Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Monk with the Steel-Toed Boots

Just returned from a three-day meditation retreat at the Zen Forest in Tweed, Ontario. Hard to explain how amazing it was. Beautiful location, super-kind people, and three days of peacefulness. And three days of the half-lotus position, which has pretty much crippled me. The last day was done in total silence (we were supposed to be silent the whole time but we were a bit naughty. I mean, if one sees a beaver swimming along or hears a loon, one has to comment on it, right?). Anyway, it was a very interesting long weekend.

The Zen Forest is run by a Vietnamese abbott, who came there to homestead 21 years ago. He also happens to be an engineer. For six years he lived on his own without running water or electricity, and he has slowly built up this amazing temple and retreat centre. He's built a beautiful central building, multiple huts for guests, and he's excavated a big lake and built walkways and bridges and terraced landscaping. He's sculpted a massive reclining Buddha out of cement to lie peacefully against the hillside across the lake. Quite wonderful. Everywhere you could see evidence of further projects...backhoes parked under the trees, crates of yet-to-be-unpacked statues and stone lanterns, an electric sawmill beside a stack of cedar logs. Fascinating to wander around. All of it has been accomplished through donations, because he has no money himself. (And we were paying less than $16 a day to cover food and lodging, so he wasn't making any money from that. If anything, we cost him.) You stumble across treasures out in the woods, evidence of even more creativity and industry. Abandoned chicken coops. Pillars for a gate that wasn't installed. Sheds of tools. Plastic chairs just sitting out in the woods, waiting for someone to discover and sit in them. The monk himself has the most wonderful, gentle smile that made you love him immediately. He strode around in his saffron-coloured robes with a matching ski hat and steel-toed boots, a beneficent and quiet presence working in the background.

The Buddhist nun who cooked for us was a jolly, smiling, shaven-headed woman who turned out great quantities of delicious food for the 15 of us---flavourful soups, salads, stir-fry, terrific spring rolls, and tofu and rice made in a myriad of ways that I'd never thought possible. Five or six different carbs every meal, really. You haven't experienced anything quite like her cauliflower and noodles in broth for breakfast. We all fell in love with her and wanted to take her home. She confided to me that she loves winter, and when it snows, she goes out in the yard and rolls in it...when there's no one watching. As I was sitting later, supposed to be working on my koan, a fully-formed Haiku popped into my head.

Nun rolling in snow
smiling face like the Buddha
No neighbours to see.

You can see my mind was doing its own thing, not cooperative at all. Except sometimes. Sometimes the usual chatter in my head would still, and the sound of the waterfall would wash away words, and the soft sunlight filtering into the sitting platform would bathe my brain, and the cool breeze would brush my arms, and for one perfect instant there would be total peace.

Going again someday. I'm hooked. Except this time I'll do some Working Meditation too, and help with the weeding. The acreage is expansive and volunteers are needed. In fact, if I'd stayed another few days, I think I may never have left. I could easily picture myself moving into one of the little shacks and spending the rest of my days gardening and moving stone and slurping rice noodles.

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