Reflections of a shuso

During Alasdair’s month in the Lakes as shuso (head monk), he posted each week on the StoneWater Zen Northampton blog. Here, is a collation of the posts for those of you who missed them.

And off he goes..
So I leave for the Lakes tomorrow to start my four week training period as shuso or ‘head trainee’. Can’t quite believe it’s come round so quickly.
I’ve no idea what will arise for me over the next month, but have known for a while now that my challenge will be to totally throw myself into it, to fully stand in my own footprint for the whole duration. Just as I was finishing up some work I needed to do, I came across this quote from the late Master Sheng Yen:
“Just as when you sit in meditation you just sit, when you sleep, be aware of the totality of your whole being going to sleep. When walking, you just walk. When you eat, you are right there just eating. Plunge your whole life into what you are doing at that very moment and live that way. So we train ourselves to engage our whole being in what we are doing. Whether sitting or eating, you are not engaged in discursive, wandering, or deluded thoughts. All of you—environment, body, and mind—is right there. Whatever you do, whatever the task at hand, your whole life is there at that moment.
Some people may interpret plunging your whole being into the practice or into the task at hand as a very tense approach. This is incorrect. By putting your whole being into whatever you are doing, you are also being relieved from doing anything else at that moment. Therefore, when you are doing that one thing, that is all you have to care about, and you can do it in a very relaxed manner and attitude. In this light, you will better understand the meaning of engaging your whole being in the present task. This is the relaxed and reposed attitude to practice.”
— From The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
“Plunge your whole life into what you are doing!” This makes me ring like a bell… can I do it? For a month? I don’t know. Try, and fail. Try again.”
Have a wonderful August!

Week 1- One week in…

Thought I might just quickly post a reflection on how things are going on my training period, one week into my month in the Lakes…

I don’t really know where to start with this. I’m sitting at my laptop at Sensei’s desk, with a great view…

I’m thinking back over the last week and trying to decide what stands out.
Officiating at service, which is new to me.
Interviews with Keizan Sensei, dissecting my koan.
The strength of the practice.
The people, old friends and new.
The ‘shuso shack’ where I’m living.
The walk yesterday around Ullswater.
The news of a birth, an illness and a death.
Trips into Penrith for shopping, laundry, fetching & delivering folk.
The rain. So much rain.
A pub supper with Sensei.
The smell of incense in the brazier.
Afternoon naps.
Cycling along country lanes.
But I keep coming back to being in this place. The more I stare out across the valley, the more familiar this place becomes. I notice small changes. I see the way the craggy Knipe-top is revealed or concealed by the weather. How calm or restless the sheep are. How busy the road is – or isn’t. The temperature, the wind, the rain. The clouds, occasionally the sun. The mice in the insulated walls of my shack. The bees in the flowered verge. The red squirrel, skirting the property.

It’s all too, too wonderful.


Week 2 –  Two weeks gone – half way already

How different two weeks can be, following the same schedule in the same place…!
For the first week of the training period, Sensei was here and there was instruction on the ‘form’, how to officiate at our regular Zen services. There were interviews with him, and essentially he was in charge. The buck stopped with the boss.
For the second week, Sensei returned to Liverpool, and the buck only goes as far as me…

It seems to me right now that this is a big part of the training, too – beyond when to offer incense and when to bow, beyond pondering my koan. How will I stand in my own shoes when the responsibility is mine. I think it went all right.

