It is always hard if someone asks you, at the end of the retreat, how it went. When you have just spent a week pretty much entirely focused inwardly, there is so much that goes on that there is usually not one simple answer. Sometimes there are amazing highs and lows, and we learn that we can sit with both, that life is nothing but highs and lows that come and go whether we want them to or not.
In the week of the Genzo-e I felt that I spent a lot of time just feeling really tired, and that very little of my zazen was spent in the present moment. There were, from time to time, flashes of concentration, and the first couple of days as I settled in brought wonderful and heart-opening clarity to situations I have been dealing with recently. Those kinds of moments are priceless and resonate onwards in valuable ways.
The great joy of the Genzo-e is getting to study Dogen. It is fifteen years since Shohaku’s first one at City Center, which I attended as a fairly new practitioner, just before I went off to Tassajara for the first time, and five years since I last did one, out at Green Gulch. He said that a book of the 2002 talks will be coming out soon, and it will be interesting to read this with my current ‘eye of practice’ – I probably still have my notes somewhere, and they would also be interesting to read. To be honest, I am excited to read back the notes I just took from the dozen classes we just had. The ideas are so dense (and there were moments when I was just so sleepy) that I was writing things down not knowing if they would make any sense later.
I do know that half-way through the Genzo-e at Green Gulch, I moved from a state of depletion to one of real aliveness and clarity, and absorbed how Shohaku was speaking about the interplay of relative and absolute (what we might call ‘that old zen chestnut’) that I still use when I teach now – although probably an old school zen teacher would say ‘don’t speak of it for thirty years.’ I felt that I came away from this one with a more three-dimensional understanding of this, and I hope that I can absorb it and use it in the future.
I can’t remember which day, but somewhere in the middle, during the morning class, I was sitting on the courtyard side of the dining room, and looking across the room and through the windows that look out onto Lily Alley, which were mostly filled with densely-leaved trees, when I suddenly felt completely awake and concentrated just watching the leaves move in the wind; ironic really, given the subject of the Dogen fascicle being discussed – the cypress tree in the yard.
Naturally this awakeness vanished before too long, but there were flashes of it at other times, not least in the times I spent on the roof after each meal. When I lived at Zen Center I would love being up on the roof and watching the city and the unfolding sky in each direction (and I took thousands of pictures of the various weathers); mostly last week was intensely foggy and not that warm, but it was just about the only fresh air I got all day. And, in something I first noticed in the many sesshins I sat at Tassajara, often the zendo is just the incubator; the interesting stuff happens when you go outside afterwards and meet the world with fresh eyes.
One way I did get to meet the world was walking to and from Zen Center – not every day, as Jamie kindly drove me as often as not, or picked me up en route sometime shortly before five in the morning. I have not often walked around the city in my robes. The funniest moment was leaving one evening, when a young couple who might have been living out on the streets were arguing just ahead of me. The man muttered something, and the woman replied ‘well right now I would like to shove this guitar up your – oh! there’s a monk walking by, we had better watch out!’
The five o’clock world of San Francisco was sweet to walk through: so little traffic, though there were delivery trucks unloading, and the first streetcars rolling up Market for the early birds, as well as cleaners working in the bars and restaurants, people heading to early gym sessions, baristas prepping for opening, homeless people sleeping in doorways or wandering around in their version of reality. No-one seemed to notice the robes then.
Even spending a week in robes is unusual for me now. I loved re-immersing myself in forms and ceremonies, even though, typically for Zen Center, there were many people visiting for the retreat who were not familiar with many of the forms, so things were not always smoothly flowing in the way that makes me happy. I got the opportunity to be doshi for a couple of the zendo services, which were also moments of great concentration and energy. I remembered how much I love chanting, and oryoki, which I have not done in a couple of years, but every movement of which is still in my body.
Best of all was the little kaisando service in the morning before breakfast, when the priests would gather and just silently prostrate to Suzuki Roshi in gratitude for his bringing the practice to us. There were too many of us at the retreat for us all to fit in, so sometimes I was out on the landing, but the feeling is the same – a moment of gratitude and devotion expressed through the body.
And do I have a better answer? The thought occurred somewhere towards the end, ‘moment after moment, arising is arising.’ But then that seemed a little sequential, so it became, ‘moment and moment, arising and arising.’ And then to lessen the separation, ‘moment, moment – arising, arising.’ I suspect Dogen would go on to say, ‘moment-arising, arising-moment.’
In any case, since any understanding is incomplete and temporary, perhaps I should just repeat what I said as my contribution to the closing ceremony, using one of Dogen’s favourite exhortations, when we were asked to articulate a short phrase about our retreat experience: investigate further!