THERE ARE RETREATS, AND THERE ARE RETREATS

I will be doing our annual summer sesshin, or Zen retreat, starting this evening through Sunday, teaching along with Roshi Fleet Maull, and I hope that gives me the opportunity to sit more than usual.

We will do the retreat at Fleet’s gorgeous Windhorse Hill Retreat Center in Deerfield, and though it is but 20 minutes away I will stay there, which means no dogs for 4-5 days (don’t worry, housemate Tim will take care of them during that time, they won’t starve). Frankly, I could use some days without dogs. Windhorse also serves as a training center for mindfulness teachers and as headquarters for Fleet’s fruitful prison mindfulness program in the United States and Canada.

It will be a privilege to sit in that beautiful space, surrounded by gardens and trees, the Connecticut River flowing down the hill from us. At the same time, I remember a whole other retreat, in very different circumstances, that I did in 1987, in southwest Yonkers. We had finished building a zendo on the third floor of the funky Greyston Bakery across from Stevens Paint, which hired illegal immigrants, and next door to an all-night bar, Little Bit’s Place. Bernie (long before he became my husband) was then Sensei. I recently came across notes I must have written in my Greyston journal right after that experience:

September 27, 1987

“Our first sesshin in the zendo. There are 38 of us, two bathrooms, no showers. We begin 15 minutes late. We sit, Helen (Bernie’s first wife) gives sesshin instructions, but Sensei comes up before she is finished, as though saying enough of talking.

At 9:00 we go to sleep, most of us on mats in the zendo, a few in the offices downstairs. My office is taken by Joanne, where she stretches out two mattresses with satin sheets, three flowery blankets, cosmetics and photos of her dogs on my desk, a frilly negligee on the pillow and a robe draped over my office chair.

Sleep comes, but not for long. Soon I hear the sounds of hard rock and heavy metal, cars stopping and zooming off, people shouting. The bar next door is in full swing and the beat of the loud music hammers against the walls separating the zendo floor, where people are trying to sleep, from the bar.

I get up at 4:15, go downstairs, put on the coffee machine, and sit on the stoop outside. It’s still completely dark, but impossible to sleep. Next door people are coming in and going out of Little Bit’s Place. A pretty woman on red stiletto heels comes out with a man who is totally soused. As she passes she says, “If you got cash then I am your baby. I am going to be your baby forever and a day.” They don’t give a second glance to my black robes.

The owner of the bar comes by. “How’s the bakery?” he asks. Fine, I tell him, and he goes on.

Everybody gets up, groggy. Nobody slept. There is a line for the bathrooms, but the densho [service bell] sounds for service and then sitting.

The hardwood floor is tough on my knees. When the call for daisan (face-to-face with the teacher) sounds I don’t go down; I have nothing to say. After lunch I try for a brief nap, when Little Bit’s is still shut, and just as the afternoon sitting is about to start, Kosho (the head baker) comes up the stairs and beckons me out of the zendo. A white chocolate wedding cake has fallen.

Making wedding cakes is an important bakery product and always falls on Kosho’s shoulders since he’s the head finisher, not to mention a senior of the community and a priest, but he hates to do white chocolate cakes in the summer because the white chocolate melts even in an air-conditioned finishing room and therefore impossible to decorate.

I go downstairs to the finishing room. Four tiers have collapsed, leaving jam, cake, mousse, and white chocolate all over the stainless steel counter. I call the caterer, Jensina, and apologize, tell her what happened. She insists she still wants a white chocolate cake for tomorrow’s wedding. The retreat atmosphere is gone, replaced by wild hilarity. Every time we look at the destroyed cake on the counter we burst out laughing. Kosho rolls his eyes, mumbling in his Japanese English about the hours of work that lie ahead for him as he creates another wedding cake.

I go back up to sit, stomach all butterflies, so when the call for meeting with Sensei comes up again I go downstairs. When it’s my turn I find him at his desk with a chair pulled over, a small statue of the Buddha and photos of his teachers behind him. I tell him what happened. His eyes roll. I tell him it’s impossible to go on this way, no sleep, falling wedding cakes. How is one supposed to meditate?

He says that that was the way he got his training. His first sesshin was held in a neighborhood with constant gunfights, small and cramped quarters. In the middle of a hectic, uncomfortable life is the zendo. That’s life. Wedding cakes rising, wedding cakes falling.

Our day-to-day life in this community is like a sesshin, I say. We go from one thing to the next to the next, as though we are always on a schedule. During sesshin the schedule does not change, but it changes day to day. He says that life is what changes the schedule. Life sets the schedule. And we must learn to go with it from one thing to the next.

He gives me my first koan: ‘The world is vast and wide. Why do we put on our seven-panel robe at the sound of the bell?’”

The blog will be on retreat till next Monday.