Tonight, January 2nd, we begin our annual three-week retreat, the Coming and Going Sesshin, here at Boundless Way Temple. The tradition of setting a particular part of the year for intensive study and practice honors the spirit of the Buddha’s three-month rainy season practice with his disciples.
Here at the Temple, we will be keeping a ‘sesshin’ schedule. (Sesshin is a Zen meditation training retreat.) We alternate periods of sitting and walking throughout the day. There are dharma talks, individual meetings, work practice periods and chanting. Like all sesshin, we will hold silence throughout most of the retreat. We won’t be writing or reading or facebooking or texting. These practices are a way of simplifying our lives to allow us to be more present to ourselves and to our experience of each moment.
Going to sesshin is always a wondrous and challenging opportunity. In the silence and stillness, we work together to support a profound turning toward the source of life—toward the aliveness of each moment. This form of practice is both deeply personal and, at the same time, essentially communal. We support and rely on each other in the silence. We are alone together.
One of the things that distinguishes our Coming and Going Sesshin is that we allow participants to join in for any part of it that is possible for them. Some people are coming for the whole three-weeks, others just for several days. Others will come for just a few periods of practice in the afternoon or before or after work. You are welcome to come by the Temple for any practice period whenever you can. If you would like to stay overnight and join the retreat for a day or more simply, register here.
I would also invite everyone reading this to join with our retreat right where you are by finding some way to deepen your spiritual practice over the next three weeks. What is it that reminds you of what is most holy and sacred in your life? What is the practice that brings you back to your heart? Your practice might be meditation or prayer. It might be reading or walking in the woods—attending church, knitting sox or writing in your journal. Whatever you do that moves you closer to God, I encourage you to do just a little more than usual these next three weeks. And as you do your practice, know that you are joining with us. You are not alone.
For myself, I won’t be reading my beloved New York Times or doing this morning writing practice of exploring and sharing. I will be giving myself over to the daily rhythms of Zen meditation practice—doing my best to meet and appreciate each moment as it arises. No need to keep track of the journey nor to pursue purity and holiness. Just this. The teaching of Zen is that what we are longing for, the peace that passes understanding, is already here—in each moment. I vow to trust more deeply this constant arising life in all its manifestations and to meet what appears as the way itself.
May our practice together be of service to the world in this difficult time.
I went to a New Year’s Eve gathering for peace last night. Sponsored by the Center for Non-violent Solutions, the First Unitarian Church of Worcester and the Islamic Center of Worcester, it featured short remarks by a number of local clergy (including Rev. Melissa Myozen Blacker) and professors of non-violence on the topic of how to practice peace in our everyday lives.
I was touched by two themes. The first is the possibility and perhaps the necessity of taking to the streets in the coming year. This year may require many of us to stand up and show up in new ways. We may be asked to join with each other to forcefully speak out against injustice and to stand with those who are being targeted by the government or other forces. There is power in joining together. There is power in action.
The second theme is the importance of reaching out across the lines that divide us. It’s so easy to slip into a bifurcated world of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ One speaker suggested the practice of looking around at the next gathering we attend. ‘If everyone you see looks like you, you’re living in a bubble,’ she said. Of course, we all live in a bubble, but perhaps, this year, we can intentionally reach beyond the invisible walls of our seclusion and build bridges to the other people in the world.
If we’re just nice to people who are like us, we inadvertently but decisively contribute to deepening sectarian divides. Another speaker mentioned that God’s instruction in the torah is not about loving our parents or children or neighbors, but about loving ‘the stranger.’ We don’t get credit for being nice to the people who are nice to us. Everyone does that. But to reach out to the stranger, the one without power and status, the one who has no voice; this is the work of peace.
Without intention, we just drift along and, more than ever, the status quo is not neutral.. As the great activist and historian Howard Zinn suggested in the title of his inspiring book on resistance and social action: You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train.
So on this first day of the year, while the morning light is just beginning to grace the eastern sky, I once again vow to take up the way of Saint Francis. May I be an instrument of peace. I feel so inadequate to the task, but pray that my thoughts, my words, and my actions may ever so slightly incline the world away from the perpetuation of violence and greed and move us all toward the glimmering possibility justice and awakening.
