It’s Wednesday morning. Soon I will get into my car and go to the Windhorse Hill Retreat Center and start our annual winter Enlightenment Retreat, accompanied by my dear friend, Genro Gauntt, who will co-lead it with me.
In Zen we celebrate the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment on December 8, so practitioners all around the world participate in retreats at this time. I hear stories about small Japanese temples with lines of people sitting out in the snow. I remember starting these retreats at 4:00 in the morning and going on till 9:30 at night, often sitting even later; on December 8 some people sit all night, till dawn, the rise of the morning star that brought such transformation to Gautama. Our retreat will be more abridged, but still demanding.
By sit, I mean sitting meditation. Sitting on a cushion or a chair (lying down due to physical constraints is fine, too) and taking the backward step inwards. Who is this person? What is this life? Everything follows the schedule—sitting, eating, walking, chanting, listening to talks, doing face-to-face with teachers. We don’t worry, we don’t plan, we don’t consult our preferences, we just follow the schedule. Life gets real simple.
On the one hand, I’m aware that we’re just one small group amidst many others doing this at this time of year. On the other, I am aware that Windhorse Retreat Center sits right over the Connecticut River, smack in the middle of old, historic, torturous relations with the Native Americans who lived here—Nipmuc, Narragansett, Wampanoag, Pocumtuc—ranging from skirmishes to raids and kidnappings to full-fledged massacres.
We sit right on the route taken by William Turner’s soldiers who massacred some 250 Indians in what is now called Turners Falls and then retreated, only to find death at the hands of avenging warriors right below the hill.
We don’t sit to escape the world. We sit on land that has tasted too much blood, that has heard too many cries and absorbed too much pain. It’s right there under the cushion or the chair, I can feel it under my feet as I walk down the driveway towards the road.
I look forward to sitting in the middle of it all, to emptying the mind, finding my place in the middle of gray mornings and cold afternoons, the only hint of passing time the bells that ring the beginning and end of meditation sessions.
Next Monday will be my birthday, but even before that I will take to heart the words of the great Zen poet, Ryokan:
Looking back I see more than seventy years
have already passed.
I am tired of seeing through right and wrong
in the human world
Snow in the late night covers all traces
of coming and going
A stick of incense burns by the old window.
The blog will be silent till Monday.
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