I was just about 20 years old, and found myself despondent and working a dead-end job. Putting in 12 hour night shifts as a janitor, pushing a mop down a catwalk in an industrial factory/foundry. They made brass fittings for plumbing. The entire floor of the foundry side of the building developed a dark haze of soot every few hours. So, every few hours, I’d walk over there, make a fresh mop bucket of sudsy water and get back to the endless task of keeping it clean. Those were rough times. Every night I’d wake up, peel myself out of bed, and drive across town to yet another long shift of drudgery. The monotony and isolation was suffocating. I’d sit alone in the supply room on a flimsy plastic chair and eat a hard boiled egg and PB&J on my lunch break. A single, bare light bulb hanging above as though to highlight my solitude. I had this itch, way in the back of my brain. “There’s got to be something more than this. I’m not here to mop a floor for fifty years, retire, and die” I’d tell myself.
I was born to a typical, middle-class midwestern family, youngest of three. My father was a very hard-working and traditional man. He’d built the house I grew up in and worked as a mechanic until cancer forced his retirement. Mom was a nurse further back than I could remember. We’d go to church nearly every Sunday, Catholic when I was younger and switching to Lutheran when I was about 8. I enjoyed that community for the most part. Bible camp every summer was something to look forward to. We took trips backpacking in the Rocky Mountains, canoeing on the Great Lakes, and other beautiful destinations. I didn’t mind the occasional Bible study, even as a growing sense developed that something about it just didn’t sit right with me.
In my early teens, my parents relaxed their insistence on my sisters and me attending church, and it didn’t take long for us to stop going altogether. Things just didn’t make sense. I was mostly disturbed by the insistence that I was deeply flawed as a person, and as a quality of my being rather than the consequence of my actions. Requirements to beg forgiveness, mandates to love a man I didn’t understand. Drinking wine and eating bread in a ceremony that was said to bring us closer to God, but it just looked like theater to me. I wanted to know what was behind the eyelids of those taking the Eucharist and bowing their heads in reverence, but the words they used just didn’t resonate. It would be some years before I’d look again at religion.
I finished high school, and attended a community college pursuing an Associate of Arts degree. After a year of that, I realized I had no idea what I planned to do with that degree, and quit. I began working various minimum-wage jobs while I decided what to do with my life.
So there I sat, lonely, among dusty boxes of toilet paper and stacks of cleaning supplies, taking each bite of dry egg and soggy sandwich and making a focused effort to force it down. Desperate for meaning, anxious and listless, I came to a breaking point and decided I would not spend the rest of my life in a haze of apathy. I needed to find meaning and purpose to life. I had to know what this was all about. I began looking at various disciplines and belief systems. I read through explanations of the universe through quantum physics but my lack of background in the field and inability to deeply understand the topic left me unsatisfied. It felt to me like the way I was looking for should be…simpler. Astronomy and astrophysics intrigued me, and I picked up a telescope to survey and understand the movements of celestial bodies, but again, I found no answers in the eyepiece and my pursuits in that field were stymied by my poor grasp of advanced mathematics.
I read Marcus Aurelius, Sun Tzu, Tao te Ching, Nietzsche, Camus, Thomas Aquinas, and more. I looked into Kabbalah, Sufism, Christian mysticism, and a host of pseudoscientific systems. Each one brilliant in their own ways, but they all seemed not to address the question I needed answered. None quite scratched the itch.
Then, I found Zen. Specifically, the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. It was a form of Buddhism brought to Japan by Eihei Dogen in 1227, following his studies under masters in China. Dogen emphasized this practice of zazen, which seemed to be a kind of meditation that the teacher recommended as the fundamental practice of his school.
The Soto school is one of the two most popular sects of Zen in Japan, the other being Rinzai, which employs zazen to a degree, but also makes use of the well-known koans. These bizarre, nonsensical riddles are given to a student to ponder over a period of months or years, designed to frustrate logic and push the student into a new perspective. Koans are not generally used in the Soto school.
