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Zen Retreat, Part II

I have an additional practice during each retreat… cooking meditation! I have the honor, along with Paul, of preparing the meals for those attending. In the Japanese tradition, the title is “tenzo”, or heavenly monk. I don’t know about all that… but we certainly do our best. The meals are vegetarian and quite simple. For example, lunch and dinner are generally rice, salad, and some kind of bean-based soup. Each meal always ends with tea. There is a lot of form to meals – each person has a 4-bowl place setting with spoon and chopsticks. Each bowl has its own specific contents and function. The food is laid out on a mat in the middle of the room in a very deliberate way. When we hear the signal to begin the meal, people stand up to volunteer to serve the others sitting on their cushions. It is a beautiful dance of movement, service, and nourishment. The bulk of the food goes around twice. The first time you only take a little bit recognizing that there not only needs to be enough food for those sitting with you but that all beings need nourishment. The second time around you take what you like… BUT you have to finish what you take. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few miscalculations pertaining to the size of my bowls and the size of my stomach! I really enjoy cooking just for myself… but cooking up the fuel for all those in attendance, is nothing short of an honor. One part of this that also needs to be remembered is that this is not a leisurely meal that one takes their time with. If I’m recalling correctly, food is brought up to the meditation hall, served accordingly, and eaten, all within 30 minutes. Luckily, one doesn’t need a ton of food to meditate!

Generally after at least one of the meals there is a work-period. This is another half-hour, where everyone has a specific job to do (also in silence). Zen-centers are never short on tasks that need attending to. Kitchen clean-up, sweeping the floors, vacuuming the steps, cleaning the bathrooms, raking leaves, pulling weeds, just to name a few. I appreciate how everyone participates in this, from the first-timer to our most senior teachers.

After work-period, there is a rest-period. This is a great opportunity for people to get some tea, do some stretching, or catch a quick cat-nap. Me, I’m generally preparing the next meal in the kitchen. The signal to come back to the meditation-hall rings throughout the zen-center, and everyone finds their cushion again. We’ll have 4 30-min sitting periods back to back with 10-minutes of walking meditation in between each. While this is going on, koan interviews are being conducted in the interview room on the first floor. Like our seated meditation practice, talking at-length about koan interviews would not be so helpful. It’s truly something one just has to experience. One of the things that makes zen so unique is the one-on-one transmission from teacher to student. This time is two-fold: an opportunity to ask a question about how your life and your practice are intersecting, as well as for the teacher to help you recognize where your mind is getting stuck. You can probably see the importance for only “authorized” teachers to be working with students in this way!

A koan (or kong-an in the korean tradition), is a question usually (but not always) based on a story or dialogue between a zen-master and a student(s). I shutter to give this example, but its probably the closest thing that people MAY have heard before as a reference, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”. The answer to any koan can only be answered “correctly” from a mind that is clear. The answer is demonstrated before the mind is filled to the brim with intellectual, conceptual, or witty answers (those are always off the mark!). There are thousands of koans, each asking the student in a unique way to cut through their thinking-mind, and truly see their situation/relationship clearly, and then respond clearly. Any given koan can be “homework” in someone’s practice for a month or decades… it all just depends on the mind! For me, this part of the practice is challenging, humbling, and very much enriching. I am so grateful to have three skilled teachers (and Zen Master Ji Bong), that are able to support our practice in this way.

The flow of the day is fairly similar then after lunch, and after dinner (if applicable). Finally, at the end of a one-day retreat, we repeat two of our core chants, and close the altar. After so much silence, the chanting that fills the meditation hall is harmonious and powerful. I always look forward to this part. We then finish up with a circle-talk. All the cushions are organized into a circle, cookies are brought up from the kitchen, and we go around the circle each sharing a brief thank you and/or experience as to how the retreat went for them physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.

There you have it… Blue Heron Zen Community generally has a retreat every month, anywhere from 1-3 days. During the summer, we also do a 9-day retreat. If interested, check out their website for more information!

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