April 30, 2009

Schleswig-Holstein, Wind & Wolken Sangha

Schleswig-Holstein is in the Northern part of Germany, south of Denmark on the Baltic Sea.  The fields in spring are ablaze with rapeseed and it's called "the yellow fireworks of the north."  It's beautiful country, soothing to the eye, and gives a happy feeling particularly with the brightness of the flowers.  The weather has been grand and today we sat at an open cafe for tea.  The wind did not stop however. 

Tomorrow I'll sit a one-day sesshin with Wind and Wolken Sangha.  So much preparation has gone into it with Friederike and Harald carrying most of the load.  Cooking, cleaning, arranging tables, organizing the zendo are but a few of the tasks.  We've managed to fit in some
 sightseeing and relaxation too, but we all worked until 10 p.m. to get the final cooking and arranging completed.  It's still late and I'm writing now because the weekend holds a full schedule with the sesshin tomorrow, a creative/painting workshop on Saturday, and a Jukai Ceremony on Sunday for three people.  I may not easily get a chance to write.

This afternoon we visited an archeological site near the coast called the Giant's Grave.  It's a stone, three-chambered burial mound from 2100 BCE.  It sits out in the middle of a field and we discussed why this place?  Why not over there?  It is positioned exactly east to west in its length, but we cannot guess why it is where it is.  It's called The Giant's Grave because of its huge length.  The interior has not been excavated and examined so we don't know exactly whether there are remains to be found.  Such chambers usually hold various artifacts such as pottery, ornaments, various items that belonged to the dead.  I was saying that in Ireland there are similar burial sites, but there, the mounds have been vandalized and artifacts that would give insight into the early culture have been stolen.  The one we visited today had a deep, sacred feel to it and did not appear to have been violated.  The entry chambers were obvious, but it was hard to tell if there was a way to enter the inner chambers beyond what was visible.  It's all supposition unless there is further study.  There is much silence surrounding the area and people who came after us approached with quiet and deep respect.

Friederike, Harald and I have spent much time talking and talking and talking.  We imagine the future together,  talk over practice and Sangha, catch up on news about this or that.  They have both been off this week so there's an easy feeling except for the preparation for the events.  Still, we've managed to have fun.  On the promenade at the Baltic there are beautiful polished carvings in the stones at various points on the walkway.  Here they are standing by a mermaid which may be a little hard to tell in the photo.  

A beautiful moon crescent is flying through the skylight.  The cows are quiet tonight.  A massive red sun hung in the horizon on our way home from dinner at a local restaurant - the promise of another gorgeous spring day tomorrow.

April 28, 2009

The Netherlands

It was a great workshop at Zen River in The Netherlands made so by the wonderful people in the Sangha and the great teacher Tenkei Coppens Roshi and his wife Tammy, who is also a priest and Assistant Abbess.  On Saturday evening we drove out to the coast passing by this sweet little house where a famous local poet lived before he died.  Here you see a bust of him leaning on the garden wall.  We also passed by this old, old church in a little hamlet called Doodstiel, which means Dead Silent.

Going out to the coast was a zigzag (no pun on Amsterdam) journey weaving through various canals.  We at last came to a parking area with a staircase that led us over the dike and into the marshy flatlands.  I was expecting to see a coast, but there is no coast to see.  The tide comes in and out and washes over these marshy areas and through the canals. 

A group of men had just come from their journey of  'mud walking' which is exactly what it says.  They have special mud walking shoes to prevent suction and their legs became caked with pitch black mud.  They appeared to be all wearing long black stockings.  The sport takes them for miles out into the waters far beyond sight of land.  They have to get back of course before the tide comes in.  It's as flat as flat can be and there really is no coast line to see, just an endless horizon. 

We joked madly about this all weekend as we were studying "Mountains are Walking" from Dogen Zenji and we were considering the importance of fierce landscapes.  The place at the coast is the fierce landscape of No. Holland.  I'll admit the silence there was incredible except for our continuous hilarity.  The starkness of it calls up a sense of longing and the wind forces you to tuck inside of yourself.  It brings out a loneliness in the heart.  The photo shows just some of us facing into the wind.  Tenkei Roshi is standing to my left.