Something about Zen struck me as standing out from the rest. Here was a method of addressing our most urgent questions about life and reality that didn’t try to sell an answer or explanation. It didn’t require agreement on basic assumptions, didn’t claim to be an authority on the world, and even recommended its adherents not take the teachings found therein too seriously. It eschewed the notion that Truth could be frozen into words and phrases and encouraged the individual to see for themselves instead of adopting the view of another. Zen wouldn’t let me get away with allowing someone else to dictate the answers for me, I had to do the work myself. But, I still didn’t understand the cryptic writings of the old masters I’d read, and I didn’t realize the significance of this practice of zazen that was held with such importance. Regardless, I read the instructions laid out, folded up a blanket to sit on in my little corner of my apartment, put a rolled towel under my butt, and sat zazen every day for several weeks.
The first few days were spent adjusting to the posture, rigor, and discipline of zazen. Sitting upright and attentive, chin tucked slightly, eyes half open, lotus position, hands folded in mudra and resting in the lap, thumb tips touching gently- not too hard, not too soft, just enough to hold a piece of paper. Staring at a wall, teeth and lips closed, tip of the tongue just touching the front roof of the mouth. Every body part just so. Paying attention. Continually returning my attention to the act of sitting as an engaging practice, over and over as I became lost in analysis, daydreams, and boredom. Refusing to indulge in impulses to itch my nose, yawn, or fidget. It was so uncomfortable not to have anywhere to latch my attention to, no concept to identify with and pursue.
Another word for zazen is shikantaza. “Shikan” meaning “nothing but” or “wholeheartedly”. “Ta” is a forceful word, “to strike precisely” or “hit the very top of”. “Za” is “to sit”. Zazen is to wholeheartedly, precisely hit “sitting”. Nothing fancy, not striving for extra-special sitting. Just sitting, exactly sitting, fully sitting, in body and mind.
Soon, I came face to face with the first of several startling observations the books had made. I’d gone through the first 20 years of my life completely subject to the whims of a mind that bounced from thought to thought, haphazardly and randomly, and I found I was not in control of these thoughts as I believed I’d been. Without taking a close look at my stream of consciousness, I’d had the illusion of a continuous, coherent, linear way of thinking and seeing the true, fragmented nature of my everyday mind was shocking. I’d been under the impression that I was directing the path of some piercing missile of logic, but found quickly I had no say in this irrational mess, and there was no pilot to be found. In those first few weeks, I had a glimpse of something beyond the surface appearance of mind, a tantalizing look at a primordial freedom that had been sitting, unperturbed, beneath the waves of thought that remained unmoved. It wasn’t not-thinking either, since that was just another state of mind. This was something else that went beyond conditions and mental states. I had this sense it had always been there, and glimpsing this stillness and freedom felt like…coming home. No other approach I’d studied gave me this first-hand look at what it was talking about, no other system riveted me in such a way or felt as bare and honest. I had to go further.
Pursuing Zen in any serious sense meant finding an authentic teacher who could show me the ropes. I thought this was pretty hopeless and figured the only place such a teacher might exist was high on a mountaintop somewhere in remote China or deep in a Japanese monastery, inaccessible to some random guy from Iowa. I started entertaining ill-formed plans of saving for airfare and wandering a foreign land as a clueless tourist following a pipe dream.
I don’t remember exactly how the topic came up, but in a conversation with my aunt, she informed me she was actually long-time friends with a man who had become a Soto Zen priest, and lived at a monastery just over the border into Minnesota. Just a few hours drive from me. I could not believe my luck. She gave me his phone number, and I still recall that first conversation as I stood in the empty cafeteria of the factory. “Hi, this is Jason, my aunt “R” gave me your number. I’ve been practicing zazen a couple of hours every day, and want to learn more.” He said “A couple of hours? Every day? You should come visit.” He invited me to spend a weekend training with him at his monastery, and it wasn’t long before I found myself slowly driving the long and winding path through the Minnesota woodland to finally arrive at Hokyoji Zen Monastery.
