Friday, September 18, 2009

"Writing the Sacred" at Crestone Mountain Zen Center September, 2009

In the mornings, many of us rise at 4:30 from the guest house, hearing the crick crick of the wood being struck in the zendo, to begin the first hour of meditation. Then the deep, resounding bell: we begin walking meditation, a breath per step, very slowly, then quickly, around the wooden outdoor porch surrounding the zendo, the monks’ robes flying.

Then go to the cushion for another 40 minutes before we bow and chant sutras, ending with Prajnā pāramitā, the lovely Heart Sutra.

Then we walk out into the clear mountain morning, in the high, pure air under the pine trees, clouds moving over the grey Sangre de Cristo peaks. It's the most beautiful zendo I have ever visited. Twelve women have come to this autumn retreat, the second I’ve led in Crestone.

Just three fully ordained monks now live here. You can tell them from their bald heads and energetic strides. Christian, our retreat host, whose very name makes us do a double-take, is a buoyant, serious young man from Germany. There’s a small community of monks’ wives, children, students, young novice monks and work-study visitors, and a huggable Great Pyrenees white dog who wanders the garden. Great stillness and happiness.

Ingrid, a Zen monk also from Germany, comes out of the zendo to talk with us, in her eloquent, stilted English. “I do this every morning and every night,” she says. “It is the heart we work on. It is not the mind that Buddha spoke of.” We begin to comprehend the effort required to fully practice Zen. We see the strength in this slight, smiling woman with blond hair in black robes.

In the main house we read poems and excerpts aloud, in a circle, from Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz, Nuala O’Faolain, Yasunari Kawabata, others, and Jane Hirshfield’s essay, “Making Soul.” We look carefully at ancient texts by Lalla, Hadewich of Antwerp. We talk of how women’s voices have survived and now pour out in tidal waves. We read essays on fearlessness by female Zen teachers, thumb through texts in a library stretching down the hall.

The cuisine is dazzling, and soon we comprehend that we are eating, at 8400 ft. in a remote corner of Colorado, the kind of vegetarian food that makes people line up on sidewalks in New York and San Francisco. Many of the vegetables and fruits are from the greenhouse and garden, an oasis of green with bright flowers around the house that sparkle like jewels. Each vegetarian meal, prepared by the monks, is a work of art, almost too beautiful to eat.

Of course we ruthlessly plunge into the platters of perfectly arrayed avocadoes over saffrony Jasmine rice and black bean salad, perfectly ripe orange honeydew slices dotted with light green plums, a nectarine-plum custard tart that’s better than any dessert I’ve tasted, even after two years in France. The tart is unbelievable, the crust buttery with just a hint of sweetness – the crust alone would have been a perfect dessert – and warm milky custard that slides into the mouth, with slices of tender, glittering fruit. Ingrid puts a Buddha candle in one of the tarts for Victoria, who covers her face when we sing happy birthday, then lifts her hands. Her blue eyes glow with pleasure.

A loud group moan: author Deborah Madison has left during our second day, we’ve missed our chance for autographs! She was once married to our head cook, Dan, a mischievious monk who point-blank refuses compliments. He trained at the California Tassajara Zen Center, the lineage of this monastery, the first Zen Center in America, and the Greens Restaurant which she co-founded. “I was a flunkie,” he says, deadpan.

We cannot eat enough of the pizzas, gorgeous rounds of roasted Roma tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and Gorgonzola, peppers with Chipotle-tomato sauce and goat cheddar, a leek-potato-mushroom combination with tapenade and Grueyere. When I tell Dan that it is the best pizza any of us have ever eaten, anywhere, he shakes his head. “Oh, Sandra, you ought to get out more. I was just trying to make something as good as Pizza Hut.”

Is this a lesson in desire? Susan, our dimpled, elfish yoga teacher, a woman in her fifties who resembles a teenager, suggests the next retreat include food. I silently vow to create a Crestone "Zen of Writing and Cooking” retreat in 2010. (Stay tuned on this.)

