Thank you Karen for inviting me to write about my experience at the weekend retreat in Crosby with Dancing Mountains Sangha. I might have had some expectations or notions about what the weekend would be like but I can’t remember them now. While I’ve been reflecting on my recollections of the retreat, parts of it start to fall in to place.
During the first evening zazen, a cat inquisitively padded up to the door, which had been opened slightly to let some fresh air in, and considered entering the zendo. It probably wasn’t quite sure what to make of the human statues facing the walls and the scent of incense and decided against it. Although at that point I felt ok with sitting there, I would later have some empathy with the cat and wonder if I was doing the right thing being in there as well! As the light faded, Rev. Catherine Gammon introduced the subject of the weekend’s Dharma talk, about "Grandmother mind", with a koan that, to my simple mind, bore no relationship to it whatsoever. It wouldn’t be until the Dharma talk on the Saturday that I would understand that the koan was in fact showing exactly what “Grandmother mind” is, which I think I understand as kind wisdom or wise kindness; the amalgamation of knowing the ultimate reality with instinctively knowing the appropriate, compassionate response to suffering. But then, I could easily be wrong!
Silence was difficult to begin with; this was all relatively new to me only having attended a fairly relaxed day of practice and the evening sangha meetings. I wanted to talk to someone, I suppose, in order to find some reassurance with my own cat-like thoughts. Thinking about it now, it was like having learned to speak french at school and then going to live in a part of France where nobody speaks english. So how fortunate it was that my need to talk to someone should be met by a one to one meeting with Rev. Catherine Gammon, complete with Grandmother mind. I found talking to Catherine very reassuring even though I didn’t actually bring up any of my immediate thoughts of the weekend thus far. Before I left, Catherine asked if there was anything more and it was here that I brought my own koan of sorts in to the mix of things that I should contemplate on the retreat. I call it a koan because it is something that I have been thinking about for some time and more so recently without coming to any real understanding of it. It was something that actually happened some twenty years ago when I worked as a builder. Briefly, the job involved painting a dormer window on the roof of a large old bungalow in West Sussex. The lady owner of the house offered me her roof ladder, which she said had been made for the very purpose of reaching the window in question. My immediate thought was that I didn’t particularly like the look of the ladder, but the following thought was that it would be ok and that as I had been offered it I should go ahead and use it. With everything in place and by now having used the ladder several times to prepare and undercoat the window, it was time to apply the emerald green gloss. The brush was dipped in to the paint and as I reached up to within an inch of making the first brushstroke the ladder started to slide down the roof with me and the pot of green paint on it. In what seemed like a minute but what must have been no more than one or two seconds, I had time to realise that I couldn’t get off the ladder before it went off the roof and even if I could I would still fall off it anyway because of the momentum and then that when I did hit the ground, which happened to be stone paving slabs, I was going to get hurt, bones would probably be broken, I might actually die if I broke my neck. At this point, an absolute calm came over me, I closed my eyes and thought, “Relax - whatever happens it will be ok”…..And then I was hit by the “bus,” which is what hitting the ground felt like. I tentatively opened my eyes and realised that I was still alive. I was face down, in a skydiver’s star shaped position but facing away from the building that I had just fallen from. The ladder was now about 20 yards away on the lawn. As I gently moved my fingers and toes and slowly got to my feet I realised that nothing was broken, there wasn’t a scratch or a bruise, miraculously, I had suffered nothing more than being momentarily winded and I was now standing covered in green paint being attended to by my aunt and uncle who were also working at the house and the lady owner, who was feeling terribly sorry for having offered the ladder. I was just thankful to be alive but confused by how I had landed in the opposite direction and how the ladder had ended up so far away. This particular point was what had stuck with me, like a koan that I couldn’t relate to.Catherine’s invaluable wisdom immediately saw that I was stuck with the need for an explanation for my own and the ladders position after the fall, as if I thought there had been some “divine intervention” or something and that there was probably a perfectly reasonable explanation of the physics of how this had happened and therefore was not something to be too concerned about. Then there was the thought that the ladder didn’t look safe and the thought that it would be ok and that both of these are necessary thoughts to have neither one or the other are right or wrong. The main focus of this story therefore, was, at the point of realisation of imminent death, to relax, let go, don’t be afraid. In order to cultivate this, more zazen!
And so, I happily returned to my zafu and more zazen. There were further thoughts raised by Catherine’s Dharma talk on koans that involved teachers hitting students and vice versa and I was reminded of stories of how Suzuki Roshi taught with a playful humour, such as forcing Reb to practice counting to ten in Japanese over and over during a flight to Japan by saying, “Again!” even when Reb thought that it was safe to stop because Suzuki Roshi appeared to be asleep. Or when, during a long drive with a young monk, having stopped for something to eat at a burger bar Suzuki Roshi ordered a cheese burger, whilst the monk diligently ordered just a bun with cheese as a vegetarian alternative. Suzuki Roshi took one bite of his cheese burger and said, “Mine isn’t very nice, shall we swap?” - I think this is like the teacher hitting the student in a playful way, Japanese slapstick humour, taking students out of their comfort zone.
As Saturday moved on and the light in the zendo lowered to dusk, although my knees were now aching, I felt comfortable with where I was and grateful for what I was experiencing. A great deal of work and effort had enabled this to be happening and I could appreciate that a beautiful ancient tradition was being authentically practiced. The constant effort to attain perfection on the forms also brought humour as when the pronunciation of “neither” was a cause for concern in the chanting of the Heart Sutra.
Sunday morning zazen, and a feeling that this retreat would soon be ending, just as I was starting to get comfortable! The pain in my knees was fading and the white radiator and stretch of carpet in front of me were like old friends. Everything was starting to make more sense and I was almost sorry when the silence came to an end. As we packed away I felt a renewed enthusiasm to practice and looked forward to the next sangha meeting and to carrying on zazen at home in the morning and in the evening.
As for my koan, it might be very simplistic, but I feel that my experience of the retreat has helped to bring about some understanding of it: I was like the cat at the open door on Friday night that didn’t like the look of it when I started the retreat, just as I hadn’t liked the look of the roof ladder, but I got on with it as I had told myself it would be ok, just as I had got on the ladder. The ladder was the vehicle and the vehicle is the Dharma and I need not be afraid of where it leads to. Sliding down the roof is life, after all death is inevitable, it is only the fear of death that is the problem and it’s also continuing to practice. To relax is to let go, to be in the moment without fear, to realise that death itself is going to be ok and it’s zazen, it’s no attainment, it’s no notions. Hitting the ground and surviving, this should be awakening, this should be the joy to be alive and it’s worth remembering the gratitude felt in that moment. The ladder 20 yards away on the lawn is when the vehicle is no longer required - that the vehicle will take you to the point of awakening but it isn’t awakening itself, a reminder that it’s the finger pointing at the moon not the moon itself. And the green paint everywhere was the playful humour, the Japanese slapstick or maybe just the “luck of the Irish”?
Much love and thanks to everyone that made this such a brilliant first retreat.
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