My aunt’s friend, Rev. Georgesen, lived permanently at the rustic, isolated compound and hosted regular retreats and Zen services for the local community. We spent the weekend reviewing basic operations of a monastery, sitting zazen, and discussing what brought me there in the first place. He took me to visit nearby Ryumonji Zen Monastery, even closer to me and in Iowa. At the time, Ryumonji was under considerable construction and their abbot and resident monk, Rev. Winecoff, showed me the freshly poured concrete slab that would later become the Buddha Hall of the monastery. Rev. Winecoff had trained in monasteries in Japan, and brought blueprints back with him to build and establish an authentic Zen training center in the midwest. A sizable plot of land was donated for the purpose, and construction began. During building of the compound at Ryumonji, retreats were held in a nearby farmhouse.
I returned home with a new-found vigor. I’d encountered something that seemed to offer the understanding I sought. With new purpose, I decided to go back to school to study nursing, and to devote the rest of my energies to Zen practice. While pursuing my degree, I attended retreats at Ryumonji regularly, and studied chado, the Japanese Zen tea ceremony, under Rev. Fox, another priest residing in Iowa City.
Rev. Fox, after giving detailed instruction on the many steps of preparing and offering tea in the authentic style, asked me a question. “Do you sit zazen with anyone back home?” “No,” I replied, “just by myself”. “Why?” he asked. “Because there isn’t a Zen group back home” I said. “…why?” he continued. I chuckled and said “Ok, I get it.” So, on my return home after that trip, I received permission from the local Unitarian Universalist church to host a zazen group on Saturday mornings. I was no authority on Zen and didn’t claim to be, but merely held a space for interested people to get together, sit in silence, and briefly read an excerpt from a Zen text and discuss. Attendees were few, and most showed for one meeting before deciding it wasn’t their cup of tea. A few continued attending on a weekly basis and I remain deeply thankful to all of them for encouraging me and each other.
After completing nursing school, it was time to study for my board exams to receive my nursing license. I’d scheduled the test some months away in the fall. I had some money saved so I could afford to take a break from everything and focus on the exam guides. What better place to take some time off than a Zen monastery? So, back on the phone, and I discussed my situation with Rev. Winecoff. He said it would be no problem to come stay at Ryumonji for a few months, have a quiet place to study for my exam and experience monastery life as well.
When I arrived, the Buddha Hall had recently been completed, and work had begun on the nearby kuin, a residential facility to afford some amenities to resident and visiting practitioners. It included dormitories, a well-equipped kitchen, bath and shower facilities, laundry room, library, common area, and office and bedroom for the abbot. For much of the time, the only permanent residents were myself and Rev. Winecoff. I slept in a back room of the Buddha Hall, while he slept in the farmhouse across the valley. I remember my first night in there, laying on my Thermarest over a hardwood floor. The monastery has in-floor heating, which makes for comfortable floor-sitting and a conspicuous lack of the hums, clicks, and whirrs of heating systems I’m used to. After dark, the main hall is cavernous and empty with massive wooden beams joined by pegs. A bust of Buddha sits atop a large altar and stares benevolently into the blackness. Every whisper echos and seems amplified. Large steel bells hang in a corner in eerie silence. It’s creepy.
Most days consisted of morning zazen, breakfast, then construction on the kuin until lunch. Then a bit of personal time, more work afterwards, dinner, free time, and another period of zazen before bed. Occasionally we’d take a field trip to the local towns, do some sightseeing, or attend another Zen group nearby.
One weekend a month was sesshin. A Japanese word meaning “to gather the mind”, the tradition of sesshin began centuries ago, as wandering monks took refuge from the rainy season in monasteries, using the opportunity to devote time to extended practice of zazen and study. These days, many monasteries and Zen centers hold sesshin regularly, ranging from one day to week-long intensive retreats, open to the public. The recommendation before attending is only that one have some prior experience practicing zazen.
Sesshin schedule is strict. Attendees meet for a weekend retreat on Friday evening for a brief introduction, review of the schedule to come, and assignment of officers and duties. An informal dinner is served, and sesshin schedule begins at 7:30 pm Friday night. The monastery quiets down, and a bell rings to announce evening zazen.
