Written by sangha member C. E. Giyū Gillis
One approach for growing our practice is to participate in a retreat. When someone says "retreat" you may imagine people running off to the top of a mountain to escape their busy lives and find inner peace. For many years, I thought a retreat was a way to get away from everything negative happening in my life! In reality, retreats serve as a temporary container for expanding our practice, examining our habits, and confronting all that arises. Retreats can also serve as a way to renew one's vows to the Bodhisattva Path, or a way to kick start your daily meditation practice. This summer, I spent three weeks on retreat at the Village Zendo's Summer Ango with Ōshin Hoshi.
In the Zen tradition, an extended seasonal retreat called an ‘ango’, which also means peaceful dwelling. Village Zendo offers a Summer Ango every year that typically stretches from the end of mid-July to the mid-August. The first 10 days are Dai Sesshin, an intensive portion focusing exclusively on deepening one's meditation practice. The next week is Precepts Week, which provides an opportunity to closely study the precepts with a group. This week is also the time in which new members who are formally becoming Zen students can go through Jukai. The third week, is Arts Week which blends Buddhist studies with artistic expression. Finally, the retreat concludes with 5 days of intensive meditation, called Shusho Sesshin.
This summer's study text is the Genjokoan, written by Dogen Zenji. The following is one selection from the Genjokoan - a selection that has defined a lot of my practice during my time at the summer ango:
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once. Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish. You can go further. There is practice-enlightenment which encompasses limited and unlimited life. Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, to attain one thing is to penetrate one thing; to meet one practice is to sustain one practice.
I remember sitting in dokusan (private interview) with a teacher two years ago at my first ango. The last week was coming to a close, and I blurted out, "how will I ever return to DC? It seems impossible to practice in the city! I always get distracted and I'm afraid I will stop sitting." The teacher responded, "We practice where we are." At the time, I was incredibly frustrated by that response. I wanted to know how to practice without a sangha because things just seemed so easy for members of the Village Zendo. They have a large community, a bustling zendo, multiple practice periods a week, and lots of events. I returned to DC still grasping for that ideal. When I stopped sitting every day, I blamed the lack of an established sangha - thinking that if only I had that, then I would become a real Zen student. How wrong I was!
This passage in the Genjokoan has illuminated that grasping I had been cultivating.
When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now.
The practice happens exactly where we are. Maybe it is actualized when we sit in the morning in our apartment, or while we are standing in the grocery line, or perhaps when we are driving in traffic. When we return to the moment, as it is, our practice is present. Doing every day life with sincerity is the beginning of brining our practice home.
I finally realized that even if a sangha is still forming, like ours, it does not make our practice any less sincere. We come to No Barriers Zen as we are. We sit. We practice. We leave, and we still practice. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of grasping onto the container that a retreat offers -- to not want to return home, to face our daily struggles, bills, rent, and stressful relationships. But eventually we all have to come down from the mountain, and get into the muck with everyone else.