Mask

Wind chime

3″ galvanized metal pipe, wood, rope, chain, clothesline

Lantern

Made with a manual old-fashioned applesauce grinder, non-stick frying pan, and wood.

Word and Deed

That uncertainty always happens, of course. We could use the analogy of our being here together; we are not quite certain why I am talking or why others are listening—but at the same time, it happens that way. It may have happened in the magical sense or the accidental sense, but it did happen, we can’t deny that. It is quite certain, as far as we are concerned, that we are not going to wake up and find ourselves in our parents’ house with breakfast ready for us—that’s not going to happen. We are here. You may not know why you are here, or what the hell you are doing practicing Buddhist meditation and listening to a Tibetan freak. But it is happening nevertheless. 

—Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Transcending Madness

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2002

“I’m going to a nyinthun tomorrow.”

“Nying-tonne…?” Jeremiah smiles.

“Nyin-thun. It’s a three hour meditation session at the Centre.” 

Three hours? Isn’t that like…totally hardcore?” He laughs.

“Actually, once you’ve been doing it for a while, three hours isn’t hardcore at all.” I look at him in disbelief. “It’s not that bad. It can even be fun.” He laughs again. It’s clearly a challenge, though veiled in friendly demeanor the way you might dust cupcakes with icing sugar. I look at Stella.

“Go if you want to…I’m not going.” It’s a chance to learn more about this man. Spend some time with him in a safe environment. Why not? What do I have to lose?”

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2020

I awake to the robins in the early morning, and settle into the new book Stella bought me—No Retreat—and a coffee.

Shakyamuni Buddha—also known as the historical Buddha—was a person like you or me, a member of the Sakya clan. We’re all the same, whether we realize it or not, from the dawn of time to the last survivor of our species. In every moment, we can live our lives with conscious intent, or try to hide from the world and respond reactively from within in our self-centred cocoons.

I think of Shakyamuni Buddha the same way I think of Sir Isaac Newton. Newton discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. By “discover,” we mean that Newton recognized patterns within the physical universe that could be expressed mathematically, and which could be empirically and predictably demonstrated, time and time again. So far as we know, he is the first human to have described them that way. We accept the force of gravity for what it is in our lives. We can even feel the force of gravity at all times, if we pay attention. But we don’t walk around calling ourselves Newtonians. Why are some people so interested in calling themselves Buddhists? 

What was Shakyamuni Buddha’s contribution to humankind? He left his family on a quest for truth, and claimed to discover it. This may be a case of moral luck or it could be karma, depending on your perspective. 

According to the earliest written commentaries on the Buddha, recorded several hundred years after his death, Siddhartha Gautama articulated a meditation technique that reduces suffering in this world, when practiced in conjunction with seven other guiding principles. Shakyamuni shared this technique with others from within a broader ethical framework known as the Noble Eightfold Path. 

“Okay, sure,” says Stella after I read her the quote, “But get one of the people who talks like this to work in health care and tell me whether you need to worry about ethical frameworks; that’s just concepts. In health care you’ve got people in front of you with emotions and opinions and all sorts of ailments and you have to work with them. We don’t have time to think in abstractions, we’re working with our hearts and minds and investing in people. Not ideas.” 

“Exactly. I’ve told you before, I think you’re a bodhisattva—but I know you’re not Buddhist. I told Théo you’re a bodhisattva.”

‘You did?”

“I did.”

“What did you say?”

***

Cameron Island, 2017

GONGGGGGGGG

I enter the shrine room, offer my three prostrations and take a seat across from Théo. Formalities aside, we get down to business. 

“I just read Street Zen again, you know, about Isaan Dorsey, the founder of the first AIDS hospice for gay men in North America.” Théo nods. What remains unspoken is the Abbot’s former life as a transvestite speed addict.

“Issan was speaking with Shunryu Suzuki once, and he said, ‘You know, I thought about asking you if I could receive the precepts and then I decided that it felt like too much of an ego trip. So I’m just going to continue to practice and study.’ To which Suzuki replied, ‘That’s fine with me, because that’s all the Vow is saying anyways.’ 

Would you…” I eye him carefully. “Would you agree with that response?” 

They are in the same lineage. 

He nods, wondering where I’m going with this. There’s an inquisitive tone in his reply.

“Ye-e-e-s…?”

“Then why take the Bodhisattva Vow?” It’s an honest question. He thinks deeply. 

“No one’s forcing you.” We sit with the response for a moment. “Everyone’s different. I can only tell you what my reasons for taking the Vow are.” His face is solemn; it is the face of an old man. 

In essence, he’s saying: I didn’t ask you to come here. “If you don’t want to take jukai, don’t take jukai. If you want to take jukai, take jukai. It doesn’t have to be a problem. But it’s a commitment to Zen, and the ceremony doesn’t happen right away. It can take years before you’re ready to take jukai. There’s a process.” He pauses and reflects. “If you’re here, it’s because you’re looking for something, not me. What are you looking for? What do you think is here that you can’t find anywhere else? You have to be prepared to bring your whole self to the practice. Are you ready to do that?”

I reflect. Who do I take myself for? I have no idea what’s going on. Am I just an experience junky? If I’m going to open my heart to anyone, why wouldn’t I do so with Stella? Or our kids? Not Théo. I am here to realize that. 

“Honestly, I don’t think so. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know why you’re apologizing. It’s actually kind of refreshing. But Francis…your life will not be an easy one if you don’t open your heart.” 

***

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2002

Fifteen years earlier, I hop on my bike and arrive at the Sangri-la Meditation Centre at 8:30 AM. It’s housed in a large yet discrete wooden church, with massive Garry Oaks all around the property. The front of the church dons a sign, “Good News Evangelical House of Worship.” If things don’t work out with the Buddhists, I can always try them out.

I lock up my bike and walk around the side of the church. A flight of steps leads to a deck on the second floor of an adjoining building, which must be the Meditation Centre. Prayer flags flap lightly in the cool morning air, with notes of an Arctic breeze. Shoji blinds line the windows that run the length of the ground floor. Through the gaps between paper and pane, glimpses of gleaming wooden floorboards are visible.

It’s a nice fall day; not quite frost, but the leaves are falling, especially in this older neighbourhood with mature trees, character and craft homes, many spruced up with brightly-coloured exterior trim. 

The sound of a truck engine. Jeremiah pulls into the parking lot in his red GMC. He looks at me somberly through the windshield; one arm rests on the open driver’s side window. He brakes with a lurch and hops out of the truck and doesn’t roll the window up. When the door slams shut, it has that hollow metal sound like it might fall off any day. 

Jeremiah’s large frame blocks the sun rising behind him as he faces me. Swimmer’s build.

“Mornin’.”

“Morning.”

“So’re you ready for today?” He breaks into a grin.

“Sure.”

“Well I’m not. I drank too much whiskey with Siobhan last night. I’m hung over.” Jeremiah guffaws loudly. 

How very fucking Buddhist. From what I gather about the Sangri-la tradition, Jinpa Lhawang—the founder of the school—is rather fond of whiskey himself. There are stories. Some members of the Centre studied directly with him. Jinpa’s attendant before his death, Dr. Martine Simon, makes appearances from time to time. 

Oooooohhh…..

Jeremiah pulls a key out of his pocket and unlocks the door that leads to a wide nondescript hallway. 

“It looks like we’re the only ones to show up this morning!” he chuckles. Jeremiah unlocks and opens another door on the right side of the hall. “This is the reception area. You can hang your coat over here.” He points to a row of hooks, hangs up his coat, pulls off his shoes, and places them underneath. I do the same. 

Jeremiah walks down a wheelchair ramp with a three-metre partition in front of it. He stops at the bottom where there’s an opening in a black curtain. I follow; he pulls back the curtain, steps through the opening, stops again, presses his palms together and bows with a fold from the waist. 

The bow is neither overly formal nor casual, like a familiar handshake between two longstanding business partners. I step through the curtain after Jeremiah and also bow, not without wondering what this is. 

The meditation hall is spacious, clean and bright. 