Saturday morning, the doan (bell ringer) rises at 4:30 am and jogs down the hallways of the sleeping quarters clanging a bell with a shrill, metallic twang. The first period of zazen begins at 5:00 and runs until 5:40. You’ll want to get there early, and be seated and in zazen posture before the doshi arrives. Approach your zafu, the round, kapok-filled sitting cushions. Pause and bow in gassho towards it, in thanks for the practice. Turn 180 degrees to your right, and bow in gassho towards the world, in thanks for it. Sit, tuck knees, and rotate 180 degrees right, to face the wall. Always rotate right, that consistency prevents students colliding before and after sessions of zazen. Shortly after taking your seat for the first zazen period of the day, sitting upright, eyes open, facing the wall, you’ll hear the gentle shuffle of feet on stone tile as the doshi, attending priest, makes his way to his cushion somewhere behind you. As he walks past, circling the group, you can silently hold your hands in gassho to say “good morning”. He’ll be doing the same for you.
After the first sit, the doan will ring the bell to prepare for ten minutes in kinhin. This is a type of walking meditation, designed to give the practitioner a break to stand up and promote circulation. At the bell signaling the end of the zazen period, bow in gassho toward the wall. Tuck knees, rotate 180 degrees right. Stand. Bow again towards the world. About face, and gently brush dust or lint from your zafu and zabuton, the thick matting below it. Turn the zafu on its side, and gently fluff it. Straighten out the zafu and zabuton. The white label on the zafu handle should face directly away from the wall, and if a name is written on it, should not be upside down. Always give your seat a bit of care after each sitting. Bow towards your zafu. About face, turning right. Attendees stand in front of their zafus. All face left, folding hands in front of the stomach. The doan strikes a soft bell, and kinhin begins. Inhale, exhale, advance the rear foot one foot-length forward. Breathe normally. Pay attention to walking. Inhale, exhale, step. Repeat. Pay attention. Particularly, keep an eye on the others, and adjust your steps to prevent traffic jams. Always watching, aware of right now, paying attention. Inhale, exhale, step. Attendees orbit at a dead crawl around the center of the room. The occasional cracking toe is heard. Eventually, the doan strikes the bell again, and we adopt a regular walking pace, circling until we arrive at our zafu.
We again assume zazen posture, and begin the next period which lasts until 6:30. With the bell signaling the end of early zazen, the group begins reciting the Verse of the Kesa. I have fond memories of serving as jikido, returning to the zendo after completing the ten minute process of ringing the morning bell. As I’d approach, the faint, low hum of chanting grew louder. Opening the door, the smell of incense and the hypnotic buzz of dozens of students in unison. Attendees stand from their zafus and make their way in an orderly, quiet fashion to the Buddha Hall for morning service. There’s no strict code of silence during sesshin, but quiet voices are encouraged, as is refraining from idle speech.
Seats are taken, and the doshi arrives to conduct morning service. Candles are lit, and incense is offered. Prostrations are performed in reverence of and thankfulness for…well, for what we’re all doing there. Of Buddha, of the community, of our practice, of our vow to save sentient beings. We sit again and begin chanting the Heart Sutra, a personal favorite. In English on Saturday, and Japanese on Sunday. More prostrations and chanting, and once the doshi wraps up morning service, we return to the zafu.
This time, we all face the center of the room instead of the wall, as during zazen. We retrieve our oryoki sets, place them in front of us, and begin the meal gatha. This is another long chant describing Buddha’s life and recognizing the source of our food and our awareness of using it responsibly. During the chant, we open the oryoki set and the tenzo (head cook) and assistant make their rounds serving food. Hand signals are used to communicate silently. The hand is held open and palm up, and raised gently to say “that’s enough, thank you”. Holding up thumb and forefinger close means “just a little more, please”. That’s about all that needs to be said during oryoki.
The word oryoki means “just enough”. It specifically refers to the dish set- five small, nested bowls. “Just enough” food to keep one healthy, and no more, is the idea. Also, a pair of chopsticks, a spoon, setsu stick, utensil holder, dish cloth, and napkin wrapped together in a larger cloth which also serves as a placemat. The word also refers to the very specific ritual involved in opening and setting out the bowls, receiving food, eating, cleaning up, and putting the set back together; as well as the attention given to the process. Shikan-ta-oryoki. Simply, and precisely, striking the heart of oryoki.
