This is Saturday night, May 23, my birthday. I am celebrating at Jikojim, a Soto Zen retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The center has a Zendo (meditation hall), a dorm, a residents’ building, and a kitchen/dining room/library surrounded by 62,000 acres of protected open space. Gut-sucking beautiful.
I took up meditating five years ago by way of a free six-week class at the local Presbyterian church…. Wednesday night at 7:00, as I remember.
The guy who taught it (I’ll call him Mr. Smiley) is a man who blended arrogance and preciousness into a thick foam of false modesty, but he knew his stuff. His brand of Buddhism is Vipassana, the American version of Theravada Buddhism, which is found mostly in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. I’ll stop with the pedigree here because I’m a kindly man and have your best interests at heart.
What I liked immediately about Vipassana is its emphasis on being in the present moment. If you’ll bring to mind the happiest minutes in your life, I’ll put money down that you were present for each of them, present in the sense that there was nothing else but you and the woman or man, the math problem, the engine block, the campfire. All cares, worries, hopes, and triumphs vanished along with your sense of time. Remember?
That’s what I was after, to find that place more often. And then after a year of sitting, the practice took over and the whole deal became interesting to do in itself. My intention shifted from happiness to being awake for what’s happening right now.
Since last August I’ve been sitting for one hour a day, which seemed to me to be a threshold point. Not that many civilians sit that long or that regularly, and after I got used to it, I thought sitting for an hour every day was a pretty cool thing to do.
But, one wants more. Wanting more is a problem, Buddha says. Nonetheless, I thought it might be good to take it a little further and come on a real retreat. This is a baby one, four days, the low end of the retreat food chain.
I got here yesterday afternoon. There’s a yogi sheet where everyone signs up for chores. I pick pots and pans after the breakfast serving. Our retreat schedule is posted on the community bulletin board. I will bear witness: 5:30 a.m. wake up, 6 sitting, 6:45 breakfast, 8:15 sitting with instructions, 9:15 walking, 10:00 sitting, 10:45 walking, 11:30 sitting, 12:15 lunch, 1:45 sitting, 2:30 walking, 3:15 sitting, 4:00 walking, 4:45 sitting, 5:30 evening meal, 7:00 sitting, 7:30 stretching, 7:40 dharma talk, 8:30 walking, 9:00 sitting, 9:30 p.m. sleep or further practice.
These people are crazy.
There are 35 retreatants here, all white or Asian, most middle-aged and beyond, most have college degrees and beyond, and most are women. This is the demographic. It’s unusual to see Chicanos, young people, black people, or poor people at California Buddhist gatherings.
That first night we met in the Zendo, a 40-by-40 wooden building, mats on the floors, big black cushions on top of mats, windows going all around and set low so meditators can look out to the fog and the forest. We take our five vows, promising not to kill, steal, indulge in sexual misconduct, false speech, or use intoxicants during the retreat. And silence…we are told not to talk to anyone other than our two teachers.
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It’s Sunday night now.
This morning’s breakfast was oatmeal with prunes and honey. The bowl I dished out for myself contained my normal portion, but twice times larger than I needed, or, come to think of it, what I wanted.
I have my parking spot — very important, since the center is a long way down a steep, narrow dirt road. I have a camper, and it’s parked at the end of the road for maximum privacy; in fact, it’s the only spot on the property that can fit a camper. I got here early to score that. I have my spot in the Zendo: it’s second row…don’t like to be in the first row, a little too kiss-ass, but second row is just right, good view. I have my shower time; there’s only one men’s shower, and I have it to myself at 11:45. Got my pot-and-pan job; it’s the best job because it’s the first job in the morning. Got my dining spot: an easy chair next to the wood stove. Within 48 hours I have my routine locked in and am ready to defend my turf.
I see what I’m doing. I’m still doing it, but I see. It’s a start.