I was expecting to write about sesshin, a five-day meditation retreat
that happened some weeks ago here at City Center. But I had trouble achieving a useful meta-position from which to write about it, because this sesshin was personally rather unsettling, and the unsettling bits just kept rolling over and deepening, days after sesshin ended, without the catharsis or resolution of past sesshin experiences.
For the first couple of days of sesshin I was grumpy about Zen practice, feeling like I was never going to “get it,” and wondering why I was bothering anyway, as I am generally a happy person who could lead a normal life free of esoteric Zen rituals if I chose it. The incessant repetition of going up and down the stairs, into and out of the zendo, opening and closing our oryoki sets, setting out utensils and other accoutrements for oryoki and then having to clean it all up again day after day, seemed pointless, especially when compared to the idea of going outside and enjoying a nice walk in the park. During the many periods of zazen I traveled into my own personal hell realms of doubt, disappointment, loneliness, and grief. And then sesshin ended and I headed back to work, still stewing in it.
After sesshin I read this in Brad Warner’s blog:
“I hate it — just absolutely hate and despise it — when people try to make some kind of a ‘dharma lesson’ about every damned thing that happens. I hated it when people did that with David Coady. I’m not going to do that now.”
I’ll admit to being a bit confused as to why he’s so cranky about people seeking dharma lessons in something so significant as a friend’s death, unless he’s pointing to a tendency cover up the raw emotion of “suicide is stupid,” in which case I agree with him. But in any case I read that and it triggered whatever insecurities I have about the pablum that I push here on this site (not that I think Brad reads my stuff) and the insecurities became grounds for not writing anything, not then, maybe not ever again.
And then the grumpiness generally continued until a week later, when I found myself magically transported to Lake Como, Italy, where I was to enjoy a week of relaxation and agenda-less-ness with nine of my closest family members. As an antidote to grumpiness and doubt, this was rather a good choice.
I brought a book that my friend Ed had given me that had been sitting on my shelf for awhile: The Heart of the World, A Journey to the Last Secret Place, by Ian Baker. Baker spent several years exploring Tibet’s Pemako region, an area the Tibetans call a beyul, or hidden-land. Beyuls are places where the spiritual and physical worlds overlap, and at the center of Pemako is Chime Yangsang Ne, “the innermost secret place of immortality.” The beyul is not quite a literal geographic reality and not quite only a mental construction, but “an eminent paradise veiled more by habits of perception than by features of the landscape.”
Since I was also on a journey, and because I was alternating between these two worlds on my vacation, Italy in the external world and Tibet in the internal world, I amused myself by finding correlates in the circumstances and environment in Italy and the circumstances and environment that were playing out in Tibet as I read about Baker’s attempts to find the center of Pemako.
In comparison with the huge jagged mountain ranges of Tibet, I was surrounded by a magical landscape of limestone cliffs rising 1500 meters from Lake Como’s surface, banded and tilted jointed rocks into which caves and tunnels have been carved and settlements built perched on ledges formed by joint surfaces. Baker was delving deep into the deepest gorge on the planet; I was skittering around over the surface of the deepest lake in Europe. I looked around and saw an abundance of rhododendron, cypress, and juniper trees in the Lake Como region, which were also major protagonists in the Baker book. In both cases we were in foreign lands where the customs were not our native customs. Baker was often at risk of hurling over the edge of a precipice if he made a wrong step; the stairs leading down from the bedrooms in our villa were perilous in the dark. He encountered leeches, poisonous bugs and snakes; one night my sister fought a huge flying beetle that refused to be quiet in her bedroom. (Okay. Some of this is quite a stretch, but it did keep me amused.)
Even the action in Baker’s book was sometimes strikingly parallel to my life in Italy and provided some small dharma lessons for me. (Apologies to those who, like Brad, are cranky about turning every damn thing into a dharma lesson. There are days when I’m right there with you.) One night I was reading about an excursion where Baker was having difficulty finding good information or guides for the area he wanted to explore, the porters were fighting with each other and then trying to renegotiate their terms en route, a horse fell through the planks of a bridge, and his Chinese liaison officer was not happy with him. The next day my family wanted to go into the town of Menaggio. The water taxi seemed expensive so we thought perhaps it would be simple to ferry the eight of us down in the one car making two trips, but we got a late start, my niece was having ear problems, my brother missed the turnoff, my sister had to complete a business call before we could take her in the second load, the parking we finally found was at the opposite end of the town from where the first load was waiting for us, and by the time we all assembled in Menaggio it was already 1:00 in the afternoon.
Here is what Baker wrote about his state of mind when things weren’t going exactly as he’d planned:
“Despite my initial concerns about restive porters and the composition of our group, the journey had begun, and I accepted the situation as containing its own hidden logic. Tibetan tradition speaks of Kha sher lamkbyer – ‘whatever arises, carry it to the path’ – a Buddhist injunction to abandon preferences and integrate all experience beyond accepting and rejecting. Without that dynamic openness to adventure (from the Latin ad venio, ‘whatever comes‘), Tibetans say, pilgrimage devolves into ordinary travel and the hidden-lands–both physical and metaphysical–will never open.”
Pretty cool, huh? This book gets five stars from me. The Dalai Lama wrote the introduction!
Contemplating the various parallels between Como and Pemako, both geographic and otherwise, I was reminded of a therapist I’d seen back in my twenties, who had spent a lot of time evaluating and treating inmates at a nearby prison facility. As I rambled on about my problems, he smiled compassionately and told me that what we were talking about was very serious but represented the “bunny slopes” on the ski resort of mental health issues. I don’t think he was trivializing my concerns, but wanting to put them into a broader perspective. My life is apparently not lived at a grand scale, not at a Tibetan scale. It’s a structure in miniature.
On the journey back to California, I waited in the Malpensa airport in Milan with my father and his friend. Dad’s friend had just tripped over someone’s luggage and scraped up her shin pretty badly, and was in an adrenaline-fused daze trying to get her bearings back when a handsome man from Seattle in adventure-travel clothing popped into view, sat next to us and started talking. Oddly, he was just returning from a trip to Nepal and told us an amazing story about how he’d been trekking through the mountains with a girlfriend and they had run out of food and were soaked to the bones from the rain and had stumbled upon a hermit’s hut and the hermit offered them food. He began to describe the meal – at this point I reflexively ejected the word “tsampa!” because my mind had been in Tibet all week reading about butter tea and tsampa. “Tsampa, that’s right,” he replied. They had continued on, over a 16,000-foot pass, but his friend was wet and cold and turning blue with hypothermia and they had to retrace their steps to find a flat spot where they could put her in the tent to get her warm and dry before continuing. Eventually, they both made it out.
And then the flight attendant said something over the loudspeakers and the guy disappeared to run off and catch his plane. The hidden-lands, or something close by, they jumped out of the pages of the book and showed up at Malpensa that day. Pretty cool.