Every step of oryoki is carefully prescribed. The knot in the wrapping on top of the set is untied, and the sides of the wrap extended. Each corner is tucked to make a placemat. Top, bottom, left, right. Grasp the two corners of the napkin in the lower right side, one in each hand. The hands describe a graceful parabola in the air as both rise, drift apart, and descend to spread the napkin across the lap. Bowls are picked up together, and set out accordingly. Largest bowl on the left, lift out the rest. Next largest bowl in the middle, lift. Be careful, don’t let them drop or clack together. Middle bowl on the right, lift. Next bowl just above the right, and last just to the left of that. With practice, you learn little tricks- push down gently on one side of a nested bowl to raise the other side, then it can be grasped and lifted silently. When stacking them back together, use your thumb tips on the insides of the bowl to gently lower it into the next, avoiding dropping them together loudly. Utensil set is grasped with the right hand, flap on top. Flap lifted with the left hand over top of the utensil set, and grasped in the back by the thumb and index finger of the right hand, all in one fluid movement. Each utensil is carefully removed and set in place silently.
Every movement with careful attention, each motion just enough. And all the while, keep an eye on the others, keep pace, not too fast or too slow. It generally takes at least a half dozen or so sesshins for a person to solidly get the hang of oryoki, and in the meantime it can be a bit challenging to keep up with the rest of the group, and not be the one guy in a silent room full of statuesque zen students, still hurriedly chowing down and trying to catch up. I’ve been that guy. In days of old, monks were fined for dropping bowls or utensils, to encourage them to be very watchful. There’s definitely a certain satisfaction in a well-executed oryoki meal, but by and large, monastery rules are more relaxed these days. You don’t need to worry about fines, penalties, or judgement for learning the ropes. That goes for a lot of older traditions- traditionally, a keisaku was used at monasteries. This flat, wooden stick was wielded by the zendo attendant and used to…”invigorate” sleepy monks with a strike, or several, across the shoulders and back. Soto began to soften this tradition and employed the keisaku only at the request of the student, who would hold their hands in gassho during long periods of zazen to receive a refreshing smack. At Ryumonji, the keisaku sits ceremonially on the altar, and there it stays.
So what’s on the menu? Always vegetarian. For breakfast, usually a porridge, oatmeal, eggs, or scrambled tofu. Sliced fruit, mixed nuts, yogurt, fruit juice, smoothies, and toast were common. The one and only seasoning served is gomashio- toasted, crushed sesame seeds mixed with sea salt. You develop a taste for it. The food was good, but I thought half the time because it was so scarce. Always small portions. Just enough.
Oh, and also, natto may be served at breakfast. Let me make a special note here about natto. This traditional Japanese breakfast food is even despised by a lot of Japanese. The dish begins with cooked soybeans, which are then inoculated with a bacterial strain and left to ferment. They’re prepared by adding soy sauce and mustard, and often served over rice. The result is a sticky mass of beans that seems to…activate when stirred to become yet stickier and slimier. The smell is strong, like an aged cheese. As you lift a spoonful of natto, marshmallowy strings of goo hang from your spoon, and coats the mouth with a pungent and slippery film. Your teacher may encourage you to try at least a small portion of natto, just a couple beans. I don’t know if this is a Zen tradition or if it just amuses him. To be honest, though, you may actually find yourself acquiring the taste in time. Especially when served with rice and a tart, salty umeboshi pickled plum on top, it can be a rather pleasant and flavorful side dish.
After everyone’s had their first round of food, seconds are offered, and some time is given for those to be eaten. Again, you’ll want to pay attention to others. Don’t overindulge, or it will take you forever to finish. Keep an eye on the pace of the others, especially the doshi. Ideally, everyone finishes up at the same time and the meal can move forward.