Each day, the valley reveals itself in a slightly different guise. This afternoon, after everyone had left and I found myself alone, a rainbow spread out across the sky. I stood in the soft rain and gazed at it. Seemed to hang around for ages – long enough that I thought to grab my camera.
It turns out that being shuso (head monk/trainee) is about far more than I thought. I’m still working on my koan, of course, and exchanged emails with Sensei with some reflections on it (really not as good as a face-to-face chat it must be said!), and I’m still spending heaps of time on my cushion, eyes fixed on the floor, knees pressed into the mat.
But I’ve had to be so much more – chief shopper, samu job allocator, deliverer of dharma talks, dish washer, laundry marshall, service officiant, sounding board in interviews, social soother, even disciplinarian. Sometimes it feels like I’m cheating, doing this while my day job is university lecturer – there’s been some significant overlap! But here I’ve been aware of holding the space for others – loosely, I hope, and gently, kindly.
Doing interviews with all the practitioners here has also really opened my eyes to how much is going on even in a silent zendo. The silence itself seems richer, more pregnant with meaning.
And beneath it all is my own ongoing practice in the zendo. Two weeks in, and I’m still amazed that I’ve managed to avoid knee pain, my almost constant companion on retreat. I’ve not once heard the clappers announce the next period of meditation and felt the gut-twist of dread that the next two hours will be spent trying to deal with the stabbing pain of aching knees. There’s been occasional discomfort, but nothing more than I might feel on a Wednesday night in Northampton towards the end of our weekly communal zazen. It’s opened up zazen for me in a way I’d not been expecting – while I’m not going to tell fibs about wonderful serenity and profound realisations, each period is mostly more settled than the last, as I find myself more fully present, day by day. Mostly, the bell at the end of a period comes as a surprise, not as something I’ve been urging on with all my might, dragging each second past the next.

This Wednesday was fantastic. I woke before Jikido Jo came round with the morning bell, and stared out over the valley. I’ve spent ages looking over the valley these two weeks, but this morning was wonderful.


Thin mists banding knipe slopes
Dewey bleats hail cresting sun
Soft hiss of the M6

Such a perfect moment. During zazen that morning I sat in Joy, a stupid grin beaming across my face. It lasted all morning, through breakfast and a trip to the shops in Penrith. Total joy, unreserved, undiscriminating. Eventually of course it passed, as all things do.

Week 3 – Samu week

What a change in pace – for the third week of the August training period, the timetable of silence and zazen is overthrown by a routine of daily labour and friendly communion. There’s a lot of work to be done each year to maintain the place, and ‘samu week’ has become an important fixture in the maintenance of the house, gardens and zendo.
At the start, it was all honestly a bit much – having spent two weeks settling into a steady, slow rythym, and a quiet weekend at first on my own, and then just with Sensei, the arrival of the babbling hordes on Sunday had me retreating to a bench in the far corner of the garden by Sunday evening, desperate for some peace and quiet.
I am by nature, though, a sociable being, and it didn’t take long for me to realise that as much as I was present to the routine and calm of the sesshin weeks, I had to be present to the chatter, work and laughter of samu week. Soon, I got over myself, and joined in.
Disaster strikes – turns out that the floor of the ‘shuso shack’ is in bad shape. I’d heard a floorboard break when I stepped in last week – pulling the furniture out reveals the floor is damp through, with wet rot fungus growing all over it.
Andy Scott to the rescue…! With a surprisingly gleeful violence, the skirting boards and half the floorboards are ripped out, and a temporary ply floor fitted – a night on the sitting room floor for me as the timber treatment dries, but I’m back in the next day, very happy indeed that I’ve been re-homed so fast. Being shackless is a step below homeless!

My job is treating the outside of the shack, a biggish job but plenty of time for it. I also get curtains and cushion covers to the cleaners in town, while John and Karen paint the sitting room. Amazing what a fresh coat of paint will do to a room – and the sage trim on the coving is replaced with a bright yellow (the less charitable might say that it makes me want to move my car to a legal parking spot…). There’s a grand unveiling as John & Karen remove the masking tape…

Given that it’s the end of the week, perhaps we can be forgiven for the obsessive hilarity we discover in the jumble of yellow-edged waste masking tape that still as I post this sits like an idol on the sitting-room wood burning stove…
Sadly, we’re easily amused.
Not sure that the ‘idol’ will survive this week – sorry John & Karen!
I’m afraid I didn’t get good pics of other people working – will post in a few below in any case. Jez ended up doing all sorts – fixing plumbing, painting the chimney, sourcing some ‘ridge tiling’ for the long shed… and probably twenty other tasks that required more competence than most of the rest of us (Andy aside) could scrape together. Jo’s work in the garden made a huge difference – she just seems to know what to do and does it humbly and quietly, and suddenly you notice a corner transformed, a tree pruned to within an inch of its life, or an oddly shaped bamboo plant. All the while, Isshin carries on with the samu tasks that would normally fall to four people – and of course finds a hundred other vital cleaning jobs that cannot remain undone…