The room has a vaulted ceiling, probably four metres at its peak. Five zabutons [square cotton padded mats] line the back of the room, followed by a row of four, another row of five…a total of —five-four-five-four-five: twenty-three. There’s an elevated platform at the front of the room—like a stage—with a metre-high, two-metre long altar on it.

Jeremiah gestures and whispers, “Have a seat on any one of these cushions. If it’s not comfortable, try putting one of those smaller round cushions on top. He gestures to a stack of cushions along the wall behind. ” I nod, dumbfounded, in awe of the space, wondering what the fuck I’m doing here, as he steps up onto the stage, turns ninety degrees and takes a deep bow. He bends down and pulls an incense stick out of a cardboard tube on the altar, places it in a holder, grabs a matchbook, lights the incense, puts back the tube and takes another deep bow, this time to the incense. 

I try to get comfortable on my cushion and watch with a combination of curiosity and fear. My knees are so far above my hips, it’s a wonder I’m still poised on the cushion. If I apply pressure to my knees to lower them, I get sharp pangs of shock through my system. 

I go to the stack of cushions on the other side of the room and grab another one. Sitting higher, I’m less uncomfortable.  

Jeremiah settles onto his gomden [meditation cushion, in this case rectangular] and brushes off his zabuton. A massive glazed azure ceramic singing bowl rests on the stage next to him. He grabs a nearby wooden striker, raises his arm and pauses half-ceremoniously before contact with the bowl. It offers up a rich, throaty roar. 

GONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG.

And the race begins! Going nowhere. Within two seconds, the thunderous roar of my own insanity is inescapable. Kinhin—walking meditation—is even worse with the bodily activity and its corollary increase in heart rate and blood flow, plus with the widening of the peripheral vision during walking, the experience only intensifies—to be brought to a resounding halt as I jolt from the sudden sound of the high-pitched CLACK of the wooden striker, indicating a return to our cushions. I could just rush him.

I run towards the altar and lunge at his throat. 

Motherfucker!” I scream as he falls backwards off his seat. I jump on top of him and swing at his face. 

I allow myself the fantasy.

I want what’s best for Stella; she deserves it. But what’s the attraction?

My tinnitus is amplified. Maybe I should just get up and walk out. He’s the only one here, after all. 

Keys sound in the front door, followed by the distinctive ka-clack of a loose panic bar as the door swings closed again. There’s the clunk of shoes in the closet and the shuffle of feet down the ramp and into the shrine room. I catch a glimpse of Arthur—a senior teacher in the community—as he leans towards Jeremiah.

 “You locked the front door,” he whispers a little too loud. Jeremiah stares at Art, then turns and stares at me. Art does the same and smiles meekly. Jeremiah gets up and they both go into the kitchen. They talk in muted tones as I sit resolutely through it all, wondering what the fuck this is. The shuffle of feet once more. They bow as they exit the kitchen and re-enter the shrine room with clipped bows. Jeremiah returns to the altar. Art finds a cushion.

Bow, gong, sit, walk, bow, gong, sit, walk, sit. Sit sit sit sit sit sit sit. Fucking meditation (not to be confused with a meditation on fucking, or meditation during fucking). Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy, boredom, boredom, boredom, work, Stella, the kids, childhood memories, Mom, sadness, trauma, anger, victimhood, more sadness, neurosis, paranoia, followed by the realization that this is so fucking boring. Followed by the realization that conceptualizing the experience is just another example of thinking. Does it ever stop?

Peace and stillness, my ass. Ring the fucking bell! My body is killing me!

Jeremiah picks up the striker, raises his hand and pauses ever so briefly, then strikes the rim of the bowl. 

GONGGGGGGGG

Did we chant at the end? I can’t remember. 

“You did it!” Jeremiah says outside, excited, as he grasps my arms with his. “Your first nyinthun!”

I start to hang out a lot at the Centre. I attend Sangri-La Open House every Wednesday from 7:00 – 9:00 and serve tea and cookies to new initiates. Howie, the Spiritual Director of the Centre, offers a guided meditation at the beginning of every session. How many times do I listen to the instruction? 

Seat. Recognize you’re being supported, and that the earth will not let you down.

Knees. Slightly lower than the hips. Pelvis on a slight inclination toward the floor. 

Lower back. Slightly rigid. Open chest. Hands rest palm-down on your thighs. 

Eyes. It seems to depend who you talk to. I’ve heard anywhere from three up to eight feet, until the more advanced stages of the technique.

Chin. Slightly tucked in, so it’s angled down perhaps a centimeter, no more.

Head. Imagine a string running through your body, from the cushion to a strand of hair that is being held taut above your head.

Afterwards, there’s open discussion. To begin, Howie usually says something like, “You know, there’s a question that I’ve been thinking about for years, and I wonder if we could talk about it: ‘What’s the difference between mindfulness and awareness?’”

***

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2020

Meanwhile, back in the present: a well-established New York newspaper publishes the article, “Mindfulness is Now a Subject in Great Britain.” The only mention of mindfulness I can find on the government’s website states:

Children will learn to regulate their emotions using relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and other mindfulness practices. Mental health researchers will conduct a longitudinal evidence-based study to provide schools with rigorous data on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions related to student mental health and well-being.

Were the methodology not so prescriptive; were the criteria for membership not so stringent, and were it not so expensive, I’d join the club. Entrance requirements for the Reducing Stress Through Mindfulness (RSTM TM) program include completion of the eight-week face-to-face Introduction to RSTMTM training and a ten-day silent retreat. All I’ve completed is a self-paced online RSTM TM eight-week course without an instructor and a handful of three-day Sangri-La weekend retreats and Zen sesshins.

I nonetheless convince admissions that I’m a credible candidate for the program. What does that tell you?

The training costs $5,000 and involves five days of intensive processing. Should you choose to become a certified RSTM TMinstructor, you must then conduct 120 hours of supervised facilitation. Mentor-supervisors charge between $120-180 per hour, commensurate with other programs specializing in a professional therapeutic intervention, such as counselling psychology or clinical social work. It’s a means to legitimize the program participants’ financial investment. 

“You know, people might want to share their personal issues with you,” says Stella.

“Yes, I realize that. I’ve thought about that.”

“Well, why would you want to expose yourself to that? Is it because you enjoy being in the company of vulnerable people?” Is that the attraction? “I feel like that’s what happened to me with Jeremiah. He took advantage of me.” I nod. In hindsight, maybe she’s right. Maybe he is some sort of a predatory fucking pervert son of a bitch after all. “You were unhappy, I was unhappy, he was unhappy. My blood-sugar levels were all over the map and I didn’t realize it. But what’s his excuse?”

It’s a question worth asking. Five years earlier, Jeremiah’s wife Siobhan accepts a high-level administrative position at the University of Victoria out of an interest in career advancement, which necessitates a move. They live in Kaslo, about ten kilometers outside of town, in a farmhouse that sits on over five hectares of mostly highly arable land. Jeremiah works odd jobs in construction with a local contractor and maintains a large garden, a modest cannabis plot and a cherry orchard with big enough yields for him to turn a profit at the local farmer’s market. 

“I just can’t keep working at the college as an admissions officer…” Siobhan explains to Jeremiah. She’s bored and has had enough of the small town life; Jeremiah’s devastated. Siobhan is resolute. She’s going; he can join her if he wants. 

Once the property’s sold, there’s no turning back. Siobhan works extra hours at her new job and Jeremiah pursues an Activity Worker certificate; there’s lots of work in residential care, what with all the old people in this town. Stella supervises his internship.

***

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2002

There’s a knock at the door. I answer—it’s Jeremiah.

“I’m going to Vancouver to help my brother with a renovation for the weekend, and I thought I’d drop this off on the way.” He hands me a film cannister. There’s an awkward pause while I inspect the properties of the vial and stare at him. It’s a peace offering; a gesture of good will.

“Did you want to come in?”

“Nah. I’d better leave. I’ve got to catch the ferry.”

“Okay, well, thanks…”

“Okay, see you around.”

He might as well have said, Here, we both know you’re as much of a stoner as I am, so why not medicate yourself while I continue to explore my relationship with your wife? Or maybe he’s just trying to quit.