After seconds are eaten, tenzo and assistant make their rounds again, this time with pots of hot water. Attendees begin the bowl-cleaning gatha, and hold up the largest oryoki bowl to receive water. This is set back down, and the cleaning process begins. Each smaller bowl is washed within the largest using the setsu stick. This simple tool is a flat piece of wood with a piece of folded cloth stitched to one end. The cloth is used as a spatula, scrubbing the dish clean. The wash water is consumed, with a small portion reserved and collected by the tenzo. This is a symbolic offering of a portion of our meals, and the collection is used to water plants outside. Dishes are dried, stacked, and utensils assembled. Again, every movement prescribed, every motion careful, deliberate. To tie the knot on the set once dishes are assembled, the left hand is laid gently on top, palm up. Right hand grasps the left end of the wrap, and draws it across the left palm. The end of the cloth is held between the ring and little finger of the left hand. The right hand grasps the right end of the wrap, lifts and brings it over the left palm, to be held by the middle and index finger of the left hand. The right hand then grasps the left-side end of the cloth, and in one movement, the left hand rotates to pull the right side under the left, tying them together. Complete the knot, and take a moment to straighten it for an orderly appearance. Everything…just so. There isn’t a task so minor at Ryumonji that it doesn’t deserve full attention, as though it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.
Oryoki sets are stowed, and we get a brief morning break of about thirty minutes. On exiting the zendo after meals, the tenzo and assistant will stand silently in the outer foyer. As you pass, it’s nice manners to pause and bow to them to show gratitude for the meal. They’ll return in kind.
Morning zazen resumes at 8:30 am. Periods of 40 minutes zazen alternating 10 minutes kinhin continue until 11:40, broken up by an hour-long lecture in the middle.
Then, service in the Buddha Hall, this time chanting the Jijuyu-Zammai, Dogen’s description of the practice and value of zazen. At noon, oryoki style lunch, and then another brief break. I’d usually take that time to walk the monastery grounds, up to the top of the hill, overlooking the rolling woodland and plowed fields of corn below.
At 1:30 pm, a bell is struck to announce beginning of the 90 minute work period. Those with assigned roles attend to their duties, and the rest form groups or work individually, depending on jobs assigned by the work leader. Jobs consist of general monastery maintenance. Dusting, sweeping, emptying trash bins, light landscaping, processing firewood, gardening, and whatever else needs to be done. On that note, there’s a general rule of thumb at Ryumonji: If you see something that needs to be done, do it. It’s your monastery while you’re there, take care of it.
Job titles are traditional and include doan, responsible for watching the clock throughout the day so the others don’t have to; ringing the right bells, the right number of times, with the correct sequence of soft, medium, and firm hits during services and periods of zazen. After a few sesshins, one quickly learns the meaning of various bells and patterns echoing through the halls, and where in the sequence the doan is. If it’s getting toward the end, you’d better be in your place!
Tenzo is the head cook, a traditionally prestigious position. Dogen recalls fond memories of his conversations with the tenzo at Mt. Tiantong. The tenzo usually has an assistant to aid in preparing meals, serving them to the assembly, and washing dishes. The tenzo and assistant generally do not sit zazen as much as the rest of the group, as they spend much of the day cooking and cleaning. They also eat separately from the group.
Chiden maintains altars, candles, and incense burners throughout the monastery. Jisha attends the doshi, or officiating priest. The jisha assists in offering incense, brings books, water, or other necessities during lecture, and keeps time for chanting using a mokugyo, a wooden percussion instrument struck with a mallet. Jikido rings the large bell at the monastery gate to announce practice times and work periods.
Work plays a special role in Soto Zen, and is approached as another practice; given the same attention, care, and rigor as zazen, kinhin, and oryoki. We’re encouraged to spend that 90 minutes attending fully to our job, performing it well, avoiding drifting off in idle thought and just taking care of the task at hand. Shikan-ta-dusting. Shikan-ta-sweeping.
At 3:00, the bell is struck to announce the end of work period. Attendees return to the kuin for a half hour break with tea and snacks.
Zazen and kinhin resume at 3:30 pm and continue until 5:50. During this time, dokusan is held. If you’re interested in attending, sign up on the sheet posted Friday night. There is no requirement to attend.
Dokusan is, simply, a meeting between teacher and student. Check the list for the name of the student before you, and pay attention for when they return to the zendo. That’s your cue to silently stand from your zafu and head to the kuin. Sit, and wait for the bell to signal the teacher is ready to see you. Walk to the dokusan room, remove slippers, and close the door behind you. Have a seat on the zafu in front of your teacher.
