Silent? Illumination

At the end of a nine day Silent Illumination meditation retreat l attended recently the instructor, Simon Child alerted us that many people think of meditation retreats as semi-luxurious vacations from the stress of the world. “Don’t be surprised,” he warned us, “when folks ask you ‘did you have a good time?’ or ‘How was the Jacuzzi?’ He also asked we write a report on our experience. I hope the below is an appropriate response to both the warning and the request.


Silent Illumination Retreat Report


After the storm

Sunlight streams

Over the spillway


For the first four days of this late spring nine day retreat in the Catskills the only times I’d take off my jacket would be to step into the shower or slide into my sleeping bag. By the middle of the fifth day, however, temperature was no longer an issue, that consideration having been obliterated by the merciless throbbing in both my left and right calf muscles. I meditate astride a seiza, the Japanese kneeling bench much more comfortable for me than a traditional cushion—at least until now. Behind me I could see, first with anger then jealousy, a few other retreatants sitting in chairs.

Fine for them,” the self-righteous voice in my head spoke thru the pain.  “I would never begrudge anyone that which they needed.” But I knew—deep down, truly knew—not for me. In my book chairing was the revelation of a weakness in no way mine. I could not be a wimp and still expect a successful retreat.

I was sweating. Simon had instructed us that Silent Illumination begins with locating the mind within the body, but not like this. This wasn’t observation and investigation. This was hell. This was suffering and suffering well beyond any conceivable strategy to end it. I sat tortured in my seventy-five year old body, steeped in self-pity and on the verge of tears while Suffering screamed brilliantly loud and clear that I was in the wrong place and, yes, at the wrong time and that my only sensible option was escape.

“Get up! Take the seiza, fold the towel, slink out the Chan Hall door, return to the dorm, pack and hitchhike to the nearest train station. Do it now!”

Pain and panic flooded my mind as I leaned forward to make my exit. It was then that Awareness—blessed Awareness–spoke:

Danger! Danger!

Great Doubt! Great Doubt!  Great Doubt!

Danger! Danger!

Aha! Moment of insight: My suffering was not being created by my legs but by my mind in the guise of male ego. This filter of judgements and commandments interposed between the world and my awareness of it was keeping me from responding appropriately to the situation at hand. Simon had mentioned the rulebooks we write or adopt and then force ourselves to live by, and here mine was—titled in bright gold script on its shiny red jacket:

Do’s and Don’ts of Real Men!

I rose, folded the seiza and, rather than slink out the door, I placed myself on a chair!  A brief smile and I returned gratefully to Silent Illumination practice.

*   *   *

For the remainder of the retreat my body continued as the entry point for more investigations. Each would be accompanied by sensations I would have previously identified as pains. None came with drama.  Never again did it occur to me that I might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Right here-right now was just fine.


Published in: on June 17, 2017 at 11:30 am  Comments (10)  

The day before spring

 …Heaven brings life into being and Heaven takes life away;

there is nothing to fear about death.

                                                   — Saigo Nanshu


The previous night Yoshiro had slept fitfully.  On waking he remembered only one dream, and it quickly vanished.  In it he was himself but at no more than himself at three or four years.  He sat in a classroom of the antique style.  Desks and chairs were bolted to the bare wood floor in precise rows.  All was grotesquely outsized.  His feet were suspended several meters above the floor.  The teacher, gigantic and dressed in a dull, conservative tradition, wore her hair piled up in a huge topknot that doubled her height.  Her obi, a solid and disturbingly shining green wrapped tightly about her waist looked in his dream like a flattened eel.  She lumbered toward him in a state of throbbing agitation, waving a ruler in the air, an actual eel with tongue extended and blood-red saliva spraying from its mouth.  Clearly she was screaming at him, but no sound came from her moving lips.

Terrified Child Yoshiro struggled to get down from the high seat.  High above the floor his legs flailed helplessly in the air.  The sandals his mother had so painstakingly woven for him—how did he know this?—flew from his feet.  Alas, the narrow space between the fixed positions of desk and chair permitted no room for him to descend.  Try as he might he could not slide sideways, held in place by an unseen force he could not name.  He remembered the strong aroma of rotting cabbages.  Yoshiro cried out for mercy as she approached, but, like her mouth, his too made no sound.  As she arrived at his desk Sleeping Yoshiro’s bladder called him awake.

