Steve wished me “bon voyage” in a comment to my last post & that wish must have done some good since the “voyage” part of my trip downstate did have some adventurous moments, but turned out well in the end. I had meant to post something about my experience at the Zen Mountain Monastery as soon as I returned, but the semester began, classes, heated up, meetings had to be attended & so I’m just getting a chance to makes some notes about the retreat now, almost two weeks after the event. There is also the fact that describing religious experience is extremely difficult — most such descriptions disintegrate into cliché or bathos. The writings of the great mystics — Western & Eastern — astonish us at least in part because they manage to communicate the ineffable in ordinary human language.
The most adventurous part of my adventure occurred before I ever got to the monastery, but I think that “bon voyage” must have helped, but the trip very nearly became the Zen Mountain Massacre. Fortunately, I was helped by a couple of bodhisattvas along the way and made it to the monastery in time to begin the retreat despite my GPS unit, usually very reliable, trying to take me down a road with a washed-out bridge. I had driven happily through the Adirondacks and down into the Catskills, avoiding the Northway (I-87), which would have been more direct. Around sundown I found myself in Lexington NY on a road that both the satellites and my new iPhone said would get me where I wanted to go. What neither of these smart devices knew was that floods last spring had washed out a bridge. The road ended in a barrier. As it turns out, Zen is all about barriers, but I’ll come to that later.I notices a car parked at the Lexington Municipal Building and pulled in to ask for directions. An very helpful woman who I think was probably either the mayor or the town clerk pulled out a map and sent me back onto a route that would get me down to Mt. Tremper. Of course I missed the turn in the dark. Time was now running short — I really needed to be at ZMM by 7:00 in order to begin the retreat with everyone else (the liturgy waits for no one) — so I pulled into a diner, where the waitress and a couple of patrons helped me with some local landmarks. I headed back down the road but missed the turn again and came back to the diner. This time the local bodhisattvas were very specific & I found my turn, where, weirdly, the GPS picked up again and started reading out the turns. (Master D?gen says that practicing Buddhas often don’t know they are Buddhas, but I can tell you that there are Buddhas in Lexington NY.) I made it with about fifteen minutes to spare and within half an hour found myself sitting with about a hundred other people — something I had never experienced, having done zazen by myself over the last couple of years.
This is where things get more difficult to describe. Despite being in my street clothes & despite having just driven for seven hours & having been completely lost — an experience that in the not so recent past would have tied me into six-dimensional knots — I was calm. I was even happy. After an hour of zazen (broken in the middle by five minutes of walking meditation) there was a service I understood very little of. In Zen Buddhism one stands for most parts of the service — doing honor to the Buddha & the sangha, yes, but also stretching one’s back. Bowing & doing repeated prostrations is also very good for the back, it turns out. After the service I was given a snack, since I had missed diner, and I went to bed — a dorm type room with four other men. It was 9:30. It took me a long tiome to go to sleep. I wasn’t really wound up, but the strangeness of finding myself in this place after so aggressively secular a life kept me suspended in a kind of amazement.
Around 5:00 the next morning the monk with the bells came around to wake everyone up. The bells are not particularly loud — not a great clanging — but they persist long enough to make sure everyone is awake. The schedule allows just enough time for everyone to cycle through the bathrooms and make it down to the dining hall for a quick cup of tea or coffee before morning zazen. Again, we sat for an hour & then there was morning liturgy. Who knew that Buddhists have hymnbooks? Made the liturgy & chanting much easier to follow. Then we had breakfast & then Caretaking practice, i.e., work. I vacuumed all the cushions in the zendo & dusted the woodwork; later, I would wash dishes and chop vegetables in the kitchen. Then came lunch & some instruction in other areas of practice. Dinner. Sitting. Liturgy. Sleep. Here’s the official schedule. On Sunday people from the local community bring their kids what one can only call Zen Sunday School in the dining hall and some of the parents join in the zazen & liturgy upstairs in the zendo.
And after lunch on Sunday I drove home — by a more direct route. The weather had been perfect on the way down — very lucky for January — and was even more beautiful for the drive home. In fact, it was so beautiful it made me laugh. Heading up into the Adirondacks at sunset, the whole sky to the west lit up in orange-gold-red with dramatic pulsing blue-black shadows and a shaft of yellow sunlight shooting straight up from the center of it all. “Ah, this must be that enlightenment they speak of,” I mused. Really, it was a cheesy New Age Zen movie sort of sky & it wasn’t through with me yet. Descending the Western slope of the mountains down toward the St. Lawrence Valley, I turned a corner and there was a huge — & I do mean really huge — full moon rising directly in front of me. I got home without the cosmos playing any more ironic jokes on me & dove right into getting ready for the semester to begin. I’ve only just now caught up enough to write this description.
I notice that I have stuck pretty exclusively to more or less objective description of the retreat at ZMM; as already noted, I find it very hard to talk about the spiritual side of the experience. Hell, a couple of years ago I would have scoffed at the very notion of the spiritual — the whole concept was so tainted for me by my early experience of fundamentalist Protestantism that I just completely dismissed that whole realm of consciousness, except occasionally when it arose in the secular context of poetry. I have been making notes about my reading & meditation & I am going to try to write something soon in this space that does not betray the very deep qualities of the experience, if I can.