Ocean of green
Shelter from the storm
A bungalow in the Eastern Fells of the English Lake District, houses Stonewater Zendo â€“ a truly hidden gem. Being yet another provision by Keizan Sensei, the zendo comfortably accommodates ten people, but seeing as we are all friends, it will put up with a few more. It never complains.
It is a hundred mile drive from Liverpool, but for me, the drive is the start of the sesshin, be it a week or just a weekend. A great feeling of ‘getting away’ is present long before arriving at the zendo and there is a stark contrast after coming off the always busy M6 motorway to the quiet of the small country lanes. The quiet increases as you approach Stonewater, it then becomes very quiet and on arrival, you may even feel guilty closing the door of your car.
There is always a very sincere and warm welcome when you arrive â€“ a cup of something and a chat with friends old and new and then settling in.
So, the scene is set. After sorting out the sesshin details, the effects of a hard weeks work take over and everyone is (usually) ready for an early bed.
Getting up very early is easy and natural at Stonewater, with the sitting being really special because of the deafening silence of the early morning. As the morning progresses, there is really nothing like witnessing the daylight, birdsong, solitude and sheer happiness creeping its way into the zendo and everyone in it. It makes me very aware of living in the present:
All are included, nothing excluded
The bookcase, the book, the glancing look
The carpet, the broom, the wind and the moon
The ladder, the stair, all the bits in the air
The Buddha, the incense, all of my nonsense
The trees, the sheep, the car hornâ€™s beep
All is included, nothing excluded
Inside or out – even THIS SHOUT!
Interrupted by the bell, we go for breakfast and very soon it’s time for samu. Always a lot to do, the natural exposure of the building against the relentless Lakeland weather makes regular maintenance a high priority. Something wonderful however in working on the place â€“ why is it so enjoyably different from working at home? Is it the air? The atmosphere? The contentment? Maybe it’s better not to know but simply enjoy it.
A cup of tea is welcomed and I sit watching the house martinâ€™s aerobatics. I think of Vaughn Williams’ Lark Ascending and wish they could hear it. They probably have.
They relentlessly pick insects up while on the wing and return to their nest to feed the young. How wonderful! No thoughts of the past or future, no good or bad, just going about the business of life – yet another lesson for us all. Then, when it starts to get cold, they fly to Africa without a map. That’s clever.
More zazen and then a talk by Sensei. We are accompanied by a hen harrier who looks in the window at us each day at the same time during Sensei’s talk. Such a magnificent creature and obviously one of habit. Lunch – the food is always delicious and plenty of it! You can’t be sixteen stone without some help.
After lunch, the afternoon is ‘free’ and provides a really special opportunity to explore the stunning surrounding area with well tried walks both easy and hardish. The tea shop in Bampton is the quaintest in England and the home made lemon drizzle cake with a pot of tea must be one of the most unique and simple pleasures in life. I can remember us ‘doing’ Whale Knipe and were behind schedule. Sensei sprinted ahead to get the owner to keep the tea shop open for us and when we arrived, the tea, cake and blazing sunshine were waiting for us. So there we were, in one of the most beautiful places in Britain, sitting in the sun drinking tea. “Sesshin is always hell,” remarked Alasdair!
Back to Stonewater and by the end of the afternoon, more zazen. The stunning Lake District is starting to permeate the skin and it is a good feeling. I am happy. Time for tea and by now I am feeling somewhat tired, I await the meal and the final session – three sittings before supper.
Afterwards I get everything ready for the early morning refreshments and go to bed. I snore so loudly that I and everyone else have banished myself to sleeping behind the couch in the living room. At least I always get a good night’s sleep and the couch doesn’t seem to mind.
Be it a weekend or a full week, the end of the sesshin comes all too quickly and before very long it is time to go home. Reverse journey, from quiet lanes to the mayhem and madness of the M6 race track eases me back into my ‘normal’ life. Each time however, the transition becomes easier, more natural. I am made to realize more and more that sesshin is so worth the effort and an essential part of one’s practice.
Finally, I feel I speak for us all and would like to say a very sincere thanks to Keizan Sensei for putting the effort, planning and time into the zendo for no other reason than for the benefit of others. I hope the magic of Stonewater will be there for a long time to come â€“ if you get the chance to go, try it and experience the magic. You’ll be glad you did.
Ron Anzan Bell