the hallway and whispered the convention: you're meant to hold your hand out until you've gotten enough, and then pull it sharply up. Why hadn't anyone told me?
After the first two hours of meditation, I went back to my room, but then glanced at the printed schedule and realized that everyone else must have gone down to the dining hall for breakfast. When I got there there everyone was muttering evilly in guttural tones about demons and hungry ghosts. I stood by the door, awkwardly. After breakfast I was put to chopping carrots and told to do it mindfully and above all quickly. Then there was an hour of free time. I followed a path past statues of Mary and Jesus out to a grassy hill. I went over the hill, over a wooden fence, through the woods and stood staring for a while at a lake steaming in the early morning like hot tea. When I got back to the zendo I realized that my socks had been soaked through with dew as chilly as dawn lakewater.
In the meditation hall there were probably forty or fifty people, with one long row along the walls and another smaller rectangle of mats in the centre of the room. Most of the silver-haired solemn people that made up the majority of the group were wearing the black bibs with the curtain-rings that I'd seen Chris wearing at Wind in Grass. Were they all chaplains or priests or masters of some sort? To my left there was an altar covered with a thick white cloth and topped with three gilt statues of gyrating Eastern deities with limbs to spare and loaded with slicing weaponry. There were tall candles burning tall fat flames and vases stuffed with flowers and a stalk of incense trailing an elaborate wake of smoke. I looked across at Ashley seated opposite me and prayed that she would know what to do when the time came.
After a while there was an announcement: the Head of Practice would soon be stomping around and we had the choice of either getting a shoulder massage or being whacked with a stick. Excuse me? It seemed like a joke, a choice that wasn't really a choice at all. Who would choose to be whacked with a stick? As it turned out, a majority of the serious elderly people wanted the rod on their shoulders: they bent down ceremoniously to the left, whack whack, they slid down to the right, whack whack. I'm told that this is to help meditators avoid falling asleep during the long afternoon sessions. I went for the shoulder rub and have never looked back. But I needed it: sitting cross-legged for eight or nine hours a day is tough on your body, especially if you're already in chronic pain.
At the end of the first day someone said, 'Prepare the hall for dharma talk'. Everyone gathered into a crowd, there was a boing sound like when Wile E. Coyote runs into a cymbal, and in walked another man with an extra silly Buddha bib like David's. He talked for a while in faded antipodean cadences about how most of our lives consist of killing zombies, one after the other, but there were always more. After the talk we all stood in the candlelight and David came in. He said, 'A man walks into a restaurant and orders the soup. After a while, he calls the waiter over and complains that the soup is unbearably salty. When the waiter looks incredulous, the man says, "Taste it yourself". The waiter replies, "But you don't even have a spoon"'. And that was life too, complaining of how bitter things were when we hadn't even made an effort to taste them.
The next morning I began to notice the trees outside through the window of the meditation hall. At breakfast as we grumbled our grace, their deltas of rich wood began to distinguish themselves from the darkness. I talked illicitly with the tiny Chinese man: it turned out he'd been a Christian minister, then had gone an various voyages to India, and now practised Zen. I walked out to the lake, filled to the glowing brim with cool water. I was whisked away by Chris to see David and do work in the room. I chopped vegetables efficiently, and ate and slept. The next day it was time to leave my first sesshin (I could only stay for the weekend). The night before David had said, 'It's when I'm on retreat that I start to notice myself building the house of pain. It doesn't stop me doing it, but I notice myself doing it, and somehow that's enough'.