Stop telling stories. That’s the first piece of advice given new residents at Great Vow Zen Monastery in pastoral Clatskanie, Oregon. Get out of your head and into your body. See what you learn.
Blown in on the heels of a dry summer wind, newcomers sweep the grounds with bright, dewy faces and a flavor of festivity. Their earth-tone frocks flutter around corners, laughter rings through sun-dappled halls now strewn with sandals. Many are college students redefining summer vacation. While their friends sip vodka lemonade on the beach, these young people opt to sleep less, rise early, work rigorously, and sit motionless for hours a day confronting themselves. Others are members of the workforce upended in a life transition or needing a change of heartmind. All feel the determined call of stillness.
At first we longer-term folks tried to slink into the shadows in our dark smocks, wide-eyed and gaping as our silent, spacious monastery transformed in a buzz of raw energy. Now the dust has settled, and we’ve roll up our sleeves to get to work- on the buildings and grounds and in the landscape of the mind, exchanging aspirations and neuroses, struggles and triumphs, fears and confidences.
The summer residents lend their unique talents to benefit the sangha, such as Nadia tuning up our community bicycles. It made the ride to Poysky’s Blueberry farm a delight, and we zipped away yipping like the coyotes that roam our forest at night. We hear them sing during evening zazen, and I’m sure many first-timers have felt like wailing with them (I know I still do). But setting foot in the great hall of the zendo, the beating heart of the monastery, you can’t escape the powerful hush. Like stepping into a deep, ancient forest of people. Nothing to do but plant yourself and sit with the trees, for as long as they’re going to sit there.
Just a few days into training, the mighty wheel of Great Vow cranked to a halt as we took a Fourth of July holiday. The newcomers got to see the Great Wow marimba band and Clatskanie fair. As all 35 residents stood in a circle before the show, our shusso (head of zendo) and marimba coach Soten said, “Okay listen up…are you familiar with the term ‘plant’? The ratio of you to actual audience members may be nine to one. So please act accordingly.” We danced with abandon as monastics on marimbas plunked away for the scattered handfuls of Clatskanie residents, and Haley remarked how as a kid she’d see the hippie woman dance alone at the fair and think What a nutter, only to find that woman today is indeed her. “She knew what was up,” Haley said humbly, whirling her arms in a pirouette as Eleanor Rigby floated through the background. “I didn’t!”
Back on the grounds, we spent hours gleaning tiny bamboo leaves and needles from the moss-carpeted courtyard. As we finished, Sarah stretched and mused, “I half expected you to tell us to dump them back out again.” No need, as the bamboo will do it for us in a couple days. We moved on to the giant paper leaves from the timber bamboo, crawling around pretending to be ants through the monstrous bamboo grass. We bore with honor the first highly-anticipated buckets of plums and blackberries to the kitchen, to be met with a whirlwind of exuberant cooks swiping a few of nature’s candies. And that marvelous fruit-picking smell, that rich velvety tang recognized the world over to mean Autumn’s on her way, the heavens cracking open and Pure Lands raining down so get ready ’cause our cup’s about to runneth over! Last winter we enjoyed stewed plums, pears, applesauce, blueberries, bountiful blackberry sauce, cobbler, smoothie, and one African peanut soup I’ll never forget with spiced vegetables and those deep purple jewels swimming around like a liquid PB&J.
As the summers steadily dry out, we look at water conservation. With sinking hearts we watch the gorgeous moss shrivel up, the show-stopping wildflower field wither. What little ways can we conserve? A tip from James: instead of spraying bowls clean, squirt the bottom and swish up the sides with a brush. Instead of dumping wash bins down the drain, carry them out to water figs, persimmons, and grapevines. Instead of rooting in the shower, vainly attempting to wash away the ego’s dirt drudged up by a day of staring it down, we practice efficiency. For me it can be like hopping out of bed at the 4:50 am wake-up bell. A jump-start of adrenaline, not clinging to the pleasure of hitting snooze on the brain. Simply onto the next thing.
Summer resident Nicole brought her passion for photography and wandered the grounds clicking away. Instead of a Monday night movie we gathered to view her work. “This is so cool,” tenzo (head cook) Kisei giggled at the start of the slideshow. “It’s good to have one in every audience,” Soten said. But gazing across the room at nothing but grins, I felt we all agreed. This is so cool. Nicole enshrined more than 500 flashes in time. Listening to the whir of the laptop, seeing dust-sparkled light stream from the projector to hit the soft woven cloth of the screen, the billions of radiant colored pixels patterning themselves into beloved faces and treasured artifacts around Great Vow. I was transported to the time of a little girl, enamored by pictures of loved ones at recent celebrations. A time before photos were cheapened by the power of the internet, and I think unplugging ourselves for awhile has helped us see through those eyes again.
And we saw the cogs suspended in turning this well-oiled machine called Great Vow. Flour-spattered aprons and sweat-plastered hair in the kitchen, gardeners barefoot and covered in dirt. The zendo with each precious piece in its place. To see our abbess Chozen step from a venerable lecturer, sitting like a gently radioactive boulder, to a sweet girlish bean picker hugging a co-teacher. To see head monk Jogen passing on the bodhisattva precepts of non-harm in a formal Jukai ceremony, sprinkling water and reading a traditional scroll, to clattering away on the drum set in a rainbow baseball cap and cosmic T-shirt.
The photos captured the beauty of impermanence, like the small towering cairns popping up over the grounds. A trend secretly set by Tim the housekeeper, many have jumped on board to try their hand at stacking high the smooth stones, even adding in crystals, shells, pinecones, and feathers. The little sculptures certainly evoke a moment poised in time, as you never know when a gust of wind or scampering chipmunk will tumble one.
Our summer schedule includes body practice led by galaxy-class yoga instructor Haley. We hunkered into pigeon pose, and those two weeks of substantial meditation showed as the newcomers’ (and many oldtimers’) hips protested. “We acknowledge that sometimes yoga is very uncomfortable,” Haley said amidst laughter and groans of recognition. “And that’s okay.” Summing up what many new residents are probably thinking about Zen, as our mission through all the pain and joy of sitting, the destructive and wise thoughts, the emotional peace and turmoil. She smiled. “Let’s hold it awhile.”
Photos by Sophia Wolfe.
Contact Janet: firstname.lastname@example.org