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Sangha Reflections

View from a Watery Mountain: Sesshin at Jikoji
by Nancy Easton with Patty Bradford and Laurie Belzer

Here are two brief, and one longer, responses from our Mountain Source Sangha sesshin at Jikoji this past July, 2004

It was wonderful to sit quietly in the zendo in the midst of the gentle sounds of nature. Dharma talks about mountains and rivers helped me to remember that everything is alive and we are not separate from life. I'm grateful for the opportunity to sit with dharma friends and teachers and deepen my practice.

-Patty Bradford

A warm bright grateful feeling evokes memory of everyday bodhisattva effort at our recent Mountain Source Sangha sesshin at Jikoji. Sesshin forms seemed casually created by our efforts and in turn supported our practice-realization: the wake-up bell and early morning han, bells, incense and candle in the zendo, chanting and bowing. Particular people doing everyday things, patiently holding incense, uniquely playing instruments, sitting horizontal zazen, baking giant cookies, embodied the efforts of the mountains and waters flowing through our practice together. Before sunrise, the efforts of the morning star, Venus, symbol of love, softly illuminated the deep intimacy of our practice in the dark as a moon crescent hid in the tree shadows.

-Laurie Belzer

I must admit, my first reaction upon hearing Taigen discuss Dogen's Mountains and Waters Sutra-the theme of this year's sesshin at Jikoji-was what my high-school English teacher would have called "a willing suspension of disbelief." Mountains? Walking? OK. Mountains can have their ways, I suppose. I, however, am much more familiar with the ways of water. I've been splashing around in its dripping, pouring, freezing, melting, seeping, soaking, sobbing, gurgling current every day of my life. And I know how to get along pretty well: "Go with the flow." "Don't be a wet blanket." "Don't cry over spilled?" water?

So for the first few days of sesshin, I tried to go with the flow. Or at least look like I was. In truth, I was just sitting through each period trying to appear to be paying attention. While in reality, I was savoring the delicious fantasies of the life I was going to have when sesshin was over, each moment of which was set to the soundtrack of my favorite songs, courtesy of the jukebox in my head. For days, I sat there like some poor, befuddled character from The Matrix, unable to choose between the blue pill that would return me forever to my world of fantasy and illusion, or the red pill that would release me from that prison into reality. I knew for sure I didn't actually want to take the blue pill-did I?-but I just couldn't bring myself to swallow the red one. Please-just one more tantalizing daydream?

Eventually, though, I grew tired of pretending to be at a sesshin. "You may be fooling everyone else, but you can't fool yourself," I thought. "What kind of wishy-washy person are you, anyway? All you do is float downstream, filling up whatever container comes along and spilling over the sides when the going gets tough." Seriously, when has anyone known water to make much of an effort to do anything? I took comfort in hearing Dogen's words during Taigen's Dharma talks, particularly when he said that to think of water as merely flowing is an insult to water. As the whirlpool slowly drained out of my head, I began to notice that there were other people in the zendo aside from myself, and that they-unlike me-were actually practicing. I started to wonder, "Where did all this water come from? And why do I think I'm the only one who's drowning in it?"

It had occurred to me after one Dharma talk that if you were to score the Mountains and Waters Sutra as a projective psychological test, you might notice some prominent themes in Dogen's profile, such as "stress from unmet needs" or "capacity for painful introspection." Themes which actually fit pretty well with the whole purpose of a sesshin, when you come right down to it. I began to consider that we were all sitting there, one big roomful of unmet needs, like a class of 6-year-olds who didn't quite get what we wanted for Christmas. "Aw, you wanted a Barbie Dream House? You wanted a Superman cape? A pony? A sports car? An Easy-Bake Oven? I'm so sorry. Maybe next year." I found myself quietly touched by my neighbors' willingness to go on practicing with their unmet needs well into the night, even though all of our left knees were on fire and our right ones weren't much better. And that's when I heard them. The mountains. Walking!

Or at least I thought I did. Maybe it was really just a screech owl, it doesn't matter. Because more importantly, I discovered that water can be a mountain too.

Popping the red pill into my mouth, I took a deep breath and dove head-first, again and again, into the waves of my fantasy world. And each time I did, those foamy mountains rose up and carried me, gently and safely, back to the shore of reality.

-Nancy Easton

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