On the first night, Susan leads us in yoga nidra. Hard to believe I’ve come here so tired I can hardly remember everyone’s names, and I pass out on the mat and wake up as they’re all starting to chant, sit up among everyone around me crosslegged and gently oooming. Susan whispers to me that one hours of yoga nidra is equivalent to four hours sleep. I wonder if this is possible, but we all snuggle down and drop into the pure land of the crisp white Japanese futons, soft and and heavy on our bodies in the cooling night air.

In the mornings, between the rewards of breakfast and lunch, the women write, paint, and warmly listen to each other. We are our lives, I say. We are the natural container. We just pry off a part and put a line, a noose around it, to hold the piece. The story, the poem, will create itself if we just write it. It has its own form, shape.

A Rocky Mountain News reporter of 13 years writes about a hospice patient she loved, Louise, a 95 year-old African-American woman who lived to see President Obama was inaugurated.

A Crestone dharma teacher, Naomi, writes of Japanese women with burned skin who visit Santa Fe, in their silk kimonos, to forgive us for our use of the atomic bomb, and themselves and their own country, for starting a war. She remembers when she was nine in Boston, and the bomb was dropped.

A poet from Grand Junction weeps as she reads a bittersweet poem of her last child starting kindergarten, of children being siphoned back to school, mountains seeping water. We sit silent before the beauty of the poem, remembering when our children left, when we all first left home.

A woman who is leaving her husband, after three decades together, reads a poignant story of a marriage bed in her new lodge, how a dear Brazilian friend tells her of a tradition in her country, where only an older woman in a long happy marriage is allowed to make the marriage bed.

We listen to poems of wanting the greening of the world. A waiting blue heron. Bees buzzing sunflowers in the Zen garden.

A story of an executive woman helped by hundreds of homeless friends when her bike is stolen. A young Scottish grandfather leaving a beloved Firth of Fourth, alone, to emigrate.

On Saturday we visit the steaming pools of a local hot springs. One of our group, a young, struggling performance poet and mother, dressed in a yellow bikini, recites a passionate lunar poem, framed by the full melon-colored moon behind her. She shouts, pleads, strikes the water. Clapping rings out.

We make a circle around her.

Crestone feels charged, heady, a place rocked by fast-changing energy that emotionally affects everyone. When we drove in, we crossed the San Luis valley, wide as an ocean floor, said to be the biggest valley in North America. Then straight up the road toward 14,000 ft. spires of granite. In the afternoons the sky darkens all at once, clouds burst, then brilliant hot light fills the air.

On the wooden zendo steps, a tall, lithe woman sits with me for a conference, and her eyes fill with tears. She works hard in her profession, many hours a day, in a big city. “I don’t know why I feel so sad,” she says. “I didn’t expect this.”

We hike up to mountain creeks and waterfalls, to other monasteries and centers on Baca Grande road. Solvitur ambulando: all is solved by walking. We buy beautifully crafted malas, like rosaries, to count our breaths, walking, and to remember being here.

“You are all so courageous,” Naomi says to everyone, when we gather again. “This is the most courageous group of women I’ve been in.” She quotes a Buddhist saying: “‘Where there is fear, there is great power.’”

In the great round space of Lindisfarne Chapel, where we do yoga, Christian sets a curvy statue of the green Tara, light falling from the center of the dome onto her body. At different hours women come to simply sit before the great statues of female power, this Tara and a tall black QuanYin in our meeting house, of which only two exact replicas exist: one here, one in Japan, sister statues created to heal the history between our countries.

How rare, vital, these female gods, these mirrors.

We do our final writing exercise on wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept of beauty and sadness rooted in Zen. Wabi: primitive simplicity, like the outdoor Japanese bath, floating with herbs. Sabi: lonely contemplation, the desire for refuge, tranquility, like a girl singing to a koto at night.

I read from A Thousand Cranes, from the mind of Kujiki, who’s just lost his father, and who watches a woman puts a beautiful morning glory in a vase: “He gazed at it for a time. In a gourd that had been handed down for three centuries, a flower that would fade in a morning.”

