‘A monastery is a greenhouse for growing non-ego… We don’t let the monks sleep much, and we limit them to simple food. They always want to sleep more, but this is just another illusion. And because they’re always eating simple food, they’re always craving rich food. And this too, is just another illusion. But such illusions are simple. There are other kinds of illusion that are more complicated. So we focus on these two very simple illusions to ward off more complicated illusions. This is part of the wisdom of our long Zen tradition.’ (Zen Bridge)
I read these words during my recent time at Tassajara, where this book was a new arrival in the library, and they resonated deeply. Tassajara in the summer is not as strict as Tassajara in the winter, but I remembered how in my first winter I had been tired and hungry all the time – and cold as well, to add another simple illusion. Undoubtedly training monasteries in Japan push their young charges harder than their equivalents in the US, but the principles are the same. And while it may seem hard-hearted, and it is tough to live through at times, the wisdom of the tradition holds true. I often reflect back on how not getting to live the way I wanted while was at the monastery was in fact incredibly liberating; I realised in my first winter that I had to practise with being tired, hungry and cold all the time. No-one was forcing me to be there, so it was up to me to resist or to meet the circumstances. And getting to meet circumstances in these simple and contained ways helps us to meet all kinds of circumstances in the rest of our lives.