I think for all of us the highlights were being called in to eat. Not that we’re all greedy or insatiable in appetite (though I am!), but the food produced by Zaza and her daughter Jamilla was simply fantastic. Each breakfast was different (the home-made muesli my favourite), each lunch a banquet and each supper a marvel of culinary creativity. Home-made bread, and even brownies and home-made chocolate on the last day. Yum. Yum squared. Each meal looked as good as it tasted, and Sensei must have pictures of every single dish on his phone, he was so taken by its presentation! Zaza and Jamilla’s tireless labour will be long remembered…

We ended the week with a bonfire in the incinerator, sitting around in the occasional drizzle, chatting, laughing, eating and making the very best of the last few hours before it was time to sleep, wake, eat and leave in fairly short order the next day.
Thank you all for a fantastic week. Now, a quiet(ish) weekend, and the pace slows down a bit again as we await the folk coming for the last week.
I’m knackered – the last week has taken a huge amount of effort from us all, so I’m catching up on overdue naps to make sure the tanks are full for the last push – sesshin schedule again next week, and I’ll be surfing on the energy that the new participants bring with them. Hope I can stay upright until we leave on Thursday!
Can’t believe this has all happened so fast.

Week 4 – and leaving the Lakes

The last week was a return to the less frenetic pace of sesshin. Sadly a couple of cancellations, but it left us with a small and intimate group, and we seemed to work well together.
Janet wasn’t just Tenzo, but also somehow grandmother – her offer to do any shopping, leaving me to stay on the property, was very much appreciated, and it seemed to help with my focus for this last, short push.
Really struggled to come up with material for the talks this week – would have been happy to carry on sitting in silence… but the talks are part of the duty appointed to me, so I wasn’t about to shirk them. Ended up giving talks on shikantaza through three lenses – the notion of hishiryo (non-thinking), mushotoku (no thought of gain/profit) and jijuyu zanmai (self-fulfilling samadhi). They’re still a work in progress, I think… might have to come back to these in a few years and see how my appreciation for shikantaza has changed.

Dryer than some of the other weeks, but grey. Seems appropriate – ordinary weather, in an ordinary valley – ordinary mind.

Some of the locals have been popping by – this woodpecker has been a frequent visitor, along with the blue- and great-tits squabbling over the fat balls, the manic red squirrel sprinting along the wall-tops, the voles in the stone wall at the field’s edge, a young grey heron spotted through the kitchen window hunting for frogs.
On the last evening, I finished interviews a bit early (was going to have to continue the next morning in any case), and returned to the zendo for a spot of zazen… after almost no time had passed (but must have been at least 20 minutes!), I saw Jo reaching for the striker to hit the bell for the Four Vows. I wanted to yell out, “Noooooooo….! Don’t do it! Don’t end it! I’m not finished!” Dong… katz… dong… “Sentient beings are numberless…” dong… “…awaken, awaken… Take heed, do not squander your life.”
I get up, bow at the haishiki, and stumble through the last exit of the day – no idea if the jisha got the bells right this time (this was not Clive’s forté!). I went straight to the shack, and stood outside the door, looking over the rapidly darkening valley. My last night.
Tears – I wasn’t expecting that. And a deep sob; “I’ll miss this place.”
“Pull yourself together, Alasdair,” I mutter. A cup of tea is fetched. But the melancholy doesn’t leave that night.
After the last zazen on Thursday, a round-up instead of a dharma talk. Julie’s word resonates with me: “precious”. Yes. Each person’s reflections, their thanks. Mine – manage to somehow express my gratitude to Keizan Sensei for enabling this to happen. Much easier when he isn’t here! And to everyone who has supported me through the whole process – my wife and son, Sensei, everyone who’s attended (especially three weeks with Jikido Jo!), all the previous shusos who’ve made the organisation of this easy… even my boss for giving me the time off. Everyone who sent their best wishes and thoughts who couldn’t be there. The Northampton sangha whose presence has been such an important support for me over the past five years. Fuck it: all sentient beings. Truly.
A final service. My bows seem deeper. The incense offerings are heartfelt.
Lunch. Packing. Tidying up.