It’s the final full weekend of the August Training period in the Lake District and a small group of us (Stephan, Emma, Isshin and myself) are awaiting the new arrivals today for the final week of the retreat. The weather is beautiful as we look out across the Lowther valley eating breakfast. We have maintained a schedule of regular sitting and services over the weekend and used the period between the departure of one group and the arrival of the next to rehearse different aspects of the services and practice new service positions. We are so lucky to have had Henrike here for the last week as well as Sensei for weeks one and three. Henrike has huge experience, having trained both with Genpo and Tenshin Roshis, and is a wonderful source of wisdom and advice on so many aspects of form and practice. I particularly appreciate her help as I prepare for the Shuso Hossen ceremony.
The Training Period has gone well. We got off to a great start: the first week had 11 people 4 of whom were on their first visit here, and the joriki (concentration) was very good. Week two saw a group of 8 seasoned practitioners in residence, and some very lively discussions on different aspects of practice and koan work, as well as some strong sitting.
Despite some rather mixed weather and our concerns that this would affect ‘Samu’ week, our fears were groundless. Eleven of us did a lot of maintenance: including repainting Sensei’s room and the mens’ bedroom, painting the outside sheds, building a new outside wood store and countless other DIY jobs. As well as doing 6 hours of samu a day we managed to sit zazen in the early mornings and after supper and the combination of work and zazen was wonderful.
There is something very special about this practice and especially about sesshin. I don’t know if you can imagine spending a week with 11 adults in a 4 bedroomed house, and spending the whole day there together, eating, sleeping, working? Even with friends or people you know, how long would you last? Yet this is what we are doing. It’s not always peace and light and friction does arise, but we deal with it. The mutually agreed voluntary self restriction, the silence and the zazen provide the space and the container – it’s magic. And at the end of each week we feel really close to each other, connected and aware.
One of the special things about doing an extended Training Period is how one’s appreciation of time and space varies. When I started we were enjoying long summer days and it was light even at 9.15pm as we chanted the Four Vows. Now, we do our final sitting in deep dusk. It’s not just the shorter days that reminds me of the change of seasons; there’s a definite early autumn chill in the air, and even more poignant is the skeins of honking geese that pass overhead migrating south. The world seems both smaller and larger. I am increasingly reluctant to leave this valley, and I don’t miss TV, radio music etc at all. No phone calls is bliss. But there’s also this sense of spaciousness and connection to a place, and to nature especially. This is thanks to the robin that sings to us during the morning zazen, the bees on the flowers around the zendo door, the noisy young buzzard who has a favourite tree just up the hill, and – a new find today – a family of mice living in the dry stone wall by the front gate.
I feel a deep sense of peace and enormous gratitude both to Sensei who has made his house available to us and to the sangha members who have attended this retreat and are supporting my training. It’s going to be hard to leave here but I look forward to seeing you in Liverpool.