On Sunday night, Christian sits with us in a circle to give a dharma talk, based on our questions. All the women settle in, get each other cushions. He thinks at length before each answer, the talk stretches out over two hours, and Christian offers to stay up all night with us until meditation starts. For a moment I consider this, and we joke about making coffee. Then we thank him and go to bed. It’s almost ten.

Much of what Christian said that night will stay with me all my life. What is Buddhism? he asks, and elaborates. It’s about leading a satisfying life. There are no gods in Buddhism, no other world, but one world that is very deep, with many levels that are nongraspable. It is also about learning to die.

“Some people crave life,” he said. “Some people hate life. Both are disease. Imagine that you die every moment so that you really feel the beauty of vividness of life right now.”

We talk about fear and pain, and about how to not add suffering to pain. At its core, he says, fear is about the anticipation of pain or death. He urges us to try to understand which pain is truly dangerous, and which is psychological. Investigate: what are your fears about? Comparative thinking, for example, he says, is comparing yourself; it is a thinking that generates fear. He urges us to be skillful, to make use of fear, gain an inner clarity.

We each have an inmost request, he says. You don’t have to make that happen. You don’t want to figure out what it is, or define it. You just want to feel it clearly. Everything you do is measured against that felt sense: you ask, is that the full expression of what I want to be in the world? You don’t give up until it is. Hold your action against your inner question in a constant dialogue. Your inmost request is deeper than anything you will do in your life.

I get in my car to leave, wanting to stay. We all drive down the mountain, keep the mountain within.

(Thanks to photographers Lynn Bronikowski, Jill Burkey, Salli Russell, Rebakah Shardy & CMZC)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Canyonlands, Utah

Just returned from Canyonlands with Gary, my husband, and my 13 year old girl Lilly, ten other teens, and something like nine other adults. A Unitarian tribe in the desert. When we weren't hiking, collapsed in camp chairs or cooking, I climbed the rocks around our group site, Wooden Shoe, and holed up to write.

Woke up before dawn the last day and hiked out alone, jacket over loose pajamas in the blue air. The tents look like flags, blue and yellow and red scattered through the Wooden Shoe site. Such silence. An owl calls from the giant juniper, a tree twisted up from roots perhaps six hundred years old, standing over our red, green and yellow plastic tents scattered around the canyon bottom. Owls sound different in the enormous emptiness of Canyonlands, real loud, more gutteral, urgent like the throb of a guitar.

Up, over and across the road, right next to our dry wash, I find another canyon full of water, with one standing pool, tepid, somewhat smelly. But water! Stands of emerald green cottonwoods; masses of yellow rabbitbrush in full bloom; bright autumn Indian paintbrush, one of three paintbrush species here, that blooms with lemon lime spikes that shoot out past the red flowers. An explosion of lavender in thousands of bachelor buttons, which seem to be putting on a gala this year, among foot-tall handfuls of chocolate sunflowers, and a smoldering yellow-red species that resembles gaillardia. Bushes of smoky green four-wing saltbrush so thick I can't get around them.

Gary taught me that term yesterday, carefully prying open the saltbush leaves with his long fingers to show me the wings. He's a big guy, 6'6", ex-basketball player, but always gentled by nature, with a scientist's care and love of the Lillliputian. Was somewhat hard to leave his warm body curled up in the tent.

A whole field of green-yellow grasses are pressed down, a swamp that looks as if elephants had laid here. If not the grasses or the rock, where to step, to avoid the biotic soil fissioning up here like tiny black-towered cities? If I come back in ten years, my footprint will likely still be here. Crossing down to the canyon bottom through a wash, the light slowly coming up overhead, white sandstone turning yellow, I find small hoofprints of a herd in the wet sand. Everything adapts, so the deer, like the desert coyotes, might be smaller here too. There's one pinon three times the size of those I know in the high deserts of Colorado, and so I squat underneath to finger the emptied piles of cones.

Pinon used to be called "salt cedar," and in this moist canyon the tree smells deeply of that rich wood. Pinon jays filled the air yesterday, flocking around the trees, and last night we listened to a short, grave-faced ranger with greying tufts at his ears, pointing out to Squaw Flats in the campfire light, describe how the jays can tell by tapping the cone with their beaks if it's rotten, or partially or fully full of nuts. He sounded like an ex-professor but seemed like a wondering wanderer. The jay knows a lot, he said. And went on to tell of how the jay can store up to 60 nuts in a pouch in its throat, how one bird can bury 33,000 pine nuts in a season, or a flock up to 4.5 million pine nuts. They bury them all over the place, in handy sites.