She’s made her position clear. I have no idea what else to do, so I carefully roll a joint.

What are our options? She talks about having two husbands. As much as I like the idea of someone else helping satisfy her needs—emotional especially—it seems like an improbable solution. What about sex? That’s the biggest question, of course. For now, all I can sort out is that I need to at least establish some loose boundaries.

“For the time being, we’re officially separated.” I tell her, and take off my wedding ring. It feels good to slip the ring off and realize how trapped I’ve always felt by what it symbolizes to others. But who do I kid? I’m still trapped. I’m not leaving the kids. I can’t leave them. I love them too much, and Stella’s in no shape to look after them by herself—her head is somewhere else. That’s not to suggest that I’m in any shape to look after them on my own, either. And it’s not that she’d hurt them, and it’s not that she wouldn’t do her best, but this can’t possibly last forever …

***

Jeremiah and I meet for a hike at Thetis Lake and take Seymour Hill Trail. There’s a clearing with exposed rock at the top, circled by full grown madronas and mature Garry oak. Dead dried leaves and peeled bark are scattered across the forest floor. Lichen and dried moss cling tenaciously to the sun-blasted bedrock. The day’s heating up; a chorus of cicadas entertain. We plop down on a bed of moss and take in the view. The air is still. 

“I used to stash my weed up here, so Siobhan wouldn’t find it in the house.” He snorts and glances off to his left. “In a plastic bag, buried under that tree over there. I’d put that boulder on top.” I look at the tree, a lanky, nondescript juvenile pine, and the rock underneath. It probably weighs close to twenty pounds.

We stare down the slope toward the lake. Shards of sunlight reflect off the water, past the groves of arbutus that populate the hill.

 “What’s going on, Jeremiah?” It’s an honest question. Jeremiah stares at the water below and takes a deep breath. 

“I have no idea.” He turns to me and shakes his head. “But there’s definitely something happening.” We both laugh. A shadow briefly blocks out the sun’s rays overhead and we look up. A turkey vulture with an immense wingspan passes directly above us, coasting on a thermal, clearly on patrol. I’ve never seen one fly so slowly and close, its pronounced red beak in full focus. The sun’s rays pass through the tips of the vulture’s wings.

“Obviously stealth reconnaissance from the enemy,” I say. Jeremiah laughs. “Do you love Stella?” He pauses. 

“I do love her, yes I love her. But I’m not trying to hurt anybody…” I laugh. Could his concern be genuine? 

“Well that seems inevitable. I think she loves you too. She seems to want to spend a lot of time with you.” He laughs, shakes his head again. They play tennis together, among other activities. I have little interest; instead I bury myself in books. Tennis just reminds me of how I was terrorized on the courts as a child. Now I’m terrorized by a black cloud wherever I go.

“She’s a great woman.” 

“Do you love Siobhan?” He takes a breath and exhales deeply through his nose. “I’ll always love her. But we’ve had our differences. I had a good life in Kaslo, but she was so unhappy. I didn’t want to move here, but she wasn’t prepared to stay. We thought maybe things would get better if we tried something different, but they’ve only gotten worse. It’s probably better for Erica to be in a bigger town in the long run anyways, and there’s still time—she’s only four. We thought maybe a kid would make things better before that, but it hasn’t really helped. Siobhan’s always been…preoccupied. But so have I, I guess.” He picks up a rock by his feet and gives it a toss. It lands with a thud in grass. A raven caws.

“Now she’s gone on vacation in Ontario with Erica for two weeks, to spend time with her family at the family cottage. I’m doing renovations on the house while she’s gone. It feels like I’m always doing renovations…” He laughs again. “I was doing renos with a contractor in the Kootenays, and repaired the old house we had in the country in my spare time…” He shakes his head. “I put a lot of work into that house, and I’ve been helping my brother…” He sounds resigned. “And now I have to renovate the attic of the house we bought in Langford. But it’s taking forever, because my buddy Al offered to help, and he brings over this really good weed, and gives me more than I can ever smoke!!” He chortles. “It’s hard to find the motivation…I end up working on my paintings instead, which is what I really feel like doing, or going to the Centre.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“What? The weed or the marriage?” he laughs again and shakes his head. “And the problem is, it’s taking way too bloody long to get any work done because we’re always so high.” I laugh with him. “But Al’s my best friend, and he helps me out, and I know he enjoys the company, but I really want to stop.”

“Hm.” 

A breeze picks up. “Dralas,” he remarks plainly, “Tibetan spirits. They inhabit the elements.” He turns to me. “What about you?”

“Me? I’m having an emotional breakdown. And in theory, ideologically, I don’t believe in the institution of marriage…although once you’re married, it does seem to change the way you look at it and think about it. It becomes something different from what you thought it was from the outside…you know? You choose to give it meaning—I find myself telling people I’m married, or that I’ve been married for so many years…You know? There’s a kind of shorthand embedded in that statement. As though it actually does mean something to be sanctioned by the institution.”

We get married at city hall with two witnesses, so Stella can get onto my medical plan here in BC. The marriage isn’t important to us; we don’t need it. We’re in love and nothing else matters. Except when we’re not.

Stella’s impressed by the fact that Jeremiah wants to quit. After all, here’s someone who’s at least actually trying to work with his mind, instead of—as she describes in a letter to me—her fucking stubborn impulsive husband, 

 <…who is probably at home right now, lying on the couch reading, waiting for the phone to ring. While I go to work on my bike, so he can have the car to try and find a job, because I’m nice that way and I’m trying to be supportive, but at the same time I’m pissed off that I’m working forty hours a week in a private nursing facility, and I just learned that I missed a unionized job with excellent benefits by two fucking weeks. >

“Smoking so much dope doesn’t fit with what I want to aspire towards.” says Jeremiah.

“In terms of what?”

“In terms of taming the mind. Ostensibly, as a Buddhist practitioner I’m trying to tame my mind. You can’t do that if you take psychoactive drugs all the time, because they’re just a big Hinayana head trip.” He guffaws. 

“How is it that you plan on training the mind?” Robins chirp persistently in the distance.

“Jingpa Lhawang says that the most effective way to train the mind is through meditation practice. And through meditation, the ego is gradually dismantled because it no longer has anything to prop itself up against.” I wonder if he’s just parroting what he’s read. The sun’s rays warm up the clearing we’re in. And so what if he is?

“How long have you been meditating?” 

“About eight years. I’ve been hanging around the Centre for eight years. “ He shakes his head. “They put up with me, and I try to contribute—mostly by helping with renos”—he laughs—”But I need to get serious about my meditation practice, or otherwise what am I doing it for?” 

“I have no idea.” I look at him, but I see right through him. Why is that?

“I mean, what have I spent the last eight years of my life doing, if I don’t continue to try and deepen my practice?” Deepen your practice? What the hell does that even mean? It must not be just a practice, but also a lifestyle. He must practice many styles.

“One of the rules of the Vinaya—the vows that monks take when they enter the stream—has to do with not indulging in intoxicants.”

“But you’re not a monk.”

“That’s true, but even in the secular tradition, there is agreement that in terms of the Eightfold Path, right mindfulness involves not willfully clouding your judgment.” It remains my greatest obstacle to taking any prescriptive “spiritual path” seriously. If it smacks of coercion via paid membership or social engineering, I’m out. 

“What are you doing this Tuesday?

“This Tuesday? I have no plans, actually.”

‘You should join us for the next Open House.” So it begins.

Here I am. Facing a senior member whom I suspect is fucking my wife.

Back to the breath. It is the power vested in these institutions by their membership that allows these injustices to occur at all. I become a member of the community and start paying monthly dues. 

***

Every night, I slide the coffee table over to one side of the carpet, pull the futon mattress off the couch and onto the floor, and unroll my sleeping bag. It’s best for both of us. I lie awake in soaked sheets from night sweats, consumed by the chatter in my head. I read at any hour of the night until I fall asleep again, and average two or three masturbation sessions an evening—a by-product of physical stress, I guess.

