Sunday, December 04, 2005

Into the Cave of the Blue Dragon

Besides the all consuming diamond mines, the other adventure that's been taking me away from blogland and all my adoring fans is a little spiritual spelunking.

I signed up for this Fall's ango (intensive training period) with the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. The three month training period culminated in a weekend stay at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskills of New York for the tail end of the sesshin that concluded Ango. It was intense.

Having quite a few worldly obligations (read that as debt), I can't be a monk or really sequester myself from the marketplace for great lengths of time. Instead I make do with a few minutes of meditation here and a few there. So it was a real treat to get to up to the monastery for these few nights.

A sesshin is a 5 to 7 day zazen (sitting meditation) marathon, where "taking the backward step" becomes of foremost importance. It was wild stepping into this marathon midstream on a Friday evening.

I drove up after work, and in darkness found my way through the back gate to the monastery, parked the car and approached the main building. Even before I entered the building, I could here the chanting of 100 strong voices coming from the zendo on the second floor. Stepping into the darkened refectory and hearing the resonating voices ricochet down the stone steps from above began for me the process of introspection.

The chanting completed a period of sitting and immediately preceded dinner, which happily, I was just in time for. The food at the monastery is great. The Buddha preached a "middle way," and buddhists do not believe in starving oneself.

The sesshin is a silent retreat, so other than communicating with someone about where to put my stuff and so forth, not a word was spoken to or by me. I ate my meal and helped clean up the dining area and kitchen. I stowed my stuff, had a few minutes to unwind and digest dinner then another two hours of zazen began.

Lights out at 9:30. No talking.

We were awakened at 3:50 a.m. Enjoined to be on our cushions by 4:20, over a hundred people briskly made tea and proceeded to the zendo. The schedule for Saturday (and all the days preceding) was essentially two hours sitting and two hours off -- doing work practice, eating, "rest practice" (a nap!) or listening to the Roshi's talk. One of the coolest things about sesshin is the taking of breakfast and lunch meals in a formal style called 'oryoki' in the zendo seated on our cushions. This formal meal maintained the seriousness and introspective quality of zazen while heightening our awareness of the sacredness of food, our dependence on the planet and one another for sustenance, and how our every action affects both ourselves and all beings.

On Saturday night, the sangha was encouraged to stay up and meditate even more, through the night. Since it was my first sesshin and I didn't want to overdo it, I chose instead to take some much needed sleep. Maybe next time I'll stay up.

Silence was lifted Sunday morning after our early morning zazen. We had a chatty and joyous breakfast in the refectory, did our caretaking practice and prepared for a knock-out of a service celebrating the conclusion of the Ango and a right of passage for the most junior of the senior monastics -- dharma combat. Basically, that means the just mentioned monk was on the hot seat, fielding tough questions from the sangha, unrehearsed.

It was a great weekend, and I came away from it enthused and energized.

"Entering the cave of the blue dragon" is a colorful metaphor for doing zazen, the purpose of which is to look inside and discover one's true nature.

1 comment:

Wade M | The Middle Way said...

Hi There,

I was googling The Cave of the Blue Dragon, something I heard about whilst up in ZMM. Very interesting to read of your time up there. I was there for the last month of Fall Ango 2007, from Australia.

It's an amazing place, and it's amazing that I happened to find you talking about the Blue Dragon, and talking about your experiences up there. Would love to hear which monk was Shuso, who did the Dharma Combat :)