The same people who can laugh so heartily at Zen River can be completely serious when it comes to Zen practice.  They are devoted to their training and many of them have sacrificed a great deal to train with Tenkei Roshi and to offer their lives to the Dharma.  Their training makes for a beautiful experience in the Zendo and I'm certain they have the best sounding chanting and music anywhere I've been.  It's strong and enthusiastic with clear and confident harmonies. 

 We  left Zen River and drove to No. Germany on Monday:  Fritz, Mechtild, Friederike and me.  I'm here now and we've just finished a full day celebrating my birthday every place we went.  The weather continues to be mild with the threat of rain, but no drops so far.  Not for seven weeks in a row.    

April 23, 2009

Just a quick note as I pack my suitcase for the night train to Amsterdam.  I booked late and cannot get a private or semi-private room.  So, I'm in with three other women on a lower bunk and looking forward to the adventure.  I'll not get to see the lower and upper Rhine Valley unfortunately as we move through the castles in the dark.  Jutta, a student of mine from the lower Rhine area says then I must stay awake and feel the ambience of the region.  It may be that I don't sleep much at all, so I may be quite awake to see lights on the castles at night.

I won't have time in Amsterdam to go walking.  The architecture reminds me of New York, Brooklyn to be exact.  Brooklyn, my home town, was first a Dutch settlement and the Dutch influence is visible in the architecture.  This makes me feel quite at home in The Netherlands.  Zen River, the monastery I'm about to visit is in a little town about 30 minutes from Groningen and about 20 minutes from the north coast.  It's flat as flat can be and the sky is the central element in the landscape.  Sky a delicate blue as we see in the great Flemish paintings.  The wind is relentless and they say that if you can spend a winter close to the Baltic Sea, you can call yourself a European.  

I'm on my way.  More from Zen River where the chanting is sublime.

April 21, 2009

The Zendo at Felsentor

As I mentioned in an earlier email, the Zendo at Felsentor was designed and built by Paul Discoe and Vanya Palmers, Kobun Roshi's Dharma Heir.

Great care has been taken with every detail and there is a Swiss/Japanese flair to it although it is built on Japanese design.  The clean lines of the interior, the stairways, the entry, the bathroom, are all Japanese in ambiance yet at the same time modern, uncluttered Swiss.  
At the conference, we began the day at 6:00 a.m. with Zazen and morning ceremony.  There are no mechanical sounds that interrupt the bird song since the retreat center is built on a shelf of land overlooking Lake Luzern on a hiking trail which curves around past the main buildings.  The center runs a small cafe in the summer so that hikers can stop at the sightseeing spot for a coffee and sandwich or a glass of wine.  The Rigi Mountain is famous for hiking and mountain visitors.

We went back and forth from the dining room to the Zendo as we followed the course of the day which included periods of meditation intermixed with lecture, creative activities, discussion, and solitary time for personal work in the afternoons.  This particular group which happened to be all women were rich with humor and wisdom and we laughed heartily at the talking meals and shared important aspects of our lives as women, mothers, single women, professionals.  We all had enough experience to know grief, suffering, triumphs, accomplishments.  We had no hesitation to be open and honest together.  I value the qualities these women brought to the group.

A Catholic nun also lives at Felsentor with the managers and residents.  Sister Teresia comes from a convent in, I think, Austria.  She had had medical issues with her heart and Vanya offered her the opportunity to recover at Felsentor.  Teresia came and has been there for many years.  She is the main caregiver to the animals which takes considerable time.  Vanya Palmers keeps the practice of animal rescue and brings animals to the center when they are destined for the slaughterhouse.  It's the practice for farm families to give a couple a large pig when they are getting married.  This is to give the newlyweds the start of food for the winter.  Some couples do not want to slaughter the animals and they are given to Vanya for rescue at Felsentor.  The pig population has grown and the other dear animals now also include goats, and chickens.  Sr. Teresia loves these animals dearly and has named them all.  She spends much of her time with the animals along with supporting the retreats with work in the kitchen.  She is a remarkable nun who adds a human dimension to Felsentor.  She also wears rakusu and sat Zazen with us every chance she got.