I walk a lot at night. One night I sit at a bench with a guy under a full moon and we talk for hours. He’s older; his wife just left him for another woman; they’ve been married for twenty-five years; she’s a Buddhist. 

***

Jeremiah’s indiscretions eventually lead him on a quest for atonement.

“I’ve been seeing a counsellor.” He tells me. “And I tell him about all the crazy shit I’ve been going through, and we just laugh…” whereupon he laughs his deep, throaty laugh, and I find myself joining in as per usual. “Siobhan and I have decided to give it another go, and we talk better than we ever did before.” Stella and I also reconcile.

***

I decide to make focaccia and grab a finger bowl from the cupboard, to sprinkle water on the dough as required while I knead it.

I buy the finger bowls at the dollar store, seven of them, when I build my first shrine. The incense, the candles, the chanting, the vajra and the bell, it’s all very interesting to me now. How I ended up here. When people leave stereo speakers or furniture out on their lawns for free, I often think about how I could build shrines with them.

With the advent of the Mindfulness movement, in the absence of professional standards across traditions, a new consortium of meditation instructors has filled the void, creating an online intentional community; an international body with a corollary Code of Ethics, apparently sorely needed in this day and age. And guess what? The membership costs money, with the most visible benefit being that you’re taken seriously by other like-minded individuals. One expectation of maintaining professional accreditation is that you attend a ten-day silent meditation retreat every year, so that keeps the business of meditation—and let’s face it, most retreats are Buddhist, so that makes it the business of Buddhism—alive and well. 

Back at the Centre after the first nyinthun, I inhale the literature. These people like their books, so in that regard I fit right in. After six months, I’m immersed and have only scratched the surface. Nearly twenty years later, I still feel that way. 

There seems to be an implicit expectation that somehow our behaviours change with the advent of giving ourselves over to a bigger cause. Have they? Have I?

***

“How many of you have meditated before?” asks Howie at Open House. Of the seven people seated in a circle, only one raises her hand meekly. “Good,” says Howie gently with a twinkle in his eye, “What kind of meditation?” 

“TM.” Howie smiles and nods.

“How do you feel tonight?”

“It feels good,” she says, and smiles, “I feel kind of…” her eyes roll upwards as she finds the right word. “Peaceful.” Howie nods again and also smiles. 

“Good. That’s good.” How about you? He turns to the tall young man with unruly hair next to her, dressed in casual khakis and a dress shirt. 

“Yeah.” He says in a deep voice with confidence, “I felt really calm.” One by one, they share their experiences of collective goodness. 

Who the fuck are these people? My turn.

“Well I’ve been hanging out here quite a bit for the last six months, and all I can say is I’m really happy that you’re all feeling so blissed out, because I still feel like I’m going crazy pretty much every time I sit down on the cushion.” Howie laughs. 

Countless hours of meditation later, sometimes I still feel that way—though less often than before. Then again that’s when I maintain my practice. If I don’t sit, I don’t have to intentionally and consciously subject myself to all the crazy shit I make up. A lot of the time it’s maddening. Especially when you’re out of practice, it can feel unbearable and actually amplify self-hatred and feelings of despair. Although it’s not about getting anywhere, nor are we ever actually still either, at least as measured hurtling through the conventional time-space continuum.  

***

It’s the end of a practice session at Open House. Howie strikes the deep-throated bowl next to him and it booms. 

GONGGGGGGGGG…

Howie places the striker lightly on the rim of the vessel and smiles playfully. As he applies more pressure, the ringing gradually rises in pitch.

…GONGGGGGGGGGEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

***

“It’s like a sharp knife,” says Howie during one discussion period, “You could say that a sharp knife inherently possesses a kind of virtue; through which it expresses its true nature.” Surely he’s thinking of Manjushri, whose sword is said to cut through dualism, and thus delusion. 

“Even dull knives have virtue,” I retort. He looks at me, and he smiles, nods, and responds, “Even dull knives have virtue. That’s true.” 

After tea and cookies, when everyone’s left, he tells me, “You’ve clearly entered the Mahayana.” I nod, not understanding. 

“I think I’ve finally decided this isn’t a cult.” He looks at me, expressionless.

***

We set up the meditation mats in a circle for another Open House post-meditation discussion. Tonight, Howie decides to have some fun. One at a time, we walk around in a circle with a spoon filled with water in one hand. It’s monkey mind; unstable, prone to easy upset—being tamed by the use of a panoramic concentration technique: awareness. The visual sticks. He’s good with visuals. 

I attend Council meetings; they’re open to all. “You know Francis, we can give you a key if you want. You can hang out here even when there aren’t formal sessions, if you’d like.” Art offers. I assume responsibility for the Centre’s library, and I join a group involved with rebuilding the Centre’s website. I’m invested. 

I start going to half-day sits on the weekends and complete the seven levels of Sangri-la. So what? Each level is understood as a different point of entry into a comprehensive understanding of the Sangri-lalian world view. The concepts build on one another; there is a formal curriculum. And if you want to move through it, you need to commit heart and soul and Guru worship is a given. The weekend retreats spark a renewed disdain for hierarchy in me, and yet no one’s forcing me to be there. This has everything to do with Stella.

***

It’s my Sangri-la Graduation Weekend meditation retreat, where we receive a pin as per The Tradition. We’re told in no uncertain terms to dress for the occasion. 

“I mean it’s not like high school grad, but it’s not like jeans and a t-shirt either.” Says Howie. So I wear my black rotting zombie-head long-sleeved SNFU shirt with camouflage cargo shorts. [RIP Mr. Chi Pig. We saw SNFU with Ray in 1990 at Foufoune Electriques.] 

I’m in my last Private Audience with Arthur.

“I couldn’t care less about the Seven Levels.” 

“I used to be like you. Angry.” Arthur says in a deadpan voice. There’s only one thing to do: nothing.

***

I’m at a Council meeting. We discuss the weekly Wednesday Open House. Art says, “There are a few people who have recently expressed some reticence about the use of chants in the Wednesday Open House. And I just want to reiterate that chants are a part of our tradition, and if that bothers people, then they are always free to leave. But we shouldn’t water down The Tradition in the hopes that more people will be attracted to the Centre.”

“And we don’t want to pretend that we don’t chant when we do, because then they’ll just think we want to play with their minds.” Jeremiah mimics a mad scientist and laughs a hearty laugh. I laugh too. None of it makes any sense.

“I mean this with respect,” I begin, “But I’m not comfortable with a tradition that includes chants to dralas, if it claims it’s secular. From a rationalist perspective, that’s just pure unempirical, unverifiable superstition.”

Lhawang’s mission is ostensibly to bring the Sangri-la mandala back to its Buddhist roots, following criticisms that it has strayed too far from its origins with the advent of the secular stream. As opposed to having Sangri-lalians and Sangri-La Buddhists, there will now be only Sangri-La Buddhism. It’s a way to make his mark on the organization and show that he’s not the same person his father was. 

If we agree that the primary reason for the existence of any institution is for it to continue to survive, one means to support that project is to create a flexible institutional framework that can adapt to whatever context it finds itself in. Core values and beliefs remain static to a degree, but local customs are also introduced, adopted and transformed. In the west, Buddhism is in a period of transformation with the spread of mindfulness and American Buddhism, sometimes used as an umbrella term for the various Zen, Insight, Tibetan and Theravadan groups that practice, among others, in North America.

Now that’s enough!” barks Howie. We spend many hours together in this room, facilitating the Open House sessions. It’s the first and only time he ever raises his voice at me. I never return.

I never did like the Sangri-lalian anthem. 

***

Shrine decorum is fascinating. I love the esotericism of the altar. The bright colours, the two schools represented with their different regalia. Howie bows to the altar, lights the incense and then bows to it. He settles onto his cushion, bows to the singing bowl, and literally sets the tone for the evening.

GONGGGGGGGGG

Howie faces me from the stage ; I’m immediately conscious of my posture. 

After the session, we close up and Howie turns to me. “I’m going to Colorado to be with my kids. I don’t know if or when I’m going to be back.” 

What? When are you leaving?” 

