Issue 11: Autumn

Catherine Gammon's visit to Totnes Sangha
July to September 2010

Written by Michael Elsmere

0700, Wednesday 7th July, 2010. Heathrow terminal 1. The United Airlines flight from San Francisco has landed on time and Francis Checkley and I are waiting at arrivals as an interminable stream of world travellers emerges, still perhaps air borne, wide eyed into a hustling world of movement and harsh lights. Eventually she emerges; a small figure dressed in black. We bow and present our small bouquet of wild flowers. Her smile lights up the airless gloom of the place. Catherine is to be with Dancing Mountains Zen sangha for two and a half months! Those of us at the ‘Envisioning Weekend’ in Totnes in Nov 2009 had prioritised this as one of the aims for the sangha for 2010. Consequently Francis Checkley had corresponded with Reb over the intervening months and all this was now coming to fruition.

Catherine was ordained a Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi by Tenshin Reb Anderson in 2005. She had been in residential training at San Francisco Zen Centre since 2000, and served as Shuso, or head monk, for the Spring 2010 practice period at Green Dragon Temple/Green Gulch Farm. She had previously received precepts as a layperson in 1998 from Rev. Shohaku Okumura. Before entering residential training, Catherine wrote fiction and taught creative writing in the Master of Fine Arts programme of the University of Pittsburgh. Her novel Isabel Out of the Rain was published in 1991 by Mercury House and her shorter fiction had appeared in many literary journals.

She was to spend some time in each Dancing Mountains sangha beginning with a longer period in the south-west in Totnes where Francis and Bernadette had offered her accommodation.

Almost immediately we were participating in early morning sittings on Mondays and Thursdays with Catherine instructing us with expert detail on the forms for morning service. Josh and Francis had organised a series of talks, sittings and discussions at a local natural health centre. Those on Bodhicitta and Emptiness looked at teachings on bodhicitta both in terms of practices that cultivate and sustain it (including reasonings about suffering and ignorance, practices that cultivate compassion, and precepts, ritual and zazen), and in terms of the emptiness teachings of the Diamond Sutra and the importance of emptiness in our practice of the bodhisattva vow. Altogether there were eight evenings and these for the most part were well attended and we came into contact with many other Buddhists from Totnes that we had never met before as well as young people wishing to learn more about Buddhism. There was much very positive feedback on Catherine’s clear, humorous and succinct approach to teaching and discussion.

On four Tuesday afternoons we met in the zendo where we immersed ourselves in the sophisticated, mind bending, philosophy of Master Dogen’s Fascicle on Painted Rice Cakes. We all felt that we could have spent much longer on this difficult but absorbing text. We had a number of translations available which proved to us the difficulty of translating medieval Japanese and Chinese into our modern English idiom.

Catherine was also approached by The Barn at Sharpham and asked to give talks on Meditation and questions arising from practice. The Barn is a Buddhist meditation retreat centre set in a stunning hillside location overlooking the River Dart. It has been a friendly retreat centre for over 25 years where people are given the opportunity to reconnect with themselves and with nature in a tranquil, supportive environment. Through a mixture of mindfulness practice, teacher-led inquiry and working meditation in the organic garden, small groups of retreatants focus on and support the development of mindful practice in everyday life. Again retreatants were very appreciative of the insight and depth that Catherine brought to sessions with them.

Catherine as a writer in her ‘previous life’ had offered to lead a ‘Writing as a Wisdom Project,’ workshop during her stay. I knew this would be of interest to many of the writers I knew in the area but I admit I was a little concerned as to how they would react to the sitting in silence and stillness at the beginning of the morning and afternoon sessions. This is a pretty lively garrulous group! Again Catherine’s experience as writer and tutor was apparent and we spent a lively, fruitful day writing questioning and discussing books and literary matters. Again the feedback was very encouraging and appreciative and asked for more of the same!

A formal one-day retreat ended Catherine’s stay with us. To sit in silence and stillness in a beautiful rural setting, the leaves on the trees fading was perhaps a fitting conclusion to a visit that had brought to all of us in Totnes so many riches and eloquent teachings.

Leaving Catherine at Heathrow both Francis and I felt that her visit had emphasised what we both already knew; that a good teacher is an inexpressible blessing.


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