By the way, my camera remains broken.  These photos were taken with a borrowed camera, but now I go forward hoping I'll find another camera as I go.  The weather continues to be wonderful in Zurich.  The city celebrated a big holiday on Monday called Secheslauten (spelling?) which means "six o'clock beginning" and is also known in English as the Day of the Booger.  Thousands of people gather in the town square to see an ice/snow man, the Booger, built atop a huge pyre which is lighted at exactly 6 p.m.  A clock then begins to tick and depending on how long it takes to melt the Booger,  will tell whether it will be a good summer or not.  Firecrackers are set inside the figure and explode as the figure melts.  Men and women on horseback in traditional costumes ride in a circle around the figure at a gallop until the burning is completed.  This tradition is held only in Zurich.  It was wonderful to witness and this year the Booger burned twice as fast as last year.  Get out your swim suits!

Time at Felsentor

The weekend at Felsentor was wonderful.  A small but energetic group of women came for the workshop and we moved together like silk through the entire program.  The picture on the right shows the rack railroad that you ride to get to the Romiti Felsentor stop after you get off the boat, which takes you close to the top of the mountain.  The picture on the left shows the view from one of the rooms in the house.  All the time, this array of beauty sits in front of you and then disappears into cloud so quickly.

The workshop dealt with Mountains as mountains and mountains as Mountains.  We sat meditation, then wrote in response to the mountain.  The next day we drew pictures in a particular methodology that anyone could do to speak to our archetypes of mountain and life.  We turned into our own mountain range and felt the power of the Rigi Mountain holding us in daily life and in dream.  We had a close sharing of life issues and parted company feeling refreshed and ready to return to daily life carrying the mountain within.

I'm in a big hurry at the moment because I'm off to the Kunsthaus Museum with my daughter to see the Giacometti exhibit.  More later today.

April 15, 2009

Zurich on Wednesday, April 15

My camera suddenly began to work this morning when I slapped the lens on the palm of my hand.  It made an excellent whining sound and woke up.  It's a perfectly adequate camera for what I do even though it's pretty beat up.   I quickly took these shots of the city which I see from the balcony and from the sofa looking out toward the balcony.  Later I'll go to the lake and take some more photos of the local scene.

I spent a great deal of yesterday preparing for the workshop in Luzern so today I have some free time before the travels tomorrow.  I did walk down to the health food store yesterday to buy some oat milk.  The shop owner insisted I take some pamphlets in German for my daughter, whose art studio is just around the corner.  The shop is small but includes just about everything you'd find in a larger health food store, just with less variety.  I didn't have the key for Ellen's studio so I couldn't walk around the block to see her current work.  Next week when we both return we'll visit together.  Also, there's a Giacometti/Egyptian exhibition at the Kunsthaus which we go to.

At the moment, 11:00 a.m. , the church bells from the tower that is visible in the photo are ringing madly.  Perhaps there's a funeral in progress.  The church bells do ring freely here at all different times of the day.  On Saturday evening at 6 or is it 7 p.m. all the bells all over the city ring together for about 15 minutes.  Then they do it again on Sunday evening.  It's very lovely and a reminder of the strong traditions that mark the underpinnings of Swiss life whether you are in the modern city or not.  Switzerland observes the Sabbath and numerous other saints days for which the schools are closed.

Everything, of course, runs on time and the manners in the supermarket are prescribed.  The clerk will annoyingly toss you off if you don't weigh and tag your produce before you bring it to the counter.  You must bring your own shopping bags or pay for them at the store.  The produce is not sprayed to retain shelf life.  No, you shop regularly, almost daily for fresh food since it won't last very long in the refrigerator.  The refrigerators are not kept as cold as in the US and they are not as large.  The idea is to shop regularly and not store too much so that the energy usage is kept low.  It's just the system and culture of Switzerland, and when in Rome.....as all cultures are arbitrary.

It's a beautiful day so I'm on my way, camera in hand. 