“Tomorrow.” He extends his hand and smiles. “Take care.”

“You too, Howie.” He looks at me and smiles. Shit! Howie’s leaving! 

He returns three months later.

***

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2020

Back to the breath. A news release publishes the report of a third party law firm assigned to investigate the allegations made against Jingpa Lhawang, among other members of the community. “Generosity Divine Lord” my ass.

Seventeen years after his appointment as the new spiritual leader of the Sangri-la lineage, a lawyer hired to conduct a third-party, independent review of complaints of sexual misconduct against Lhawang concludes that the accusations leveled against him are “highly plausible” in at least three out of seventeen reports, based on the corroboration of testimony. 

–The Sangri-La Sun (vanity glossy of the organization)

Victoria, Vancouver Island, 2002

Back to the breath. I take a weekend workshop on Prison Dharma with a senior teacher from Colorado, founder of the Sangri-la Prison Network, instrumental in spreading the meditation diaspora in “correctional facilities” far and wide. He is later convicted for the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. 

Holy madness.

Crazy wisdom

Get me the fuck off this track! [_/I\_Saul Williams]

Back to the breath. And we’re all there, listening to the sound of the rain, and a robin sings on the other side of the farm and pierces the mind, the tree frog croaks, and…

Walking.” And so on and so forth.

***

I read most of Jingpa Lhawang’s work. I’m lucky that things didn’t work out between them. 

It’s hard not to relish in the aesthetic, ironic, karmic perfection of it all. To which Stella might reply, “What the fuck does karma have to do with my getting diabetes? Or growing up with the parents I grew up with?” What the fuck is karma, anyways? 

Sometimes I tell people, “It’s actually a Sanskrit word. It means action.” So what?

Dependent origination. Causes and conditions.

***

Cameron Island, 2017

“This is not a question, and I realize it’s just thoughts.” Théo nods. ”You mentioned ‘moments’ in your talk earlier.” He nods. “But there are spaces between those moments, which are moments themselves—and when you try to cleave them apart, it just leads to a kind of infinite regress travelling in all directions, to the point where you realize that there is no past, and there is no future, and there is no space, and there is no time…there’s just this…whatever it is that’s happening.” His grey eyes stare straight through me. 

We discuss secular meditation. 

“I think that…” he pauses. “I think that it’s safe to assume that in this day and age, in this culture, the notion of karma can be dismissed.” His eyes are downturned as he nods and agrees with himself. I nod as well. 

“What does it look like to become a student?”

“With me?”

“Yeah, with you.”

“Well, first you have to ask.” We both laugh.

“Ask what?”

“Ask if I’m willing to be your teacher.”

“And then what?”

“Well I have to agree.” We both laugh again. 

“And what if you do?”

“Then I become your teacher, and you become my student, and we enter into a formal student-teacher relationship.”

“And what does that look like?” He pauses.

“Well, it’s different for every person. I have students all over. Many of them I only speak with infrequently, on the phone or we exchange emails. But there are also disciples here on the island that I see every week, almost all year.”

“And what does that look like?”

“What?”

“Having disciples.” 

“We chant, we sit, we walk, we have dharma talks, we study scripture…It’s a little less formal than this, sangha members come over to my house once a week.” 

“And why do you do it?”

“Because I took the Bodhisattva Vow;” he considers. “I’ve committed to save all sentient beings. It’s the reason I was put on this Earth, apparently, but I also write poetry, and translate, and have a family. Honestly Francis,” Those eyes; an overcast sky reflecting on a lake. “If it wasn’t for the dharma, I don’t know what I’d do.” 

I have explored these words for years. Lately I’ve been brushing up against the Vow, reading more literature specifically on the subject of Buddhist ethics and the Bodhisattva Precepts. Trying to understand multiple perspectives on taking the Vow, the role of repentance involved, the degree of compliance expected…in the absence of karma, why adhere to the precepts? 

It’s like a checklist for how to ethically navigate the human condition—guidelines considered favourable to the individual, the community, and the natural world. Human flourishing, as one well-known teacher and practitioner describes it.

What are the technical requirements for teaching meditation? It seems to vary from tradition to tradition. What’s stopping me from providing guided meditation? After all, I convince the Wellness Committee at work that to lead brief meditation sessions could be potentially of benefit to the organization. I submit a Letter of Intent that is conditionally accepted to attend a ten-day RSTM training, further to my financing the remainder of the program.

But I can’t do it. To cleave meditation practice from the Eightfold Path diminishes its significance. In a stress reduction context, meditation involves restorative and rehabilitative aims. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not why I still meditate almost twenty years later.

What happened to the dharma being freely offered? Why do we need a new technique? Why can’t we just sit? Even if you could catch up on the last fifty years of Buddhist-mindfulness literature in English, that’s only the beginning. To be taken seriously as an expert in sitting, you should have a strong grasp of at least Pali, if not Sanskrit. If you’re a Zennist, Japanese; or a Vajryanist, Tibetan. And any combination thereof.

I keep coming across the Dalai Lama quote, “My religion is kindness,” but I don’t feel so kind. I don’t reach out to people much, and I’m no longer especially social at work. 

I don’t have a tradition. In the absence of a tradition, I’m still trying to understand what it is that I’m doing. Secular meditation is probably more accurate than secular Buddhism. But what is the goal? There is no goal; that’s exactly the point. It’s not about trying to get anywhere. That’s what makes it different from any other practice. 

We do nothing; there’s nowhere to go anyways. It’s about being in this life. I don’t spend time with other Zen or even Buddhist practitioners; I’m bit of a hermit in plain sight that way. It’s been a few years since my last retreat; every time I return, once the high wears off, I’m back to wondering what just happened. Usually I have some sort of psychological episode upon my return. 

I’m wary of the idolatry and patriarchy inherent in the teacher-student relationship—that goes all the way back to Shakyamuni. Not only that, but there are extended periods where my practice falls off the map entirely—though my academic immersion in the dharma in broader terms has rarely wavered over the years. Books, podcasts, online courses, articles. 

Jinpa Lhawang’s suicide comes as a surprise to all of us, and leaves the Sangri-la Corporation in shambles once the truth about him goes public. Revelations finally surface that the group sex between Jinpa and numerous male and female partners is “more likely than not” true. Stella always thought it was a pickup joint. 

The diaspora has spread far and wide. Jinpa’s acute sense of humour and keen interest in American culture and the burgeoning hippie movement were the catalyst for a newly-minted American Buddhism, a fusion of secular and traditional values successfully trademarked as the Sangri-la franchise.

I see Jeremiah again at the beach once, a few years later, wearing this ugly as fuck orange fluo toque. 

“I did a dathun!” he exclaims. 

“Are you seeking positive praise? Do you feel better about yourself now that you’ve sat on your ass for thirty days?”

“No, I’m going to do even better than that. I’m going to become the Director of the Victoria Sangri-La Meditation Centre.” And he does. 

No retreat

“It’s much easier to be spiritual than to be emotionally authentic.”

