Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Hermitage of Winter

It was an intimate Fall sesshin at Open Gate this year, a two day respite from the thundering roll of modern life. Rain fell steadily throughout the day on Saturday with Sunday becoming dryer but noticeably cooler. The sound of the rain on the roof and tumbling from the eaves was reminiscent of chanted sutras echoing from distant halls.

The openness of the paper windows and intimate proximity among the fir and cedar trees gives one the feeling of being snuggled in the bosom of Mother Nature; far beyond the artificial cares of the work-a-day world. Every sound of the forest and pattering raindrop drifts through the hall as if it were happening inside. Inside and outside lose their boundaries as sounds mingle with thoughts, both fading away as echoes in the mind.

Autumn marks the beginning of a period of deeper practice for the Wayfarer. Life slows as falling leaves mark the coming of shorter days, winter weather and evenings by the fire. The intimacy that comes with staying indoors and longer hours of darkness that come with the season is ideal for those of us in the contemplative traditions. Traditionally, in southern Buddhism the rainy season was called Vassa and was the only time that monks really stayed in the monasteries. In Zen and the Northern latitudes, this became the period of the 90 day Winter Retreat (known in Korean Zen as Dong Ahn Geo) and is typically the longest period of continuous deep practice.

The word contemplate from which the term contemplative is derived, is from the Latin and literally means “to dwell within the temple” which is important to the student of Zen. While the word contemplate itself often means to; reflect, ponder or study, which is really not what Zen meditation is about, the literal meaning  “to dwell within the temple” is. While I will be the first to admit that my Zen practice also includes plenty of; pondering, reflection and study; my time “dwelling in the temple” is completely set aside from any of these ancillary activities. To my understanding; to “dwell within the temple” is precisely the practice of zazen and although- pondering, reflection and study, do find their way into this contemplative Zen lifestyle; just “dwelling within the temple” without any of these other objectives is the fundamental point.

This temple of dwelling is not the church or meditation hall, or any physical structure that we may find ourselves sitting in, nor is it any specific place we can conceive of and call a temple, but rather the normal dwelling place of the mind. While we may think our practice of “going into retreat” as a physical activity, it is fundamentally a practice of the mind and requires no physical address beyond our own physicality. Contrary to all architectural attempts to capture the humbling grandeur of this primal dwelling space, no Christian Cathedral, Buddhist Temple or Ancient Ziggurat has ever succeeded in capturing the limitless splendor that is the temple of the unbound mind. To dwell in this infinite temple of the mind does not require us to go anywhere, in fact, in the typical enigmatic language of Zen, it only requires that we go nowhere and do nothing.

While it is traditional for monks and nuns to gather and dwell in community with fellow monks and nuns for such a period, it is not a requirement, nor is it even necessary. While such gatherings may be beneficial in regenerating interest and rejuvenating ones practice, the original intent is precisely that; to regenerate interest and rejuvenating ones practice. This tradition is carried on the practice of the Zen Sesshin and should be understood as beneficial in exactly the same way. Thus sesshins are fundamentally refresher courses in finding ones original mind space. Through a period of intensive practice the Wayfarer essentially hits the “reset button” of practice and finds the trailhead fresh and new.

However, for many of us working class wayfarers, ninety day retreats or even seven day retreats can be a stumbling block to our practice, especially if we feel that such commitments are mandatory. In many cases our life situation does not allow us the luxury of stopping the world and going into prolonged retreat. We are often admonished by our Sangha peers for lack of commitment or poor style of practice because “they” have found the time in their busy schedule to commit to sesshin, so why shouldn’t you? This again is a misunderstanding of what it means “to dwell within the temple” They have mistaken the real estate for the experience and in doing so have simply exposed their ignorance.

Since each of us has unlimited access to our original abode; the temple of the mind, there is no need to go anywhere to find retreat. While going on retreats may be helpful for those who are looking for motivation, the Wayfarers journey begins at his or her feet and goes nowhere in no particular direction. We sit at the center of the universe and our theater is a vast as the cosmos. To move with intention to abode of the mind is to travel a thousand miles without a single step. While it is a pleasant luxury to be allowed an extended time for deep unbroken practice, it is still a luxury only for those who can afford the time. However, the true essence of Zen lays in ones ability to find retreat at whenever opportunity arises for what ever period of time life allows.

This is what makes the coming of winter the most opportune time for deepening our practice, opportunities abound. Long winter nights, gray rainy days and hours huddling next to the fire or furnace lend themselves well to “dwelling in the temple”. If we pay attention to the natural rhythms of life, we discover that winter is slower and quieter more often and for longer periods of time. So why not take advantage of such occasions? Even weather driven power outages and winter travel interruptions can become impromptu practice periods for those who seek refuge.

So the concept of Winter Retreat is not just for monastics, nor is it reserved for the wealthy or those blessed with an open calendar, but rather a natural time of renewal brought on by the natural cycle of the seasons. The Wayfarer only needs to recognize the opportunities and make the frequently available occasions of the season a time to deepen practice; a time to renew interest in the benefits of momentary seclusion in the natural rhythms of life. If one were to add up the hours available for such practice through the course of the winter season she/he might be surprised to learn that there was plenty of time for a Winter Retreat taken one day or even one hour at a time.

One does not need to bring one’s ordinary life to a stop in order to benefit from deepened winter practice, one just needs to recognize that every hour that makes itself available is an opportunity to deepen practice. The One Mat Zendo is the perfect hermitage for those who recognize every opening in their calendar as another gateway to the original mind. The rain is falling and long nights prevail, we find ourselves alone. There is no need to go anywhere and nothing more important to do, who can pass such an opportunity?

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost,
Each of us should strive to awaken,
Awaken, take heed do not squander your life!