June 27, 2011

Function of the hermitage and the hermit

Gogo-an, our solitary meditation hut
On Saturday morning, we fell into discussion about the function of a hermitage and the purpose of living as a solitary in a life of prayer.  I should explain that although we are called Olympia Zen Center, we are actually a hermitage, as our temple mountain name is Ryoko-an which means, Good Pond Hermitage.  A hermitage is literally a small dwelling place of a hermit. The "an" at the end is the designator of whether a place of practice is a temple or a hermitage.  Usually when a place is called "an" it refers to a quiet, holy place, a sacred space set aside for quietness, meditation, reflection.  When a place is called "ji" as in Entsuji, it means temple, which generally refers to a place that is more like a community or cultural center where a great variety of activities take place.  A temple is usually larger than a hermitage.

We refer to Olympia Zen Center as our temple although we may as well refer to it as a hermitage.  As our practice evolves, we more and more reflect the meaning of hermitage because of the deep and holy atmosphere that is being created through our practice.  Once in awhile we have social events, but the social is not our main interest and people don't come to satisfy their social needs but rather to answer their spiritual quest.  Our interest is to provide a sacred place for respite from the turmoils of life in the fast lane, in the market place, in the hustle of corporate life.  When we come together to talk, as we do on Saturday mornings, we may engage in rich laughter and lighthearted conversation, which inevitably occurs, but the continuous peace of practice has come to permeate the atmosphere and has become a guide which reminds us of the heart/mind of Zazen in all we do.  In essence, when we come for practice at Ryoko-an, even as lay people we enter a hermitage and become monks and hermits in community with others.

For many who come to Zen practice, there is an inner calling to live a deep and meaningful life which must be nurtured.  The hermitage is the nurturing connection that stands as a balancing force against the distractions and frivolous nature of materiality.  It represents the sacred in the awakening mind so that we can sustain the heart of practice wherever we go.  We essentially carry the image of the hermitage in the heart/mind.  If we don't have that sacred space, or those who maintain it, that is, those who vow to live in practice, we can feel ourselves adrift in a callous and disheartening world.  An imbalance is created and we have no touchstone for the mind of prayer.  It's like having a city without a park.

The Sangha functions to help support us in maintaining our own practice of solitude.  We can't be truly solitary without the backbone of Sangha which balances the solitary with the togetherness of community.  Oddly, we can be truly solitary when the community knows where we are and wraps us in the mind of protection.  Solitary practice is sacred and even in that we are never alone.  If we just go off by ourselves without the Sangha knowing where we are or what we are about, we miss the true point of Sangha.  That's the same as the Sangha having a gathering and not telling us. We are always a part of the whole, never separate from It.  We continually negotiate our way between silence and sound, solitary and togetherness, hermitage and marketplace, intensity and lightheartedness.

And, in the interests of Buddha Mind and continuing practice and the presence of our hermitage into the future for generations to come:  Ask not what your hermitage can do for you, ask what you can do for your hermitage.