—Dr. Gabor Mate

In no time I’m put to work

did I ever leave?

six years since Dad died five

since my last sesshin

(traditionally, a six day Zen

meditation retreat this

one was four days) two

acres the farm’s nestled in

a small, idyllic valley conifers

surround the property

define its limits

steep slope

ideal for drainage

permaculture

fresh organic produce

an annual and well-attended seed

exchange in the spring

music festival every summer

wwoofers work the land for

room and board

longer-term, more formal apprenticeships are offered 

for people

serious about farming 

the zendo (meditation

hall): an elegant two-storied

building north side of the

property base of a large hill 

french doors open

into the ground floor foyer from the exterior

a staircase directly in front of the foyer leads

to the practice space upstairs, it

doubles as a yoga studio and dance facility

halfway up the staircase a short 

corridor on the right leads to a private room 

used for dokusan (private

interview) the ground floor spacious 

good storage

moderate-sized bathroom

shower insert

open-area boot room with

benches

coat hooks line the walls

shelves above for hats, gloves and scarves floors

gently heated with large square 

earthenware tiles

second floor 

full-height windows 

doors line the west wall

an expansive deck steps

run its width descend to

the lower level of the zendo

in the practice space

light streams through six skylights

full-height windows on the east wall

the room holds forty people comfortably

chairs in the back for those

unable to sit on a

cushion

knot-free old growth fir floors gleam

some thirty steps from

the zendo entrance

in a lush grassy field

an elder willow rests

hidden in branches

bonshō sounds every day

in the pitch black before dawn

practice period

begins

beside the zendo

a spacious, cob-construction

fruit and vegetable stand

a vibrant flower stall in the spring

a slate path from the zendo

leads to a gravel road

in the evening garden

lights line the road

cast a soft amber glow

go up the road to

the barn

massive, traditional Amish

main floor

three washrooms

commercial-sized kitchen

common area used to supply snacks 

& tea for retreat participants

ample benches

for sangha (community of

practitioners) to spend time 

in silent contemplation

during sesshin

2nd floor

dining area 

seats at least a hundred

each end of the barn fully

paned with thick glass

floor to ceiling

six meters at its peak

light pours in

even on moody days

floors 

old-growth Douglas Fir

selectively culled 

milled on-site

down the slope

three detached yurts

between barn and

zendo

four circular rental residences join

in a clover formation

cordwood walls

grass roofs 

communal bathrooms 

heated floors concrete

tiles dyed a deep, matte 

pastel red 

***

the zendo lights are low as

 the sangha files into 

the meditation hall 

before dawn

black zafus [round

meditation cushions] and

zabutons [square padded mats

underneath each zafu] evenly

spaced around the room

perimeter 

robins not yet awake

just the still predawn

the occasional tree frog pierces 

through the silence, a sleeve

lightly brushes a pant

leg, there’s

light breathing and—

BONNNNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGGG….

the bonshō

fills the space struck

repeatedly, until

finally the singing 

bowl in the zendo cries out in return 

much higher pitched, increases its rhythm until 

with one last resounding strike

it rings through time and space

fades

all is silence once more

seat

knees and hips

back and chest

hands

eyes

chin

relax

Breathe, keep breathing

Don’t lose your nerve

Breathe, keep breathing

I can’t do this alone

—Radiohead, “Exit Music (for a film)”

tension in the shoulders

tension in the mind 

on and on it goes

hours and days

gongs, gasshos (a bow palms

together, bend at the waist) solemn

chanting moments of rapture

moments of furious hell, soft rain

wind, sun, day, night, we sit in solidarity

we sit as though our lives depend on it, and maybe they do

***

Like children, we assemble on our cushions before the teacher. The posture is loose-casual. Some practitioners choose to lean against the wall to give their legs a break. Others have their legs outstretched in front, or crossed limply, or they hug their knees. Some who are normally seated in full lotus opt to place their cushions between their legs in the traditional seiza posture.

It’s a glorious afternoon. The sun’s soft rays warm up the space. The windows are open and a cool breeze freshens the room. Robins and blackbirds sing and you can hear children play near the barn. A circular saw makes intermittent cuts in the distance, where a new barn’s being built. The occasional raven chortles. When the wind picks up, the willow branches rustle outside.

“Many of you who sit with me regularly will have heard this already…” Théo examines his audience over his reading glasses, looks down, pauses reflectively, and lifts his head up again. “…But for the benefit of those who have not, you should know that I recently got a puppy!” He beams. Everyone laughs, he loudest of all. He shakes his head; he can’t believe it. A couple of people go Awww….

“And as so many of you know, if you scream or yell at a puppy or shame it, you don’t change its behaviour for the better! You have to gently remind it about what’s considered proper conduct. You bring the puppy around with loving-kindness, not violence.” A few people nod in agreement.

Théo looks up in shock: “It’s just like zazen!” There’s a chorus of mmmms, nods of affirmation, gasps of exaltation. It’s astounding! He looks out and grins broadly, astounded as his grey eyes eat up the sky, hands outstretched, until he brings palms together in gassho and everyone does the same. 

“He’s only six weeks old, this puppy.” 

Aawwww…” says Freya. “What kind?”

“Black lab-Rotweiler cross.” Freya nods.

“What’s his name?”

“Wwoofer.” 

Laughter.

“But it’s not spelled w-o-o-f like a dog woofing, it’s spelled ‘w-woof,’ w-w-o-o-f, like the good wwoofers who work and play and sleep on this farm. 

“The same people who prepare us this bountiful food! Can you believe this food?” A chorus of mmmms and nods again. And it’s true; the food is amazing, even more so due to its being consumed as part of oriyoki practice.

There’s nothing about oriyoki (a meditative, ritualized form of eating—particularly in the Zen Sōtō tradition—using nested bowls, chopsticks and a cleaning utensil) that isn’t intense; how can it not be, when actually getting the food onto your plate, let alone into your mouth, is the least time-consuming part of the process? 

There are the three bowls: the largest for the vegetarian main, the second generally for some sort of dessert such as yogurt with fruit, and the third strictly to dispose of any excess broth used to clean the other two bowls. 

The only liquid you can drink during the meal is the broth used to clean all three serving bowls after everyone’s finished eating. You clean the bowls with the tsetsu, a small spatula designed expressly for this purpose. God forbid you add too much yeast powder as a topping on your brown rice, swallow it too quickly and choke. When you’re that hungry, it’s a real hazard; mindful eating becomes a safety measure.

Once the first two bowls have been cleaned, dried and centered on the serviette, place your spoon and chopsticks on top, but make sure they point to the left. Then you can drink your broth. Should you choose not to drink it, the broth goes into the large bowl that is then passed down the line. Remember to point your bowl away from you as you dispose of your liquid; then reciprocate by holding the bowl for the person facing you across the table and pass the bowl down the line. Afterwards, once everyone’s eaten, the nutritious stock is fed to the trees outside the kitchen. Don’t forget all the gasshoes. Gassho. Gassho. Gassho. GASSHO! It’s gasshoes all the way down.

And then there’s the serviette, in which you place your bowls. When everyone’s eaten, you fold the serviette in a series of precise steps to turn it into a lotus flower. I take the remedial class for that one; the subtleties elude me in the large group demonstration and practice.

It’s a dream world—and sometimes more specifically a nightmare—for people with OCD; every detail is accounted for.

***

My first time at sesshin. I arrive in the early afternoon by bicycle and am invited to sweep the front entrance of the zendo by Owen, the tanto [retreat manager] until the retreat officially begins. It gives me something to do, and I enjoy sweeping—after all, when I worked in construction I swept apartments almost every day for two months, usually with Abdul, the Libyan with one green and one blue eye, and Alexey, an Armenian—a plant supervisor in his home country with an engineering background, now relegated to labour work as a Canadian immigrant. 

The bonshō sounds and the retreat participants mindfully (of course) hang up their jackets, remove their hats and shoes and file upstairs to the meditation hall. We sit for one practice period. I’m immediately impressed by the discipline of the sangha. Compared with Sangri-la, the practice is far more regimented. Walking meditation is one-fifth the pace of Sangri-la; just imagine walking in slow-slo-mo; extra slow. We make it around three quarters of the room in ten minutes. 

The forms are elegant and beautiful, and surprisingly familiar—though I’m also completely lost at times; in particular not knowing any of the chants, or what happens next even in general. 

After we chant we cover off housekeeping details, and coordinate rides for the billets at the retreat, of which I am one. Only twenty-four hours before my arrival, due to what we’ll call a clerical error, it’s discovered that I don’t have a place to stay. Théo calls me directly, graciously apologizes for the error and invites me to stay in his study, a modest studio beside Maser Lake in the middle of the forest. 

“Is there anything I can do to help you feel installed?” I look at the kitchen table, where a muffin rests in a plastic container. “I thought you might be hungry. When I saw that you came here by bicycle, I bought you a muffin.” I smile. I’m starved.

“Thank you very much!” 

“Is there anything else that you need before I leave? Did you want more to eat?” 

“No, I don’t think so, I have some power bars, but thanks again for everything, and I’m sorry for any inconvenience it’s caused.”

