Updated: Jul 1, 2022
Zazen makes you look at the stuff you don't want to see, the things you've been hiding from yourself, sometimes in plain sight. This is not the goal of Zazen, there is no goal, but it happens anyway. In the beginning, there is just discomfort, the legs hurt, the back aches, the joints scream, you want to beg for mercy, but there is no one to beg and there is no mercy. All you can do is focus on the breath, or try to focus on the breath because by now the thermal vents on the ocean floor are open and spewing out dark columns of smoking, bubbling thoughts, fragments of ideas, blobs of emotion, shards of images, non-stop plumes of scrambled delusions that cloud your awareness and hide your own nostrils from you. The ocean's surface is boiling, washing over you. Where's your life buoy? Where's your breath? There, there it is, you're still breathing, follow it, in and out, in and out, slower, deeper, let it all happen, it's out of your control, it's always been out of your control, so relax, just follow your breath, in, out, in, out, in, out, ugh! you're falling asleep, wake up, your eyelids are closing, you want to let go and drift away. Don't! Follow the breath.
It went on like this for days, which could only be distinguished one from the other by the changing menu. But there were moments, some short, some longer, some quite extensive moments when all the torments subsided and there was just a silent stillness, and the ring of the bell came as a complete surprise. Sometimes a light show appeared on the inside of the eyelids, displaying gorgeous, dazzling mandalas. You cannot look away because there's nowhere else to look, but you don't have to stare, so stop gawping and just stay with the breath, in, out, in, out.
By now you think you know how long 25 minutes are, and sometimes a subtle anticipation of the bell's imminent ring arises, offering the promise of relief, but you push that away, too, and stay with the breath until, yes, the bell does ring and you can stretch the legs and embody the practice during 10 minutes of kinhin.
There was a walk everyday after lunch. I went twice, until my boots fell apart.
Foot-loose and Fancy Free
These boots have crossed the Nuba mountains
And the burnt plains of Iraq.
They have sidestepped bullets in Timor
And clambered across hell in Haiti.
Two dharma walks, one for each foot, and their soles departed.
When the structured, coherent memories started arising, each a cameo of a life episode that linked to another cameo and then another, I kept giving all my attention to the breath, but the streaming of my life continued, unabated. That night I lay in bed, bewildered. Why was this stuff, which I already knew, being brought again to my attention?
There's a young dog, a female Labrador named Ginko, at the Karuna Retreat Centre, who likes to play, sometimes too boisterously, and who needs training. She arose in my mind during a period of kinhin, followed immediately by the question, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" This famous question was asked by a monk to Joshu, whose reply, Mû, which is even more famous, constitutes "the gateless barrier of the Zen tradition" in the Rinzai school. It is considered the entry koan. Silently, without a ripple of a disturbance, in the deepest and gentlest intimacy, the student and the master, the question and the answer, the dog and myself fell into place like pieces of a puzzle uniting to reveal the totality of what has never not existed. I smiled, bowed and walked on.
And then in one sitting, who knows when, I began thanking everybody from my childhood onwards who had ever helped, supported and assisted me, and everybody who had hindered, thwarted and opposed me. I'm 72 years old, so it was a long, long list of names that scrolled up before my eyes like the credits at the end of a movie. There was no stopping it.
Finally, and I don't know if I was walking or sitting when these glowing words appeared, hanging in inner space: Your Life is a Box of Treasures. I gazed at them, I considered them, and I acknowledged them. Yes, that is true. But why are you telling me this?
On the next-to-last day, as we all shared our retreat experiences with one another, I was feeling uncomfortable with my embarrassment of riches. My zazen companions slowly shared their suffering and their tears as they revealed the pain of wounds that sitting had uncovered, as well as their smiles of joy that zazen had realized. What did I have to say? My Life is a Box of Treasures and this is what some of them look like? I felt awkward at offering such an account and I avoided speaking until the end, but that's all I could truthfully say. Then it suddenly became clear that all of this is exactly what I have been clinging to, which is why it arose, and that now I had understood this, I have to let it all go. In an instant I felt like Scrooge at Christmas: I had been hoarding these treasures like a miser, and now I have to give them away.
This is not an act of charity, but one of clarity, for it is the lack of clarity that needs removing.
I had believed, which is is to say my ego clung to the idea, that doing your work to the best of your ability was the most important contribution you could make, and that that was all you needed to be concerned with. Writing about what you had done was mostly an act of vanity, to be avoided. So, when colleagues and friends and relatives had urged me on a number of occasions to put pen to paper, I had always declined; and so the ego, dressed up in false modesty, was able to continue hoarding all the treasure.
Understanding comes and goes, but life is absolutely, unwaveringly constant and truthful, and it will tell you what you need to know.
Three days later, joyfully unburdened by my first sesshin, I could feel the ego already snaking through the grass. Are you sure about this writing thing? Even if you start, you'll never finish. And anyway, who cares?
That morning I had a medical appointment. There were four of us in the office, Dr. Rosa, myself and two medical students. Everybody wore masks and kept their distance. I had had to re-schedule the consultation because of the sesshin, so Dr. Rosa knew I'd been away on a silent retreat.
There was some medical discussion, then she asked me if I had been on such a retreat before. Yes, I said. I did a 10-day Vipassana silent retreat just before I went to Timor, and that's what got me through it.
From behind his mask, one of the students asked, you went to Timor? When was that?
In 1999, with the United Nations to organise the independence referendum, I answered.
Dr. Rosa looked at me, then at him, then at me again and said, he's from Timor.
Oh, were you there? I asked. No, he said, I left two years before. I had to get out, but I voted. Great, I said. You were part of the 98% turnout.
The conversation took off. He asked, I answered. Fragments of the story spilled over the brim of the dam. He wanted to know more, I needed to tell more, emotion filled the room, and then Dr. Rosa was wiping tears from her eyes.
The treasure was moving out of my control.
The student stared at me. You were on television, he said. I saw you on the TV. I recognise you, now.
I took off my mask. I didn't have a beard then, I said.
Yes, it's you, it's you! Can I have a photograph with you, please?
We stood together, mask free, while Dr. Rosa captured the moment. Then I said, one of the things that came up during my Zen retreat is that I have to write about all this.
Yes, agreed the student, emphatically. And I would really like to read your book when it's finished.
Certainly, I replied. It will be my gift.
Deepest thanks to Hamid, for organising the retreat and nourishing us with daily Dharma talks, and to Helen, for the yin yoga she taught us every day, which helped ease the physical challenges of sitting. Gratitude also to the residents of the Karuna Retreat Centre for their kindness, hospitality and generosity. Warmest thanks, too, to all my sesshin partners for their efforts and support during these seven days in April.