April 14, 2009

In Zurich

Here is where I'm staying in Zurich.  I'm on the top, top floor visible on the very right hand side of the photo closest to the sky.  The view of the city is wonderful and it's very quiet with everyone away.  Since I have much work to do for the upcoming retreats, I'm glad of the time to finish the materials.

My camera was damaged in travels and it's an old Olympus 3X about six years old and probably not worth repairing.  I'll have to think about a new one while here or borrow other people's photos to attach to the blog.  I'm working off old photo files and I haven't any shots at the moment of the real city before me.  It's a quite wonderful view of the hillside with church spires and castle-like structures clustered in the trees.  The apartment building is on a tram line so I have only to walk downstairs and grab a lift to downtown.  I could also walk.  It's only about four stops.

Spring is far more advanced here than in Olympia.  Weather is warm and a bit sultry with the feel of rain coming, but still the sun shines.  A fellow who is a friend of the man who lives next door to my sister in Olympia lives downstairs.  It's a very small world.  I do at least have someone I can call on should I need help.  Bob speaks German so he can negotiate for me if need be.  Mostly, though I'm quite able to get along as almost everyone speaks English.

Monday was a national holiday and I walked along the lake where it was teeming with people strolling in the gorgeous sun.  All kinds of people were out.  Zurich is deeply international and you might hear five or six languages within a few feet of walking.  At the children's playground you are likely to run into at least five different languages in any visit.  When people engage with one another you simply fall into the language that someone speaks.  Mostly it's English when it's a group of non-Swiss.  But, the Swiss are very accommodating and will simply find the common language in any group and fall into it as easily as silk.  How I envy their facility with an array of languages.   I'm so happy that my grandchildren are trilingual now as it trul
y makes them global citizens.  They will add one more language this year. 

I have no real sense if there is any economic turndown in Switzerland because I just don't go shopping here nor do I eat out.  The prices at restaurants are breathtaking and that makes it not so much fun.  Nicolas, my son-in-law, did Chinese take out for the family a few weeks ago and it was 86CH (Swiss francs).  With the dollar as it is, that's about $86 dollars for one take out meal.  When the family first moved, Nicolas and Ellen, my daughter, got a hankering for burritos since they had lived very close to the Mission in SF where they ate regularly.  Nicolas went out hunting for them in Zurich and returned with two burritos for $48.  You just don't do that very often.  I suppose with the salaries it's all relative, but this has to be one of the most expensive cities in the world.  The family has learned to eat most of their meals at home.

On Thursday I'm going to Luzern where I'll travel by boat to Vitznau then switch to the funicular to the Rigi mountain.  It's the top of the world with a straight on view of the Alps and the Eiger and Jungfrau in the second row of mountains.  The retreat center is built by Vanya Palmers, a Soto Zen transmitted priest of Kobun Roshi lineage.  Some of Kobun Roshi's ashes are there on a lovely, quiet hillside meadow overlooking the lake.  There's a very special atmosphere around his stupa which is not easy to find unless you know or are shown the way.  The zendo was designed by 
Paul Discoe of Berkeley then piece by piece was helicoptered to the top of the mountain since there's no other way to get there.  The funicular could not haul such gear and lumber.  It's an exquisite zendo with a dormitory on the lower floor.  There's a dokusan room on the third floor.

I'll fill you in more as I go along and when I return to Zurich, I'll borrow my daughter's camera and give you more photos of the city.   I'll try to write again tomorrow as I don't believe there is wireless coverage at Felsentor.  You can check out the retreat center at www.felsentor.ch
By the way, I said to some of you that Kobun Roshi said:  "The mountains belong to those who love them."  But, actually it was a quote from Dogen Zenji in Shobogenzo, "On the Spiritual Discourses of the Mountains and Water."

April 11, 2009

Packed and Ready

It's early Saturday morning and I'm moving quietly through the house as I do the finishing touches for the trip.  A retreat is in progress with C.J. Jikyo Wolfer leading meditation and practice.  I'm jotting a few words here as I finish my morning coffee.