“No, no, nononono. No inconvenience. Well, good night then.” We gassho and Théo goes back to the main house for the evening. 

Born in Detroit to Haitian immigrant parents, an impassioned poet and now Zen priest, Théo Hitomu (“Single Dream”) Aristide, ordained as Abbot and Head Teacher in the Order of the Broken Heart, settled on Cameron Island during the Reagan years and pledged to build a sangha from the ground up.

Beside the bed—a double futon on a simple platform frame—is a bookshelf. The vast majority of the books are about Zen, with smatterings of Jingpa Lhawang and other Tibetan authors, English translations of Chan and Pali scripture, some Don Cupitt and Thomas Merton. In a mad fury, I write every title in the shelf into my notebook and later create a document called “Théo’s bookshelf.

I go back in the kitchen and wolf down the muffin at a small table underneath a window that looks out onto the lake, impossible to see in the darkness. I’m exhausted from my ride and this adventure into the unknown. In bed, I set my alarm for 4:30 AM, breathe the cool, limnic air, and fall into a deep sleep as tree frogs call out into the night. 

I wake in terror with an erection to the sound of my alarm in the pitch blackness of the room, my arms trapped in my sleeping bag and for a brief instant, no comprehension of where I am. Total panic. The sound of tree frogs fills the blackness as I try to calm my racing heart, take a deep breath, grab a tissue from the box next to the bed and jerk off urgently; the exact opposite of mindful masturbation. I can’t close my eyes and stay here, I’ll fall asleep again. I have to get up. So get up I do. The cool air toys with my hardon as I shiver and pull on my comfy clothes and eat a power bar to prepare for a marathon day of doing fuck all. 

It’s too early for the loons, but three deer graze on the grass as I walk up the path, until they notice my presence and spring away at lightning speed, the sound of their hoofs trailing off as they disappear into the woods. 

The stars are unbelievable; it’s a completely clear night. As I make my way to the front of the house, Théo hurries out the door and barks at his wife Helen in Haitian patois. Whatever’s happening, it doesn’t sound good.

“Good morning, how are you? Please, get in the car. Did you sleep all right?” Helen smiles, her jaw clenched.

“I did, thank you.” I gassho, get in and Helen follows. Helen drives as Théo speaks to her animatedly. I can’t understand a word, but between the two of them, Helen’s the one who keeps her cool. This is a Zen master?

We pull into the parking lot among others who are also arriving, file in, hang up our coats, climb the stairs, gassho at the entrance to the practice space and assume our positions in silence as the bonshō sounds. The morning session is beautiful as the sun softly rises and birds wake up to the day. Their voices reach a crescendo as the sun illuminates the sky, not a cloud in sight, just the blue that has magically transformed before our eyes from pitch blackness, so slowly you don’t even realize it’s happening.

Just hanging out, that’s what I tell myself, in between the moments of complete boredom, anxiety, total bliss, doubt, confusion, lust, etc. Just another day examining the old noggin. Not that that’s the point. 

At 6:45 AM, we bow out. There are ten minutes before we eat. I’m famished from all the calories I burned the day before. I discretely pull a power bar from my bike pannier and wolf it down. Some people linger and stretch. Conveniently, there’s a barre against the full-length mirrored back wall of the hall, used for ballet. I follow a group of people who file their way downstairs and head to the barn to explore. The property’s pastoral, with a stone wall following the length of the road on one side, a peaceful meadow with a tractor shelter and large wood-frame utility shed on the other.

There’s a handful of people in front of me, but I’m still among the early birds outwardly looking forward to the prospect of food. 

As per the zendo, the ground floor’s of the barn is adorned with coat hooks, benches, a hat-and-glove shelf, and heated tiles. Boots are neatly placed under the bench, or go outside the door if there’s no more room inside. The clang of pots and pans can be heard in the kitchen. The space is warm and the air smells like oatmeal and cinnamon. 

When the bonshō rings for breakfast, everyone lines up in their socks and passes by a table where each person has a serviette folded into quarters with their name written on a piece of tape.  

With a gassho from the resident attendant, we’re motioned to enter the kitchen and serve ourselves food. We can sit anywhere upstairs. Being one of the first to line up, I sit at a table among the first to arrive. 

After four full days, you accept that it actually doesn’t matter when you show up for food, so long as you’re not late—since no one starts until everyone has sat down anyways. And even once everyone’s sat down, you don’t eat right away, first you chant. What’s incredible to me is how dialed in you can get by the end of five days. Once everyone’s had a few practice runs, they know what to expect and they get better at it. That’s when you start to appreciate what sangha can mean. And practice. Everyone understands exactly what to do; everyone’s in unison. A kind of group synchronization occurs as the choreography improves. Flow.

Théo stands. 

“Friends, thank you for being here. Before we begin, I’d like to share a teaching that was passed down to me by my teacher. Please remain in gassho for the entirety of the teaching.” We all bow our heads, palms together.

Oriyoki is a very important practice for me. As you can see, we’ve been graced with this beautiful breakfast, as though it appeared out of thin air for us. But many, many people—and nonhuman presences—have contributed to this meal.

Let us be mindful of the effort and intention that was put into growing the necessary grains for these oats, the feeding of the chickens and regular egg collection, the people who pick, transport, wash, and cut the fruit…the list goes on. We literally depend on them. Think about that.

We thank the farmers who work directly with our Earth Mother, gaia, the collective life force that is the science and poetry of this planet—to cultivate and nourish the soil, and to grow this food with rain and sunlight.

All of these forces are bodhisattvas, living out their dharmic existence for all eternity in service to life. For this we practice gratitude, in awe and wonder of the planet, the moon circling us while we twirl around the sun in some mysterious dance. 

All of this is in your food. Please be mindful of this teaching during oriyoki practice.” 

Finally, we get down to business. Jesus, I could sure use a coffee…

Instead, nothing to drink. I have large-flake oatmeal with apples and brown sugar, fruit salad with yogurt, and a hard-boiled egg. 

When it comes to the egg, which I save for last, I don’t know what to do. Crack it on the edge of the table? Use my knife? Is there a special way to eat hard-boiled eggs at sesshin? I haven’t eaten a hard-boiled egg in years.

How old am I? Four years old? I crack open the egg in the cup and it’s somehow a big deal that we’re eating these things, but it takes patience to pull the shell away from the egg with a tablespoon, and you just want to scream and throw your egg, and it’s kind of pasty ‘cause it’s overcooked, and Mom pours too much salt on them, and heart disease runs in the family and I know this.

Meanwhile, back in the present, I try to subtly peer at other people’s plates to see what they’re doing with their eggs, but no one’s eating them. Is there a reason? My heart rate increases and I begin to flush. They know. Finally, Théo grabs a knife and thwack thwack thwacks his egg, which cracks the shell. He holds the egg with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand and peels off the outer layer with his right.

***

Dharma talk. “I think we should all gassho the cook, Pam, who is not here with us because she’s busy preparing supper right now.”

Gasshos all around.

 “…We practice gratitude for the food that we will receive, and because we spend time in this strong, vibrant farm community…” Soft light shines on Théo’s face from the window nearest where he’s installed, behind the altar, sitting in full lotus, the shrine behind him. He stares out the window into the distance. Cumulous clouds drift slowly through the sky as we all listen to the breeze rustle in the elder willow’s leaves just outside the window, bamboo wind chimes further off in the distance, towards the barn.

“What about Wwoofer?” asks Owen, and ruins the moment.

Laughter.

“Oh Wwoofer! That’s right, Wwoofer!” He laughs louder than anyone else, face red; “I forgot all about him!” 

More laughter.

“So Wwoofer flops around all over the place, tries to bite my feet first thing when I wake up and go to give him some food, and you know, he’s definitely a tripping hazard!” 

Laughter. In fact, at one point Stella had three clients in her facility who all sustained injuries from tripping over their dogs or a variation thereof.