I thought of all the pine nuts that must be buried in Canyonlands, and throughout the Western deserts. Unfathomable. A pound of pinon pine nuts equals a one-pound steak in protein, something I need to tell my newly vegan son, away at college, cooking happily on his pocket rocket stove in his beat-up climbing clothes. And the cracked shells of pinon nuts have been found at every archeological site in North America, so they've been traded and eaten for a while.

Could any of the first American tribes been vegan? C'est possible, non? So much endless speculation on how Indian rituals and art bridge the worlds between eating non-humans and communicating with the soul of plants and animals. But maybe, unbeknownst to us, there was a little movement with its own crowd of followers, an inner group that declared it would not longer eat any kind of meat.

I sit down on a bench up just above the treetops and try to meditate as the warm red light floods the Needles and the immense towers all around light up like fire, but it's impossible to close my eyes. Good God, you can't write, or meditate, only be here. We came here with the kids nine years ago, when we first moved from Oregon to Colorado, to do a backpacking trip, and when I got home I wrote Ursula Le Guin to ask if she'd ever been to Canyonlands, a place I couldn't even describe. Her postcard back was reassuring (The Great Mother, or the Unking, as we called her): yes, she'd been here, but hadn't written about it either. She said, "Words shrank it."

On with the impossible, then.

From my tiny perch in these vast phantasmagoria the eons of rock look poured, shaped in staggering turrets, arches, pinnacles, long-backed fins, steeples and tiny swirls of red Dairy queen cones and fidgety funny little top-knots of sandstone that make me think of Jane Eyre. ("All these topknots must come off.") I find all the West phenomenal and endlessly full of surprises, but what I love most about Canyonlands is how the trees and vegetation grow up out of the armpits, potholes, cracks and scooped-out shells of sandstone. (Yesterday, hiking over miles of slickrock, suddenly I went up a few feet of "steps"and came face to face with an enormous pinon juniper, curled into a huge sandstone bowl. A Zen master couldn't have arranged it better.)

The dark forest greens glow from the orange and red, make this otherworld country feel eerily like home. The rock rhymes with the trees, the trees -- as the ranger-professor explained -- breathe out water, transpire, keep the rock agile, from the tiny tap root of the tall cottonwood to the huge roots of the pinon juniper and pine. These, by the way, are more than half of the tree's mass, invisible underground, connecting under this rock, this damp clay earth as I make a way back through the field, where the water has pooled up and trickles of the canyon wren songs are starting to bounce through the walls, and I head over towards the dry canyon, a stone's throw across the road, two canyons in the thousands of canyons, so utterly different, nestled one against the other.

Still thinking about the trees and the ranger talk. It's thought that the puebloan tribes that were here until 1300, and the people in Chaco Canyon (where, I remember, many of the beams are still holding) cut down all the pinon and juniper, which took centuries to grow back, and -- yet another of the myriad swirling theories -- they left because they'd cut down all the trees and had to travel many miles to bring in wood. It should not comfort me, but does, that the tribes, who lived every breath in this land, may have made the same mistakes we've made in cutting down 98% of our old growth. Juniper especially resists rot, and both woods, when you hold a chunk of them in your hand, are extraordinarily hard, and almost unimaginably fragrant. Irresistible. Their foilage was boiled as medicine for stomachaches, eyesores, a long list of stuff, every part of the tree used, I think, to eat, drink, take in, its very soul.

The feeling I have in the great stillness of these canyons is of being part of something near and incomprehensible. We write what we know, Grace Paley said, about what we don't know, and I've just gotten a whiff of how these dark green trees, which are almost like stains against the massive rock, hold the very air, sandstone, and my own body. White morning clouds are blowing over the varnished black lips of the red canyon. To sustain something is to hold it.

Monday, September 15, 2008