So Friday morning I attended my first Buddhist retreat. It was supposed to be JT and I together, but he decided last minute that he didn’t want to go, so I went alone. I’m almost glad it worked out that way, only I wish I would have just decided to go alone in the first place. I love the guy, but I just don’t think it would have been as important to him as it was to me.
The retreat was out on a farm, which also happens to be the priests’ home. I had been informed before I arrived that the retreat is done under a vow of silence. I have to admit, that part made me nervous. What if I had questions? I really had no idea what I was doing, so I was a bit concerned about looking silly. When I arrived at the farm, I noticed I was a bit earlier than I intended, so I waited to see if anyone else would show up before I headed inside. I probably looked like a stalker as I hustled out of my car and ran up behind another guy who also looked new. As we got up to the door, I noticed a shelf for shoes so I removed mine and went in behind my fellow newbie. One of the temple members I recognized greeted us at the door and told us to take a seat as they finished breakfast. Turns out talking is ok as long as it’s only for necessary instruction, or from the retreat leader to inform us of what’s next. That was a weight off.
Once breakfast was completed, it was time for what is called work practice, or Samu. We were told there would be a new person orientation for us 3 new folks, and then after that our work assignment would be to clean up the zendo (meditation area). For about a half hour or so, one of the girls explained to us how the schedule would go, and most importantly the ceremonial way that we would eat our meals (I was only staying for lunch, but they would all be the same.) After that, we were sent out to complete our work practice, which for me was rolling dog hair off of all of the meditation cushions. It sounds like tedious work, but in that moment, the only thing you are doing is cleaning those cushions. It’s liberating in a way. You keep your mind on your task and just allow everything else to float by. We were done cleaning before the next bell, so we were able to rest. I took a short walk outside, poured myself a cup of hot green tea and sat by the window staring out into the fields. I saw a few deer run by and just enjoyed taking in the scenery.
The bell rang, and that meant time for zazen (seated meditation). There are many ways to sit, and I was a little nervous. I’m a bit overweight and sometimes sitting cross-legged for too long results in my feet going numb. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable so I chose to sit on a small bench instead of just on the floor with a cushion. Some people used regular chairs, and next time I would consider that as well. We sat facing the wall for 30 minutes just meditating, then 10 minutes walking, another 30 sitting, 10 walking, and the last 30 sitting. Another bell rang and we did what was listed on our schedule as “liturgy” but it was actually only a couple of short chants, not like the hour and a half liturgy I’m used to on Sundays.
Following liturgy was lunch. You don’t just eat at these retreats though, it’s very ceremonial. It’s called oryoki, and it’s actually very cool. You have 3 bowls, chopsticks, a spoon, a spatula, a napkin for your lap, a napkin that serves as a placemat, and a napkin for drying your bowls. The servers come around and fill your bowls in a very ceremonial manner that involves lots of bowing. Once the meal is plated, you take a bit of grain (in this case, rice) from your largest bowl and place it on your spatula handle so the servers can come around and gather it as an offering. After you finish all of your food, you scrape your bowls clean with the spatula and lick off any remaining bits. Finally the servers come around again and fill your large bowl with green tea. You can use the tea to scrape off any leftovers, then you transfer the tea to the middle bowl, dry out your big bowl and then do the same with the medium to the small bowl. Once you get to the small bowl, you drink all but the last drop of tea. That last bit is also collected as an offering, then you can dry out your small bowl and stack them back together. There is also a special way to fold in all of the napkins and supplies, which certainly takes some time to learn, though I didn’t think I did too bad for my first try!
I was leaving after lunch, so once we cleaned up, that was my cue to go. The same man that greeted me at the door asked to speak with me outside before I left. He asked me how I felt about it, and I told him I would definitely return. He told me to drive safely and sent me on my way.
On the drive home everything seemed brighter, bolder. I felt a little stronger. Even these past few days since, I’ve found myself speaking up on things that bother me instead of avoiding them. Sometime I’m not sure if that’s a good thing yet, but I feel like it’s a skill I desperately need to learn.
I signed up for next month’s retreat too, only I signed up for a full day this time. That quick period was just not enough for me! I’m excited to continue on this spiritual journey and see where it takes me. I’m learning to be better and to put myself out there for others even when I don’t want to. This world needs all of us to be better, and it starts at home!