Last August we did our annual summer sesshin, or Zen retreat.
Like many Buddhist sanghas, we wondered whether we could finally do this in-person. Covid had been low in numbers here but the Delta variant was ticking up in other parts of the country. With stubborn hope, I created a schedule for an in-person retreat. Within 36 hours the local numbers zoomed up and towns passed mask mandates, or at least, mask recommendations. I changed the schedule to accommodate a hybrid retreat, incorporating both in-person and Zoom attendees, and then changed it again when it became clear that we couldn’t do in-person at all, just Zoom.
Sometime in the middle of all that, I heard a voice in my head: “This is your last sesshin.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I told the voice.
“Okay, maybe not the last sesshin,” the voice said, beginning to sound a little like Aussie. “But how many more of these do you plan on doing? How many more schedules, face-to-face meetings, classes, talks?”
We did the retreat, I let a few weeks pass by, and I knew. It was time to let go and let others take over.
I’m not backing out of Green River Zen completely, I’m simply letting the seniors of the group take over the leadership. I’m asking them to make decisions and take responsibility, and I will respond to their teaching requests if and as they come in.
I leave more than leadership in their hands. The pandemic brought Zoom, and while some teachers love it, appreciate the opening for others to come from a distance, love the possibilities of long-distance sanghas, I don’t. I don’t reject those things, just feel they’re not for me.
I was very lucky, able to study, work, and practice with my Zen teacher on almost a daily basis–and this was before I married him. Due to our work in Greyston and the Zen Peacemakers, I saw Bernie Glassman almost every day. We always talked about work, but it was never just work, ever. A million things happened all the time, moving us, rushing us, worrying us, pushing our buttons, but he always reflected a light that never failed me.
I had my disappointments; if you practice long enough, disappointments arise. Nobody’s a saint, and that, in itself is an important teaching. But to this very day, I’m aware that I spent lots of time with a remarkable teacher, something I didn’t deserve and often didn’t appreciate.
Talking to people from the neck up feels different to me. We share good talks, have fun, even hang out a bit. In the middle of isolation, Zoom is crucial. But real intimacy isn’t brain-to-brain, it’s something else entirely. There’s a koan that says: Save a ghost. Sometimes, on Zoom, I feel like one ghost talking to another ghost.
Zoom is a new skillful means that I don’t know how to use, have had no training in, and feel uncomfortable depending on. Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that it’s not for me.
Last Saturday we did our first in-person retreat day. The big, beautiful space of Windhorse Hill Retreat Center didn’t feel empty at all with a small group sitting there, but rather full of Buddhas from the beginning of time, sitting when we sat, eating when we ate, walking when we walked. Outside it rained buckets. It was wonderful.
What will you do starting January, people ask.
There’s plenty of work. I hope to continue to do some local teaching and I wish to do more with the Zen Peacemakers. I will continue this blog, continue to tell the stories and get help for immigrant families. Earlier today I finally brought in the house plants from the back yard, where they spend summer and early fall, which reminded me that farms will soon shut down, their income vastly reduced, and the calls will come in about utility bills and rent unpaid. I’m not laying that down.
“And what else?” asks the voice.
And what else? There’s the rub. I want more space and time, but for what? I’m letting go of the old and familiar, the things I know and love to do, to make room—for what? That’s the hard one, letting go of the old and opening to the unknown and unexpected.
You learn at every age, not just when you’re a child or in school. There is no loss that doesn’t cause reflection and some insight, no autumn that doesn’t provoke an act of creativity. When I think a gate clicks shut, I find it’s an illusion because something far, far bigger opens up.
I took the dogs to a nearby pond for our morning walk, only to find that the usual crossing, consisting of rocks sticking out of the water, was flooded due to the recent rains, white water rushing over the rocks. Henry hesitated, looked up at me.
“We can do this,” I told him. “I have my water boots on.”
Aussie crossed first, then Henry crossed, and finally I crossed.
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