Empty Hallways

If you want to get Buddhist about it, nothing has a beginning, but this story does. It begins at 5:25 a.m. on last September 10th, and that’s the problem. You see, all this takes place at a five day Western Zen Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. My job as a retreatant (along with cleaning the meditation hall men’s bathroom and maintaining the water station) was to wake up each morning at 4:55 a.m. so as to wake the other men living in the men’s dormitory at 5 a.m. so that we could all show up for morning exercises which began at 5:20 a.m.O.K., so this story begins at 5:25 when a monk/retreatant stands in the dorm hallway and claps his hands loudly and repeatedly until he is satisfied that no sleeper–including me– remains among us. Simply put, I’d screwed up. Either I’d mis-set the alarm clock or was relying on a defective alarm clock (later extensive investigation an testing revealed that it had worked both before and after this incident, although it–or I–would fail again two days later.)

Immediately my brain was beset by The Voices: “Fuck up! Idiot! You did it, didn’t ya? All the guys are late and you did it. Chan tradition, Zen tradition, thousands of years of people showing up when they’re supposed to and now you’ve blown it. Look at you, nobody that you are, lying there in your sweaty sleeping bag having destroyed the entire legacy of Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Bodhidharma, the Sixth Patriarch, Venerable Master Sheng Yen, Pima Chodron and your favorite poet, whose name I’ll not allow you to remember, you miserable portion of turkey ballast. You and your pitiful $7 alarmclock. Pack that clock, boy. Pack it and slink your slimy ass out of here before all those who truly love the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, pull out their vegetable cleavers and turn you into celery pate.”And this was just the beginning, the warm-up. The voices were just finding stride, and I, lost in guilt, remorse and masochism, could do no more than whimper “yeah” and “How could I…?” and “What’s wrong with me?” and “I really did it this time” and, of course, “Shit.”

This duet, the anger of The Voices and the simpering self-denigration of my responses, continued for hours. Through morning meditation, through the opening ceremony, through walk back to the dining room, breakfast, my walk back to the meditation hall to clean the bathroom and check the water station and then through the walk back to the dorm for rest period, ringing my little bell along the way to alert others to the end of morning work period. My rest, of course, was no rest at all. With not only The Voices to keep me anxious but also my fear that I’d fail to alert my fellow retreatants to the end of rest period, I non-rested bolt upright in a plastic chair in the silence of my room of shame. No peace. No hiding place.

My morning, this as it was, continued as just that. Although I got everyone alerted to the end of rest and the beginning of the morning dharma talk, I remained trapped inside my head. Of course I heard nothing, the instructor’s normal speaking voice being no match for the yelling of The Voices. Next came the first communications exercise of the day. Each of us had been assigned a question by one of the instructors, the kind of question, like “Who am I?” or “What is life?” that can lead to a universe of self-discovery. We would pair off, and each would speak in answer to his/her question for five minutes. The listener could do no more than listen. No feedback of any kind: words, facial expressions, body language all prohibited. Then roles would be reversed, then again and again and again and again. Each would speak three times. Each would listen three times.

My partner, Elizabeth, and I were midway through the second go round when she was called out by an instructor for daisan, a private instruction. I was left with The Voices, so the self-castigation continued. With no distractions and no shelter, the attack escalated well beyond merciless. By the time she returned The Voices had gone all out and were finally exhausted. I was an empty emotional corpse. Now here’s where all this finally gets interesting. As she approached me, I noticed new activity within my body. My posture straightened. My back and calves stopped aching. My head straightened. Internally I felt the self-pitying fog lift from my brain. Energy returned. Clarity appeared. All evidence and residue of the morning’s misery was utterly gone, replaced by a great positive influx of the most joyful and dynamic energy. But from where?Partner Elizabeth’s interview had been wonderful. She had reached a successful understanding of her question and had been given another. She felt overwhelmingly positive, and I was the one being overwhelmed. Her energy was simply flowing into the vacuum left by my tormentor’s success and evacuation. For that wonderful moment my emptiness became the receptacle for her delight.

Was this the emptiness Buddhism speaks of? Had I spent a moment in being truly free of my self? I mean, it really was great. Kind of like being not a perpetrator or a victim. Just being an observer. Yeah…just an observer…nice.

But surely there must be a more pleasant way to attain this. Five hours of self-flagellation can’t be the only way in. Then I remembered…meditation.

O, yeah.

Published in: on September 24, 2007 at 10:03 am  Comments (3)  
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Noon.  September 2, 2007.  Washington Heights.  Temperature 75.  Sun brilliant.

Sky possessing a clarity that poets, dying, wish they had lived to see.

St. Nicholas Avenue awash with life, color, motion, sounds and smells–yet peaceful, harmonious.

Room for everything and everything fits.

Down a block B-REAL peeks at us

Jumps out at us black in white in this full color world

(Bobbie & me, out scouting

carrying ice cube trays, corn, kiwis, a book.)

Half smiling, that maybe once famous B-REAL half smile

The smile that got him laid?  Killed?  The smile his mother loved? That others envied?  “How he smile like that anyway?”  Beyond compelling.  Demanding!  “Get your asses down here!  Check out our blog!”

A one lot park, paved for basketball   pict0008.jpg

A lone teenger (a B-REAL wannabe?) standing in the entrance rolls off to allow us in, never looking our way or otherwise acknowledging our existence.

Leaving us alone with B-REAL

and Rudy (Don’t drink and drive!)pict0003.jpg

and Ali (Don’t neglect your health!)    pict0004.jpg

Dazzled by art, saddened by death on this one more perfect day.

Saddened by art, dazzled by death on this same perfect day in Washington Heights.


Published in: on September 2, 2007 at 5:26 pm  Comments (2)