I’m headed into the dining hall for lunch. I’m hungry and need to find a bathroom. But in looking around, I begin to realize that it’s weeks into the semester and I haven’t been going to any of my classes. I can’t even remember what classes I’m taking. A wild panic rises within me. This is terrible. It’s Tuesday, do I have an afternoon class today? I don’t even know. I’m so far behind in everything, how do I get myself out of this mess? What can I do? I am truly lost. Is this really happening? I’m not a student anymore am I? Maybe this a dream?
I wake with a start. It’s five a.m. and I’m lying in my dark bed. I slowly realize that my terrible situation is just a dream. It takes me a few moments to fully wake. I am deeply relieved.
So the final day of the year begins with this familiar fear. Forty years after college, I’m still in school and suddenly realize that I haven’t live up to my responsibilities. I haven’t done the reading, written the paper, prepared for the test. I feel a sense of dawning panic and shame. I think I am doing fine, then come to realize that I’ve been fooling myself. I’m actually in a terrible situation with no way out. I’m a mess.
I wonder how to live into this dream in a new way? Maybe I need to withdraw from my inner college—to take a semester off. I think I’ll do that. Just go tell the Dean of Students that I need some time off to get my head together.
I’ll hitch-hike to the Baja and live by the ocean. Every morning I’ll walk the beach as the sun rises. I’ll learn to surf and fish. I’ll build an easy life around the incoming waves. The water and the sun will be my teachers. Lunch and dinner will be my courses. I’ll get tan and learn to meditate.
Eventually, I just disappear into the waves.
‘Where did Dave go?’
‘Oh, he’s out there with the waves.
Way out. Way, way out.’
Like lemmings over the cliff,
the years of my life now
disappear in accelerating succession.
What can be done?
I carefully instruct myself to
rest in the life of little things.
The taste of hot tea on the tongue,
a deep breath and a sigh,
tired muscles after shoveling wet snow—
all are invitations to infinite life.
With no choice,
why not jump
off the cliff
of how things
used to be?
Why not leap
over the precipitous
fantasy of how
things will be
into the great
freedom of how
I seem to have veered away from writing about our incoming President over the past week. I see this as both a good sign and a warning signal. Perhaps it’s just the diversion of the holidays. Perhaps it is a sign that I have gotten over the initial trauma of losing the election and having someone so crass and unconventional as the incoming President. But perhaps I am slipping into the new normal—falling into the convenient liberal bubble of hoping things will be OK.
How do I find a way of living into our new political reality that is neither panicked nor avoidant? The middle way?
For me, the new reality is that we have a President-elect who has little respect for the institutions of democracy in our country – including the press and reasoned discourse. We have a President-elect who brags about his track record of being solely focused on enriching himself. I see no reason to expect he will behave differently in his new role as President. And if he’s only out to enrich himself and his friends, how will it be for the rest of us?
Yesterday, Ross Douthat, a conservative New York Times op-ed writer, reflected on some of the possibilities of our upcoming four years in a piece he called The Trump Matrix:
“…the possibilities for how Trump governs, runs from ruthless authoritarianism at one end to utter chaos at the other. Under the authoritarian scenario, Trump would act on all his worst impulses with malign efficiency. The media would be intimidated, Congress would be gelded, the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. would go full J. Edgar Hoover against Trump’s enemies, the Trump family would enrich itself fantastically — and then, come a major terrorist attack, Trump would jail or intern anyone he deemed a domestic enemy.
At the other end of this axis, Trump and his team would be too stumbling and hapless to effectively oppress anyone, and the Trump era would just be a rolling disaster — with frequent resignations, ridiculous scandals, Republicans distancing themselves, the deep state in revolt, the media circling greedily, and any serious damage done by accident rather than design.”
I am not hopeful. But this morning, I am determined to not look away—or rather, I am determined to look away and then look back again. Probably some kind of rhythm of turning toward and turning away will be a necessary survival skill for many of us over the next four years. We should not get caught up in every passing drama but should stay alert of moments when saying something and doing something will be important.