What happens in dokusan? Well, that’s between student and teacher. I had imagined witty banter or puzzling riddles reminiscent of the Zen dialogue recorded in monasteries past. It wasn’t like that for me. Mostly, what I remember from early years was me eagerly bringing some new epiphany, insight, or experience in my home practice to him, hoping for some acknowledgement of attainment, and it never coming. I was frustrated in those early years and questioned if I’d met the right teacher. He would simply nod and say something along the lines of “Yeah, that stuff happens. Don’t go so nuts with the zazen. Don’t push yourself too hard.” He always just wanted to talk about my life, family, school, and work. Every-day, normal stuff. Like a therapist in a robe. Looking back, I chuckle at how many grueling sesshins I had to attend, listen to him go on in lectures about Zen practice being just fully attending to everyday, mundane, normal life, not “getting high on a cushion” as he said. Over and over he repeated that and it took so long to realize that’s what was going on in dokusan too. There wasn’t some mystical formula to apply that granted divine insight. It was just…everyday life. Giving yourself to it fully like you give yourself to sitting upright and facing the wall. No sense of self or gain, just doing what needs to be done. He’d tell me that nursing would become my practice, to “Enter the hospital and disappear,” as Dogen taught “like a tiger entering the forest, or a fish gaining the water.” Fully in my element, attending to every task wholeheartedly. Shikan-ta-nursing.
Evening service begins at 5:50, with chanting of the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, a traditional and complicated mantra that I haven’t begun to memorize. Fortunately, every zafu has a sutra book underneath and there’s no shame holding it open and reading. Just don’t hold it in front of your face, the more voices chanting in unison, the better it sounds!
Oryoki dinner is then followed by zazen/kinhin from 7:30 pm until 9:00. After the bell is rung to announce the end of the final period of zazen for the day, the attendees begin reciting the Fukanzazengi (Dogen’s instructions for zazen) in unison. We retire to our beds, and it’s lights out at 9:30.
Sesshin schedule continues Sunday until noon service, which is open to the general public and sometimes nearly doubles attendance. Then, the monastery hosts a large lunch to sesshin attendees and public alike. Attendees all assist in cleanup from the retreat- washing oryoki bowls, stripping beds and washing linens, restocking altars, wiping down bathrooms, and sweeping. Socializing continues in the kuin common area over cake and tea for some time afterwards.
There is no charge to attend sesshin, a basket sits near the kuin entrance for free-will offerings. Most services offered by the monastery do not require payment, and much of the daily operations are supported via generous donations. Begging for alms has a rich tradition in Zen, and Rev. Winecoff continues the practice of takuhatsu in nearby small towns in Iowa. Donning the monk’s robes, he slowly walks the streets in kinhin, holding a small bowl in front, occasionally ringing a bell.
Sesshin is around seven hours a day of sitting upright, motionless, silent, staring at a wall. I was glad it only came once a month, that was enough. During a significant portion of the weekend, there is a specific place where every part of your body should be, from your toes to the tip of your tongue. Whether sitting in zazen, eating meals, chanting sutras, moving about the monastery, or having a chat with your teacher, there is an…”established way” to do it. When you enter the zendo, the foot closest to the wall should enter first. Exiting a room, those closest to the door leave last. The structure of the retreat is intentionally rigid, and promotes the cultivation of relaxed, alert attention. If you’re new, you’ll learn a lot simply by observing others. If you’ve done this before, watch the new folks especially, and offer instruction and guidance as needed. This usually means showing by example. If someone seems to be having particular difficulty, it’s very kind if you take a moment to quickly and gently point out where we’re at in the sutra book, where the utensil goes, when to exit the zendo, etc. Don’t worry about making mistakes. It’s very much expected, and is part of the practice of sesshin. You’ll make mistakes over and over, and in time will polish your technique until the entire weekend feels like a graceful, slow dance.
By now, I’ve honestly lost count of the sesshins I’ve attended, but they’re still intimidating every time. It’s something you kind of need to psych yourself up for. “Sesshin is a furnace” they say. Truly. A furnace for the ego, incinerating our self-absorbed preferences and distractions.
Aside from that, there were shikunichi days, any day with a 4 or 9. These are “days off”, a chance to do your laundry, shave your head, or make a trip into town. We went in for pizza on one occasion, a visit to a history museum on another, and picnicked at a park near a soothing waterfall in Decorah.