My son-in-law, a Swiss national, says that if you ironed out the mountains of Switzerland to make them flat, it would be the largest country in Europe.  The mountains are indeed, steep and intense, with huge land mass.  You can hardly believe the beauty of them.  The picture above is the view from the retreat center, Felsentor (www.Felsentor.ch), at Vitznau, above Lake Luzern.  I'll be there next weekend for a four day retreat entitled "Mountains are Walking."  We'll practice Zen meditation, of course, and also engage in creative activity to explore the mountain within and how we live the mountain in daily life.

But for these next few days, from Sunday to Thursday, I'll be in Zurich at a family home.  As things go, they have to be away so I'll be alone in a fantastic apartment three blocks from Lake Zurich.  From the balcony/patio I can see the Alps and the hilly settlements around Zurich that move up from the lake.  I'm looking forward to the peace of it.  Switzerland is a very quiet country.  My daughter and I have speculated about why it is so quiet and why the Swiss are such quietly spoken people.  I suggested that it is because they are mountain folk who understand the nature of sound in the valleys and the ways in which sound easily echoes.  You have to be very quiet to listen to what the mountains are saying and to hear what is happening around you.  My daughter thought that perhaps it was because of the war and that Switzerland was separated, an island away from the destruction, yet aware of what was happening around them.  They accepted all who were fleeing from enemies and they learned to keep silence. 

I'm off to the airport, a very noisy place, and I'll write from Zurich with a few photos of where I'm staying and as I prepare for the retreat at Felsentor.  In the next few days, soft Zen practice.  

April 03, 2009

Making Space in the Day - Shobo Practice

Someone told me the other day that she'd complained to her boss that she was just too busy at her job.  She simply had too much work to do and it brought too much stress.  Rather than tell her that she was unorganized, inefficient and needed to reassess her approach, which wasn't true of course, her boss replied that she needed to read more during the day.  She needed to sit back and read an article or two in the humanities.  Get herself informed about the world and what was going on.

Years back I recall being in a similar situation.  I felt I had just too much of a load for any one human being.  The answer I was told was that I had to take up jogging or fast walking.  In other words, I needed to add an activity to an already packed day.  Both answers have to do with making some inner space and backing away from the notion that the job is too close and requires too much or that there's too much to do.  Many people these days are given greater workloads because of layoffs so they're doing two or three jobs for the price of one.  In that event, the work will never be done so we might as well make some space and allow for leftovers for tomorrow.

In Zen practice, this time of renewal I now call Shobo Practice.  Taking time to restore and nurture the Storehouse of the True Treasure.  Practicing to stay balanced in all our many aspects.  Remembering to really live well and to care for the aesthetics of everyday life.

Doing some extra reading in the day is a good way to give ourselves some interior leisure.  It nurtures the mind and heart.  For those locked into a computer on the desk, try browsing the Arts and Letters Daily website, aldaily.com.  It's chock full of all kinds of well written articles, newspapers, connections to other websites.  And while you are reading at your desk, it's an activity that makes you appear to be working so it's socially acceptable.

My noonday reading today is BOB DYLAN The Drawn Blank Series edited by Ingrid Mossinger and Kerstin Drechsel.  This is the catalog from Bob Dylan's first ever museum exhibition of watercolors and gouaches done by Dylan in 2007.  The paintings are based on Dylan's musical tours in the US, Mexico, Europe and Asia and were exhibited at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Germany, near Dresden.

Two brief essays in the catalog speak to Dylan as the poet and Dylan as the multi-talented artist.  But, to browse through his paintings one has to applaud his vision and talent.  We see the development of his work from raw sketches in pencil or charcoal to large format in color.  He feels consistently unsettled as we gather from his music, and he feels boldly natural.  His subjects are landscapes and people up close, everyday objects drawn in thick lines.  This is a side of Dylan most of us don't know.

So, our subject today is about taking a brief holiday in the middle of the day to nurture the interior and keep the texture of life healthy.  I'm off now to continue my travel preparations and study for tomorrow morning's discussion on Dogen Zenji.  The sun happens to be shining today and the urge is to dash outside and with a little effort there will certainly be a moment to do just that.  And, don't forget to have a cup of tea.