December 10, 2009

Wonderful Rohatsu Sesshin

(You cannot tell by the greenery in the photograph that it's 7 degrees Fahrenheit just after sunrise on December 7, 2009.)

There were many around the world who were practicing Rohatsu Sesshin together. Some sat by themselves and kept a modified daily schedule with us. We could feel you right beside us - New York, Germany, Australia, Japan. In presence there is no distance.

Here in Olympia, by the time the furiously cold weather arrived, we were in the tight warmth of our circle, trusting one another with the voice of practice. It was an excellent retreat with the key word, "willingness." From the very first moment, people stepped into the vessel of the tradition and we successfully navigated the waters moment by moment. There was no questioning the nature of the tradition, the origins of bowing, the ritual of Oryoki, the way of Dokusan. No, no. It was embracing all of it with willing joy and a sense of celebration.

At the same time, we each had our own "stuff" to deal with: facing the demands of the schedule, feeling tired at times, aching knees and backs, food that might not agree, being woken at night by the movement of others, and how these things impacted the emotional body and impinged on practice. Yes, we each had our life issues, our own body of work to deal with and yet, in this retreat, this too was taken up with willingness.

This tells us something about the questioning mind which is necessary to critical development in Zen practice. Critical development means the ability to see into the nature of practice, to see into our own entanglements, to bring wisdom to bear in our progress toward polishing our character, to learn to uncover the roots of Dharma in the texts. Critical development refers to things of this nature. Critical development is different from criticism. Criticism can be a destructive bent that questions the tradition in ways that can be negative. While questions of tradition and the way of practice may enter critical thinking, if criticism overtakes the questioning mind, the tradition and those practicing suffer because the underpinnings that hold us together are peeled away. Dogen Zenji reminds us again and again that practice itself is Awakening. So, if we begin to criticize the very practice itself in destructive ways, then we are tearing at the appearance of Buddha, the manifestation of Dharma, the expression of Sangha.

It's fair to say that Zen practice is not for everyone. If we find ourselves criticizing bowing, criticizing rituals, criticizing the tradition, then we have to consider whether we have fallen into criticism as a personal or cultural habit and we need to root it out, or whether deep down at that root level, Zen practice may not be for us. Perhaps the mind is too itchy when it isn't at home. And who are we to change a tradition of 2500 years when we've only been practicing one or two years? It's best not to destroy the beauty of the tradition for others and to step aside where we can observe and examine ourselves quietly in this regard.

This sesshin demonstrated the beauty of critical development in people's practice in the zendo and in their daily lives. Because we manifested this completely as a Sangha, we were able to feel ourselves move as a single body at times even when we were moving through different tasks. Noble silence was honored and the work of 'being solitude' itself within the Sangha was willingly practiced.

To unfold the sesshin for oneself and for one another with open willingness is a gift of generosity which is the first and most necessary virtue. I'm honored to have been among the fine people who gave up their lives for the period of this sesshin, and who together, step by step, showed the Way.