Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The first time I'd been there for the weekend, only two days, though it felt like far longer. The second time - Spring sesshin - I decided to increase my stay by one day, making it a slightly longer weekend. I got a lift up with my friend Sara, and when we arrived at the site of my first PZI retreat, just outside Santa Rosa, I realized that we would be staying in a different building on the same site, this one also apparently designed with Christian retreats in mind (the room where I met David was actually a chapel). The meditation hall was much smaller this time, with only around thirty people in it; there were the familiar alien artworks hung on the walls and the same old twisty well-armed deities chilling on the white altar, the incense curling around them like cigarette-smoke at some Parisian cafe.
This time round we each had our own rooms, so that I felt less guilty about going back to it when I was tired of meditating. I even did a bit of work on my laptop, reading an extraordinarily helpful and boring article on the finance behind the construction of the Parthenon in fifth-century Athens; I may regret this. I skyped with my then-girlfriend at night, which was sweet then depressing, as all her anxieties poured into the room, overwhelming my most earnest efforts at Zen mopping. Naughtier still, I slept well beyond the jangling bells at four thirty in the morning. Instead, I set my alarm for shortly before seven, and then skulked around in the corridors waiting for the good meditators to emerge before joining them in the queue for breakfast, with sleep gumming up the corners of my eyes and my face leaden with weariness and shame.
On the first day I ate breakfast, cheerfully acknowledging the hungry ghosts; I meditated through the morning, guiltily reverting to my visualizations; and I went out for a walk to the lake, which hadn't moved. In the afternoon session somebody suddenly announced 'Prepare the hall for sutra service'. Everyone swung their mats round so they were facing the corner of the room, or dragged them closer. In the corner of the room was one of the stern-looking men I'd seen talking about Christianity, now with a tambourine; Socrates, pressing a rather unexpected trumpet to his lips; a young man I'd felt a pang of sympathy for when I'd first seen him, bent double with back trouble; and an extraordinarily beautiful woman, eighty years old at the youngest.
They were providing cheerful - if occasionally somewhat disjointed - accompaniment to the liturgy we were chanting or singing from the floor of the room. This, apparently, was a Sutra Service, and I hadn't encountered it on my first retreat only because the Winter sesshin is a pared-down version that focuses on almost entirely on meditation. We recited Hakuin's praise song of meditation just like we sometimes did at WiG - you see, meditation can't be praised enough - as well as a series of other pieces in any number of unidentifiable Asian languages. The old lady led the chants as the Cantor, but her voice was frail, and broke down completely at the point where 'Guanyin finds us on the dark and br--o--ken roads'. She was the worst cantor of all time, and also incomparably the sweetest.
I've since been told that this is one of the most mould-breaking and experimental aspects of PZI, that there's a makeshift jazz band (with occasional forays from a didgeridoo) leading the chants, which are often set to rather catchy tunes. (One returning member was so shocked by the change she even began reciting the diamond sutra on her own - so I have heard.) If experiment it is, I have to say that I like it. Much of the sentimental attachment I have to Anglicanism is mediated through hymns that I had to sing week in, week out, in the school chapel, and which are now an inextricable part of my spiritual and emotional fabric. And I'm beginning to feel a similar tenderness towards the lilting melody that carries the three refuge vows, the way we do them: 'Buddham saranam gachami/ Dhammam saranam gachami;/ Sagham saranam gachami:/ Buddham, dhammam, sangham.'
John encouraged us all through the retreat to imagine (that is, realize) that every event that occurred and every thought that arose was for us, for our benefit, and only for us (though that last formulation seemed to me to go a bit too far). The koan featured two friends washing bowls when they saw a crow tearing apart a frog. 'Why does it always have to be this way?' one said to the other; and he responded, 'It is for your benefit, Master.' It was not quite like the dream in The Magic Mountain, where there's a city whose members treat each other with respect precisely because they know that in the temple, old hags are tearing apart an infant. It is more like sitting there realizing that my life has been blessed not in spite of headaches, but because of them: perception, like community, is a coin with two sides.