We sat at Windhorse Hill this morning, Green River’s first sitting meditation of 2020.
Windhorse Hill is a meditation and retreat center that serves as the headquarters for the Prison Mindfulness Project and trainings in engaged Buddhism, a comprehensive, far-reaching program replicated in several countries and begun many years ago by Fleet Maull and Kate Crisp. The two moved their operations from Rhode Island to Deerfield, Massachusetts several years ago, buying a property that provided housing, office space, and a meditation hall that Kate transformed into a resplendent space. The gardens outside are exquisite. Our Zen group did a few retreats there, loved it, and was invited to practice there regularly. That began today.
Over the past five years we sat in the parish house of the Leverett Congregational Church, led by their minister, Lee Barstow. Lee was effusive in his welcome. Some of his parishioners were skeptical at first, but over the time that we were there they grew to love hosting us and deeply regretted our leaving. Tomorrow I will bring flowers for their service to express our deep appreciation.
When I first began to practice Zen at the Zen Community of New York in Riverdale, you never knew who was going to talk in the meditation hall. It could be Bernie or another Zen teacher; it could also be a rabbi, a Sufi sheik, a minister, a priest. A Hasid wouldn’t speak in the meditation hall; instead at night he stood in the packing room of the Greyston Bakery and talked about Kabbalah and the Shekhina not just to Zen students but also to the employees in their bakery whites.
The local Quaker group asked if they could use our meditation hall for their Quaker meetings. Bernie’s response was to remove the Buddha statue from the large room in order to make it more ecumenical and welcoming to them. Fr. Robert Kennedy gave mass every Sunday.
My very first Zen retreat ended prematurely Sunday morning when we were told to go to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan for Sunday service, led by Bernie’s dear friend and mentor, the Very Rev. James Morton..
“I don’t want to go to the Cathedral,” I pouted. “I came here to do Zen.”
But kicking and screaming (my initial reactions to most of the important teachings I received in my life), off I went to the Cathedral, off I went to Catholic mass, off I went to Sufi Zikr. At my first Sufi Zikr, when they started chanting Allah! Allah! Allah! again and again, I went outside; Israeli Jewish that I was, I couldn’t do it. But I did it again, and after a few times you think back to your first reaction and wonder: So what was the big deal?
Hardest of all, of course, was doing Shabbat services from my own Jewish tradition. Way too much baggage there.
It took me a number of years to realize that the bridges we were building were part of our Zen practice, part of realizing the wholeness of everything. Sure you could stay in your own religious neighborhood and build whatever it is you wish to build, all power to you. Bernie insisted on a practice of building bridges.
So tomorrow I’ll go off to the service at the Leverett Congregational Church, hear Lee preach, bring flowers for their altar.
And Tuesday we will return to Windhorse Hill and its magnificent sitting space, a seat for meditation and action. And gorgeous, even sublime as it is, it’s located in Deerfield, Massachusetts, once known was Pocumtuck by the local Indians. It has a special bloody place in American history, specifically in relations between the white settlers and the local natives, dating back to late 17th century, with raids and massacres on both sides, kidnapping of women and children and the spilling of lots and lots of blood. Whether white or Native, warriors would follow the paths up and down the Connecticut River, surprising and killing hundreds, then return down those same paths only to be ambushed and killed off.
That’s where we’re sitting now. I know, it looks gorgeous, but we haven’t carved out our very own pretty cave in which to take shelter from the world. This morning everything was right there: Massasoit, Metacomet, William Turner, Thomas Lathrop. Nothing is gone, nothing is over. The bright wooden floor held tatami mats and the black cotton mats and cushions so beloved to Zen practitioners, reflecting sunlight from the two big picture windows. The river wound its way below us, the forest above.
It’s all still there.