Three months later, I was running out of money, and the time was nigh to take my nursing board exam. I bid Ryumonji farewell and went on to work at hospitals and clinics in the midwest. My teacher was fond of saying, “When you leave here and return to the world, the world becomes your monastery. When you see that something needs attention, attend to it. When someone cries for help, help them. Take care of the world like you care for your eyes.” I continued my regular home practice and returned to Ryumonji for regular sesshin.
Around 2010, my teacher offered lay ordination to me, a sort of ceremony that denotes “officially” becoming a student of Soto Zen. Preparing for the ceremony involves making a rakusu. This bib-like garment is hand stitched by the student from carefully measured, cut, and ironed strips of cotton. A miniature version of a fully ordained priest’s kesa (robe), it’s a time-consuming process and frustration is inevitable. The student brings the rakusu progress to the teacher periodically, and traditionally, the teacher will find a fault. This will happen at least once, if not several times, and means ripping out days or weeks of stitching, and starting over.
Eventually, the rakusu is completed and returned to the teacher, who will prepare it for the jukai lay ordination ceremony by writing on the back- usually a short poem or quote, the student’s new “dharma name”, and the teacher’s seal.
Jukai ceremony is somewhat complex and I won’t detail it too much here. I received jukai in 2013 at Ryumonji, with my family in attendance. It basically consists of verbalizing one’s intention to study Zen, a vow to follow the precepts as a practice- they’re simple and basically common sense- don’t steal, lie, kill, misuse sexuality, slander others, etc. Practice good, save sentient beings. The student receives their completed rakusu back, which will now be worn for many monastery events. Lineage papers are given as well- a long list of names documenting those who took up the precepts and then passed them on- ending with you, preceded by your teacher, and his teacher, and beginning with Buddha. It is a long list, and quite fascinating and moving. I enjoy looking back through it and seeing the names I’ve heard in texts. I spy Dogen, and some ways further up the list, Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from China to India long before. Seven hundred years of students names listed between the two. There’s a tangible sense of personal connection with the teachers of eons ago.
Seven years after I’d first arrived at Hokyoji, curious to learn more about Zen, I had formally received the precepts.
Since my stay at Rymonji, construction has completed on the main buildings and enclosed walkways between them, making walks to the zendo for practice on early winter mornings much more pleasant.
So, what’s it “like” living at a monastery? Quiet. Low drama. Focused. It’s definitely an environment most of us aren’t used to. Upon arriving, it’s immediately apparent that people behave differently here. Attentive, alert. Patient and thorough. Doors and cabinets are not carelessly thrown closed, but gently shut. Objects are not casually tossed, but deliberately set down. Soap suds are not left in the sink after washing. Dogen even makes recommendations for the use of cleaning cloths in his Instructions for the Tenzo. “There are cloths for cleaning high places” he says, “and cloths for cleaning low places”. Don’t use the same cloth for wiping down a countertop, as you do for wiping the floor. I remember in one of the early days, still holding services in the farmhouse. I’d spilled a bit of water on the floor, and asked the abbot “Where do we keep the cloths for the low places?” He paused, chuckled, and responded “I’m pretty sure that’s the first time that question has ever been asked in this monastery”.
You’ll hear no gossip or idle talk about the weather. Every task is treated respectfully and performed as though it’s the most important job in the monastery, because it is. Shikan-ta-washing dishes. Shikan-ta-tying your shoes. Every task hit precisely on the head, each movement with full attention.
During sesshin with a group of experienced students, the monastery runs like a well-oiled machine. Everything just so. The system of rituals and rigorous attention given to each task originated both to help keep order in monasteries of old, populated by hundreds of monks; but also, as an extension of our zazen practice. Giving oneself fully to ordinary, everyday life, such that the awareness we develop facing the wall spills out into the rest of the world.
There are few “rules” at Ryumonji and during sesshin, and one tends to learn the flow of the place by observing others. You’ll not be chastised for mistakes, but given warm instruction. People tend to be self-motivated to master the motions, not wanting to be the lone straggler while others sit quietly and wait.
I deeply treasure my experience at Ryumonji, and Zen practice remains dear to me.