Several times this night he arose to urinate.


Most of their bedroom was filled by a Western-style bed, which as Yoshiro noted first with disbelief and then resignation, at this moment stood invisible under several vacuum-flattened clear plastic bags of her summer clothing themselves under mounds of carefully folded winter garments.   The door to the emptied closet stood ajar.  Barely inside the doorway he smiled with his mouth only.  He recalled the room as it had been before their now decades old cohabitation, a time when it held only his desk, its chair and a small altar for the statue of Buddha he’d brought back from a trip to Kyoto.  He’d refer to it as his Heian Period, the great classical period in Japanese history.  Friends—acquaintances really and more Western in orientation than Yoshiro—called it his time of waiting to afford furniture.

He sighed.

“If you—when you—need help,” he offered, turning toward the door and his writing desk—now in the common room—“just call.”  Yoshiro was one of those few in Tokyo experimenting with a freelance existence rather than opt for the security of “company man” status.  He wrote advertising text.  Between assignments—and frequently his situation was such—he was one of those filling time by writing haiku or photographing flowers.

“Maybe after dinner,” Ko mumbled from her desk.  Lost in playing American solitaire on the computer—a growing preoccupation she justified as a way to rest her tired back—the enthusiasm of her reply matched exactly that of his offer to be of assistance.

“As long as we have the bed for sleeping,” he called out with an uneasy lightness.

“We have the futon,” she answered perfunctorily referring to the couch in the common room.  “It pulls out nicely to sleep two.”  Before her sentence ended Yoshiro had veered from both his path and his offer.  He passed through the apartment door, closing it with deliberate quietness, bypassed the elevator as had become his custom of late and started down the stairs to the street seven flights below.

This day was Setsubun, the day before spring.  The weather was appropriately uncertain.  Four flights from the street he stopped abruptly, reversed and climbed back up the stairs.  As quietly as he had just exited, he re-entered the apartment, snatched his maroon Uniqlo jacket from the shelf near the door and once more exited.  Soon enough he was stepping through the ground floor fire door onto the street.  Ueno Onshi Park but two blocks away filled his mind.  Cherry blossom viewing was still weeks distant.  This early in the season and late in the day—shadows had already begun to lengthen—it would surely offer all the quiet he needed to digest his rising feelings.


Akemi means bright beauty.  Her parents, fresh from the countryside at the time of her birth, named her thusly in the belief that it would guide her destiny.  As things turned out they were correct.  From her first moments free from mother’s confining womb through the very instant she entered Ueno Onshi Park her days had been a succession of seeming successes guided, if not compelled, by her physical appearance.

In any period of Japanese history Akemi would have been found unsettlingly beautiful.  She stood just taller than an average Japanese male and thus sought after as a trophy by men of power.  Her desirability was further enhanced by a pale—but not at all unhealthy—complexion offset by full and radiantly shining black hair which, regardless of fashion, she wore midway down her shoulder blades.  This, much like her large, round, exquisitely dark eyes, removed her from fleeting fashion trends and placed her in that timeless aesthetic beyond any era.  Appropriately her weight—without an excess of exercise or concern for diet on her part—more than suited both her height and her culture.

Her easy smile always appeared unprovoked by the immediate but rather in response to something deeply internal.  Men seeing Akemi’s face were quick to label her expression serene while hoping that energies more dynamic were concealed beneath.

How often though is happiness spoiled by the belief that it is undeserved?  Unexpectedly sensitive Akemi had not been raised in nor discovered on her own a religion or even a philosophy offering a judgmental supreme being or some systematic structure for personal evaluation.  Nevertheless she had come to believe that somewhere beyond consciousness and, perhaps reality, there was indeed a being all-powerful.  Sadly, she was quite sure that being was intent on and poised to snatch away at any moment all the accumulated beneficence that had flowed virtually uninterrupted into her life.  Its reason?  Simple, direct response to her having done nothing whatsoever to have earned it.  So it was, with no supernatural intercessor to intercede for her wellbeing, she assuaged her feelings of inadequacy through traditional daily offerings to her ancestors—a flower or a fruit, surely nothing conspicuous—in hopes that they might somehow ameliorate that fate she saw as imminent.