“…And it’s first thing in the morning, and I stand up to put on my slippers and he grabs one of the slippers in his mouth and starts to flail around like this,” Théo grits his teeth and shakes his head vigorously from left to right to left to right causing us all to laugh. “Grrrrr…” 

He stands up and moves from behind the altar. “And I take the slipper from him, but gently,” he speaks in a near-whisper and bends into a crouch, “…Because I don’t want him to chomp down on it and think we’re playing a game, so I smile at him and I say, ‘Yes, good boy Wwoofer, give me the slipper, that’s a good boy.’” 

Théo smiles and nods, hand outstretched, as though the puppy’s in front of him. “And I pet him, and take the slipper, and he looks up at me and he wags his tail and his tongue lolls around as the dog thinks, ‘I have no idea what this guy wants me to do.’”

Laughter.

“And then I go and grab the other slipper and he does the same thing, and I smile at him and gently take the slipper, and say again, ‘Good boy, give me the slipper,’ and he looks at me, and wags his tail, and you can tell he thinks, ’—I have no idea…’ A couple of voices chime in for the chorus this time around ‘…what this guy wants me to do.’” 

Laughter.

It’s just like our minds!” 

We’re stopped in our tracks; some people nod. “All it takes is for someone to sneeze, or to hear a fly trapped in one of the window screens, or the sound of the children playing outside, or the crack of the floorboards, and we’re off on our next adventure, and we no longer even realize at that time that we’re actually in this room!” 

Owen slams his hand on the floor. The sound of the smack briefly echoes throughout the space.

Long, full and poignant silence,

“Or maybe it’s the opposite— all of a sudden, some other distraction registers with us consciously, maybe it’s the sound of the gate opening, or a raven, or the sound of raindrops on the roof or a car drives by, and we’re back! And that’s the Dharma! Everything can be a teaching—Anything can wake us up! Just as mysteriously as we leave, we’re suddenly back in our bodies again. 

“And in those moments that we notice our breath, we become the breath—because we always were, we always are, it’s just that now we realize it—even if we’ve realized it before, because it’s all the same moment anyways—but we forget, and obsess about the past and worry about the future. When we’re one with the breath, in that moment we experience…the absence of separation. There is no longer any outside or inside, no past or future, no time. The breath is neither outside nor inside of us—it’s both and neither, and words become meaningless. ” Many nod.

Silence. Reflection.

***

“You know your puppy?” I ask Théo in dokusan, “And how it stares at you and you can tell it has no idea what you want it to do?” He gives a deep nod. “I feel like that puppy all the time.” He nods again, looks down at the floor and raises his eyebrows. “I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Yes.” His eyes are downturned. “None of us really know what’s going on.” he shakes his head and smiles.

“I walk home from work quite often, and I listen to a lot of Miles Fleischer Buddhist recovery podcasts, you know, Zen Day by Day…” he nods again, but this time leans in. The creases in his heavy robes shift slightly, his brow furrows in anticipation. “And every once in a while he asks the question, ‘What is going on?’ And I always laugh out loud when he says that, because the question resonates so strongly with me….it’s one of the reasons that I always seem to come back to Zen. You know, the Great Doubt and all…” I wave my hand dismissively. He gives me a penetrating stare.

“You probably know that I know Miles…” I nod. “He comes up here sometimes with his wife, and Helen and I hang out with them. The last time he joined us, I sat on a log with Miles looking out at the water,” he stares off in the distance and pauses. “And he turned to me and said, ‘You know Théo, we didn’t do so bad for two kids growing up in Detroit.’ And it’s true.”  He nods to himself. 

***

“But isn’t it incredible?” His eyes gleam. “We breathe in oxygen, produced by plants, fed by the rain and the soil and the sun and the clouds, and we exhale carbon dioxide and give it back to the atmosphere, and somehow this delicate balance between all sentient beings on the planet is maintained.

Except when it’s not.” He points with his finger for emphasis. “That’s where we come in.” He laughs, as do many among us uncomfortably.

“There seems to be this little problem that we have…” More laughter. “…Where evolution has hard-wired a fight or flight response into our genetic makeup, which has seen an acceleration of wars declared against ourselves and against our environment—through many different means, such as poaching, overfishing, acid rain, the ozone hole, monocrop agriculture, resource extraction, the industrial-military complex…but you know all this, right? 

Well here’s what you might not know. Right here, right now, your actions make a difference. When you practice peace, you practice the Dharma. There is no difference. And through the practice of the Dharma, you increase the value of the Peace Index!”

Laughter.

“We’re in competition with Wall Street!”

More laughter.

“We’re all bodhisattvas, whether we realize it or not. It takes great compassion, just to live in this world. There’s so much heartbreak, but it’s also so glorious.” Théo looks outside, then at the assembly. “And so precious.” He turns to the window again and extends a hand. “The trees are bodhisattvas, and the clouds are bodhisattvas, and the sun is a bodhisattva. And out of their boundless compassion, we are born and sustained, nourished by their bounty. 

Have you ever considered the actual odds of everything happening exactly the way it has? Never mind the chances of your coming into existence at all, what about the chances of walking into a zendo? Of being human and presented with the Dharma?”

Some people shake their heads in awe, or nod.

“The Dharma teaches us to always stay in the present, which most of the time is actually completely, utterly normal and mundane, and entirely forgettable. Nothing special. These non-events are also the most precious moments of our lives, where peace can be found. We should try to pay attention to them. Learn from them. Which reminds me of something I wanted to say.” 

He pauses and scans the room. A handsome, clean-shaven man with silver hair, probably in his sixties, stares reflectively out the window. 

“At breakfast: if you have a hard-boiled egg, and you want to crack it, it’s simple—you just crack it.”

Laughter.

“You make more noise in silence when you worry about how you’re supposed to crack your egg, than if you actually just….crack the egg. Nothing special.” I learn later that on that first day with the egg, I am seated at a table with all of the senior members of the sangha, and don’t know any of them. 

What are the chances? With all the people who’ve tried meditation—any form of meditation—how many stick with it, through the thick and the thin, year after year, through love, sickness and death, to call this their practice? Their personal calling, for the benefit of all sentient beings? It’s a miracle that the Dharma gets transmitted at all!

And yet, we know that there is an unbroken lineage that goes all the way back to the First Patriarch, Bodhidharma, and before him the Chinese masters, and before them Mahakashyapa, the Buddha’s first disciple, he to whom the unspoken teaching was first transmitted.

Thanks to this unbroken lineage, we all have the means to realize our true nature, the practice of peace, of nonduality and compassion through the teachings. Don’t you agree?”

I still sit with this question, and I still don’t know after twenty years.

***

“How are you finding it?” Théo asks me in our first dokusan.

“It’s…interesting…” He waits for me to elaborate.

“Is that some Canadian thing, where you’re too apologetic to actually say when you don’t like something? I mean, I’m honestly asking the question.”

“No, no, it’s not that, it’s not like that at all. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that…I decide to attend sesshin, and I make plans to get here, and now, here I am! Like, how does that even happen?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know…” Théo whispers. “It’s all so mysterious…” There’s a pause for mystery.

“What about all the chanting? How do you find that?” He seems almost anxious.

“It’s pretty straightforward…I messed up a few times.” He shrugs. 

“Have you been on meditation retreats before?”

“Yeah…” I’m playing hard to get.

“How many?” 

“I dunno, maybe five or six weekend retreats.”

“Oh! In what tradition?” His interest is piqued.

“Sangri-La.” I respond, embarrassed. 

“How did you find out about this sesshin?”

“I read about it on the Vancouver Island Buddha Blog.”

He looks at me and smiles, fascinated. “I had no idea there even was such a thing.” 

He eyes me curiously. “Francis, do you have any questions for me?” 

“Well…” Sometimes it’s so hard to find the right words. “Can I get like…cross-curricular credits for having taken the Refuge Vow in Sangri-La? I mean, is that even acknowledged in Zen?” 

“No, that’s not how it works…” his jaw tightens, he smiles and shakes his head.

“Why not?” I’m genuinely curious. 

What about the precepts?” he snaps. 

It’s been my primary koan ever since. 

Han

The Japanese han is also called a moppan, or “wooden board”

The han is made from a piece of live edge white fir. The mallet is made from an oak chair leg.

Sitting

Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor

Two gates

Shelves


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