During this past week's Rohatsu Sesshin (Buddha's enlightenment meditation period), I spent many of my "thinking" moments planning how I would write about everything I was experiencing. Now that I am home, and back in the everyday routine, I find the opposite is true - I am resisting sitting down to the keyboard, wanting to hold onto visuals and sensory perceptions without reducing them to words on the page.
The five days held an entire lifetime of emotion, sensation, pain, suffering, energy and joy, all flowing from one to the other. The routine was simple: we sat, we did kinhin (walking meditation), we ate, we chanted services, listened to dharma talks, and slept. Most of the day was spent in either zazen or kinhin. Zazen typically lasted 30 minutes, and the three long days had 14 separate sessions of zazen. That's a lot of time to be alone with yourself.
The first thing I noticed was heightened sensory awareness. The room we used as our zendo had flat industrial carpet, but over the center of the room, there were two large area rugs. As we did kinhin, I felt the plush, deep pile of the rug near my zabuton, followed by the thinner, more threadbare texture of the second rug, then the firm carpet. Each cycle around the room sent these sensations in through my feet and throughout my body.
The day was marked by the sounds of bells and clappers: the small bell to signal transition periods, the large deep toned bell used in service, the still bigger, bold bell calling us to sit first thing in the morning and after each meal, the clappers marking the beginnings and endings of meals and tea.
Added to these sounds were those of the elements. It was a wintery week, with mist, drizzle, and sometimes wild downpours and gusting winds. Sitting in the zendo and hearing the rain pummel the roof, and the wind buffet the windows, there was a connection to nature that felt profound and joyful. There was even one kinhin period outside where we got caught in a sudden torrent of water, drenching our clothes and faces. So the rain was not just a sound, but also a body sensation: cold, wet, clean.
And of course, there were all the gurgles and breaths and coughs of fellow practitioners in the zendo. Bodies spoke to each other; one person's stomach would rumble, and then the stomachs near by would call out a response. Even the sound of swallowing was perceptible, ricocheting around the room from one seated figure to the next.
The long sit periods held challenges for each of us, as we coaxed our uncooperative and gradually tiring bodies into yet one more session of zazen after each strike of the bell. What kept me going was the incredible example being set all around me, watching and feeling those in my sangha sit and sit and sit in stillness.
I found myself, of course, running after my thoughts during these quiet moments. I covered a lot of ground for someone sitting still on a zabuton. When I realized that I had once again gotten lost in my mind, I would silently chant a short passage from the Fukanzazengi: Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.
During dharma talks, Darlene Cohen told us, as the days wore on, that we would begin feeling a building energy from all of this zazen. She called this energy piti, which is a Pali word meaning rapture, bliss or delight, the pleasurable quality in the mind generated during meditation. She urged us not to squander this piti by succumbing to the desire to talk to our bunkmates, but instead to plow it back into our practice, putting the giddiness and joy right back at the center of our sitting.
I did experience piti - unbidden, a growing, irrepressible joy built up over the five days. I also felt a very deep and strong connection, to my sangha, to myself, to the ancestors and to Buddhist tradition. I experienced a profound awakening, or more accurately, a series of awakenings, each one building upon the last.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "All human miseries come from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." That is the challenge we set for ourselves - come face to face with all of our imperfections, the wayward behavior of our wandering minds, the rollercoaster ride of our emotions - and through it all, sit, just sit, and sit some more, in a quiet room alone.
My life was changed. Perhaps that was true for each of us. Perhaps that change will ripple throughout the world.