To facilitate this ritual and hedge her bets, she’d bring her daily gift for the spirit world to Ueno Park and its statue of Saigo Takamori.  Takamori, called Japan’s last true samurai, stood honored at the southern entrance to the park, ennobled while walking his dog.   Under the name Saigo Nanshu he had not only written poetry but also a philosophical manual, Instruction of Dying, advice on the only eventuality Akemi saw at this juncture as holding the potential to relieve her of her ever present, if well concealed, anxiety.

On this Setsubun when she finished her entreaty to Nanshu-san and bowed, Akemi opened her eyes only to discover herself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with sad Yoshiro.  A slight chill riding on the breeze of impending evening, Yoshiro now wore the maroon jacket.  He, regardless of the preoccupations which led him to the park, stood like so many others drawn to his particular location by her radiance.  (Later he would deny this.  His denial, however, would read hollow to some and contemptible to others.)  Akemi quickly covered her mouth, giggled just audibly and stepped back.  Yoshiro wanted so to smile, but found he could not.  Flushed, he batted his eyes hoping to regain contact with the reality he’d temporarily abandoned.  He coughed.  There then passed a moment that might have seemed to an outsider like an eye blink, but to the two of them represented eternity.  He cleared his dry throat.

“The statue is well lit by the late afternoon sun.” He spoke with the authority one might expect of a television newscaster.  She let the moment for her response pass.  He continued.  “It is well that Takamori-san is located as he is.”  He hated himself for the drivel coming from his mouth and despised even more the pomposity with which he delivered it.  If he had spoken to beloved Ko as he was now speaking to this stranger, she would have laughed outright and, like a mother to her child trying too hard, kissed him on the nose.  Akemi, long accustomed to men making fools of themselves in her presence by their extended effort not to appear foolish, continued with her mouth covered still smiling with her eyes.  She giggled once more.  Yoshiro perceived a great deep hole equaled in its depth only by his own compulsion to fill it.

“You know, he was a samurai and a poet.”

Akemi lowered her hand.  Her smile lost, she stared at the ground between her feet.

“Weren’t they all poets, the great warriors,” she asked the air above her breasts.  Yoshiro had no answer.  He, too, focused on the ground.  The sun touched the tops of the still bare tree branches black against the orange-yellow sky.  The uu-gah of a police car klaxon in the far distance made its way to their ears and just as quickly disappeared into the dull roar of rush hour.  A gaggle of passing uniformed schoolchildren noted them and smiled among themselves.  When stillness returned Akemi spoke just above a whisper.

“Have you ever considered suicide?”

Yoshiro looked up abruptly.  “No!”  Had he answered too quickly?  “Of course not…that is…” He paused.  He returned his gaze to the spot of bare earth where so many had stood to view the last great samurai.  “Yes.”

Akemi shivered.  Without thought Yoshiro removed his jacket and leaned toward her, extending the garment ahead of him as a torero might hold a cape.  She turned away at the final moment brushing against the jacket.  His phone fell from its pocket and clattered to the ground.

“No!” She stepped back.  “You must put it back on.  You’ll be cold.”  His face flushed again.  He stooped to pick up the phone.

“But you, you’re—.”  She took two crab-like side steps toward the Southern gate and the street.  He stood up.

“I must be going,” Akemi whispered to herself then repeated it to Yoshiro.  She turned and walked now at full stride toward the street.  Yoshiro silent, rigid, stared after her.

The last rays of the setting sun left his face.   Ueno Onshi Park stood gray about him, a perfect foreground for the street lights and those in the windows of the various buildings beyond.  Yoshiro did not notice.  He stared at the phone held tightly in his hand.  Ko, despite her agonized back and her various chores would be waiting dinner.  There was a market on the way home.  Something might be needed.  A bottle of wine would be nice.  He flipped open the old fashioned clamshell.  Ko’s number was the first he’d entered into it all those years ago.  Still and as always, he dialed from memory one digit at a time: 03-7653-7821.


The end

Published in: on June 6, 2017 at 10:24 am  Comments (10)