Brown wood floor, brown porch, porch railing, gray ice on pond, yellow building, grey sky.
That is winter kyol che at Kwan Um School of Zen Monastery. It would seem like anything else going on is, as Zen Master Bon Haeng once said, entertainment.
I entered Saturday at 8:00 am January 12th. The week preceding I dreaded even thinking about sitting Zen for 7 full days and yet I also felt it would be a most beneficial experience. The most I had sat was 4 days a couple years ago. I remember it was hellish for the first two to two and half days. My body ached in places I didn't know could feel pain. My knees were numb and my back felt like someone was gouging me with a screwdriver and we won’t even go into what my mind was running after. After the first two days, however, things settled down. I became comfortable in my body and my mind finally accepted the stillness. It was a summer Kyol Che and my daily job was to sweep and wash the porch, which wraps around the monastery. If I had time I would also weed the rock garden just in front to the side of the building. I remembered looking forward to the work period because it wasn't sitting. Sitting = pain and working meant I got to use, stretch my body and focus my mind on a task.
That was a couple years ago and I’m older now and the body is stiffer, less pliant and that goes for my mind as well. It’s said that it’s best to begin this practice when you’re young because everything is loose and can more easily handle change and the rigors of sitting Zen. When you’re older everything is stiff and stuck both physically and mentally. I think this is true, but I wouldn't know about practicing while young because I began practicing when I was 54, already on the downward side of the slippery slope. Yes, I know, change my thinking! So, I signed up for a week of Kyol Che and had mixed emotions. I counted down the days. I fretted over the intense sitting I was going to be doing. Could my body handle it? I wondered what my job would be. I worried about formal eating the way it feels like there’s a race to finish. It seems like everyone is gulping almost without chewing. Would I take too much food or not enough food? Five days until I begin. Then it was 3 days, I better do some intense yoga to loosen things up. Thursday marked two days and finally Friday evening. I’d be leaving for Providence Zen the next morning, Saturday.
And it begins… Just do it
The first three days went by relatively easy! I was surprised. I was able to control my aching back with yoga during each ten minute walking period. I would slip into my room and fold a pillow under my back as I lay on the floor with arms outstretched and head hanging towards the floor. Then a little twisting each side, plow pose, put my robe back on and head for the dharma room for the next session.
Over the days I had developed a searing pain in the middle of my back, which again felt like someone stabbing me with a screwdriver and twisting it deeper. I fidgeted, I sat taller, rounded my back, cocked my head this way and that, took the Zen sword hit when the HDT came around, but this nagging pain persisted no matter what I did. It was becoming a problem, my sole focus.
This pain, this pain, this pain….how can I get rid of it? I have to get rid of it!
On Wednesday, 5 days into the retreat, during the afternoon sitting I was struggling with my pain and it dawned on me that I wasn't going to get rid of this thing. Nothing was working to relieve it. I sat looking out over the pond and the idea came to me to go into the pain, lean into it, stop trying to run from it. I remember reading somewhere that pains in the front of your body are worries about the future and pains in your back body are past problems surfacing. Perhaps? I don’t know about that but I closed my eyes to focus on this pain. What is this? When I closed my eyes I came face to face with an orange pulsing light in my minds eye. I thought back to a time when I might have experienced sharp pain in my back. I came up with a memory of scurrying under a barbed-wired fence when I was a kid and having a barb stick in my back. I came up with being hit in the back with a baseball while playing backyard ball. I looked back into my memory banks for an earlier time. Nothing. Still hot searing pain and the orange light pulsing in my mind. I looked into this orange light, focused on it and the middle of the light parted to create a circle of hazy orange. Within the haze an orange winged form appeared in the middle of the circle. It seemed to be in the form of a beast or dragon with teeth. The hazy circle was beginning to close, but I forced my will on it to keep it open. This beast with teeth was trying to close the circle and keep me out. I forced and fought to keep the circle open and suddenly I was pulsing orange bursts of light at this beast. I fired a burst to its body, a burst to the head of it, a burst again to the body of whatever this was. The hazy circle was all the while squeezing and trying to shut me out. It was strong. I started yelling at this beast; “You will not shut me out!” yelling at the top of my lungs, “You will not …. NO, NO.” I’m screaming with everything I have in my lungs and bursting pulses at this thing to kill it. All the while the pain is fired molten steel in my back. I fire off one final burst with an ear splitting scream; I simultaneously hear a clap of the chugpi behind me and the beast fades and the pain also fades. Gone. I open my eyes and wonder if I had been screaming out loud. It felt like I was screaming enough to be heard across the pond, but everyone is calmly getting up from their cushion for walking meditation and no one is looking at me. I also stand exhausted from the battle. I head to my room and begin laughing hysterically downstairs in my room. I think, now that’s some serious entertainment. I had just invented a video game in my head, with sound effects, neat colors and a flying dragon to defeat. However, the pain in my back is significantly lighter, almost gone. I assume there’s a Zen teaching that encompasses this experience. My thought is that it would probably be about this world of opposites. If I have great pain, then there is great joy. If I run, hide and avoid great pain, then maybe I’m also avoiding it’s opposite, great joy. If I can face the demons of pain head on and really feel its teeth sinking into my flesh, really feel the heat searing my skin, really feel it, then great joy can also be experienced fully. Life as it is.
I’m not a Zen Master, nor do I pretend to understand all the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha. “Just like this, is Buddha” Sitting on my cushion with this view in front of me; brown wood floor, brown porch, porch railing, gray ice on pond, yellow building and grey sky. The sounds were: ticking of the heat register, and my own breath in and out. My feeling was: butt on cushion, hands cupped with thumbs touching, searing pain in back.. Only that…only that. When I add something extra to what is happening, that something extra makes suffering. If I say, “Oh, the sky is grey, but it would be so much better if it were a sunny day.” I just made sky suffering. If I say, “Ouch my back, it would be easier and nicer if my back felt loose and nice.” I make back suffering. All of my life I tried to make things more or less than what is happening right now. I think I made my dragon story in my mind so I could face the intense back pain; that story, although interesting and fun that may have served a purpose, was an extra mind game. Not necessary.
I walked from that week knowing I had cleaned those bathrooms as best I could during work period. I chanted when we chanted, I bowed when we bowed and sat meditation when it was time. I gobbled down food as fast I could during meals and I faced every demon that arose head on. That was my joy and my pain.
Written by: Fred Miller
Featured in February 2013's publication of South Shore and Cape Cod Metaphysics
Photos taken at Providence Zen Center, all permissions given.
Photos Provided by Arunas: