The hot wind blows, stripping soil to dust and many green-cloaked things to a naked brown. We’re on clockwork garden water duty, and it’s a good thing Buddhists don’t care so much about hair, as those of us who still have it are beginning to look a bit like jolly scarecrows.
We extracted a little chunk of honeycomb from our beehive. A new addition to the family, the bees live in the orchard and eat their hearts out on the blossoming blackberries ever elbowing their way over our grounds, the words “dry spell” not even in blackberry vocab. Bonnets askew and lab coats flung aside, we licked the golden syrup from our fingers and melted into the sunshine. “At breakfast there was a tiny bug on my cherries and I freaked out,” Haley said, our heads buzzing like the stirred up hive behind us. “But when it comes to bee pee I’m like YES MORE NOW.” We wouldn’t plunder their winter store, but we placed a small unassuming bowl of honey in the cafeteria for those lucky enough to swipe a dollop in their tea.
Back outside Tyler and Tim raced Razor scooters around an impromptu band of guitar by Jesse, Chris P. on bongo drums, and Travis holding down the knee-slapping spoons. Then before we knew it, it was time. Time to close our gates, zip our lips, and crack our knuckles. Time for the new residents to experience five full days of practice, the whole practice, and nothing but the practice.
Welcome to sesshin, the wheel that turns our lives.
Everyone twittered through last-minute prep. Are the clocks synced? Beds ready for guests? Did you turn off your electronics? Know your jobs? Ready to rock? Chozen and Kyoko formally welcomed all, we sat high-charged zazen and were released to wander the grounds and eventually fall asleep amidst the crackling excitement.
A bell jingled through the darkness. We fluttered groggily out of bed like bats startled by a light, in long dark robes and with downcast eyes filed to the zendo. Creaked across the bamboo floor to our zabutan mats and zafu cushions. And we sat. A few yawns, some fidgeting. Sat through the lightening periwinkle sky. A soft breeze in the forest. The first birds to tra-la-la good morning. And as the lukewarm sun just glittered through the trees to a rousing chorus of birdsong, we greeted her and all beings with bells, drums, incense, bows, and long, low chanting. Good morning, sun. Happy sesshin. And as if in reply the heat finally broke, and we reveled all week in clear, cool air.
We sang thanks before formal oryoki meals, nestled shoulder to shoulder with mouths flapping wide like the baby swallows roosting over our doors chirruping for their own breakfast. We glided through the days, working, sitting, eating, sitting, walking, sitting. A dance shaped by bells, wooden clackers, pounding footsteps, wagon wheels, distant mooing, the rattle and clang of washup, the pops and creaks of a monastery and its dwellers settling into collective, vibrant stillness.
We found moments of more tangible connection, too. When we grounds people learned Bob was sharpening all the tools and knives, we ran to fetch some grubby rusted pruning shears recently unearthed. Then in the hallway after zazen I glanced up to see him grinning and brandishing the shears, not only razor sharp but sparkling clean and well oiled. Later as I picked plums, Andrew gestured me over to a blackberry thicket and the most stunning turquoise-jewel dragonfly I’m pretty sure I’ve ever seen, or at least since childhood when everything was magic.
And for a brief instant, all the stiff joints, tight muscles, and mental anguish from so many hours of meditation lifted off and floated into the sky. One moment, with one bright little dragonfly in all her intricate glory, and it was suddenly well beyond worth it.
We served formal tea with needlelike precision, filling dainty china cups as their painted blue koi fish beamed up at us. Reiyu surprised us with her sangha-renowned peanut butter cups. We dug into the crinkly foil wrappers when Chozen stopped and invited us to listen to the music. Like the tinkling of countless electric diamonds sparking through the air, the melody crackled our brains and struck me with grateful awe. Where else could we experience silence but for scraps of foil turning in the hands of 60 individuals? And who would’ve guessed it could be so heart-breakingly beautiful?
On the last day of sesshin, we awoke to the blessed sound of rain shower drumming the roof. Cool mist. The heavenly scent of resurrection steaming from the thirsty ground. A vibrant green just stealing back over the moss. Silver mirror puddles reflecting pleasantly satiated clouds. We sat with serenity in our closing circle. Nathan the timekeeper smiled and sweetly began, “I hope I didn’t disturb anyone’s sleep…” The whole group exploded in rolling laughter like I’ve rarely heard at Great Vow. A true testament to the power of our Loving Kindness sesshin.
All day I met eyes like shining pools of light. Caught snippets of jovial conversation. Spotted Nadia patting our Jizo statue on the head every time he passed. And glowing, glowing smiles everywhere. Perhaps just a tiny bit wonkified. Summer resident Crawford stood slightly unbalanced in the center of the kitchen as people bustled around clattering dishes and cracking lively jokes. He ran his hands through his hair, gaped around the room and shook his head. “I can’t believe you guys do this every month,” he said. I broke into an ear-to-ear grin. Neither can I, Crawford. Neither can I.
Photos by Sophia Wolfe.
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