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Roshi – A Diary, Zen Mountain Center August 2005

As part of a series of posts about sesshin gathered for the StoneWater Zen newsletter, here Roshi shares a very condensed diary of three weeks spent at Zen Mountain Center, California,

August 4th, leave Manchester Airport 12 noon. Arrive Ontario airport, Los Angeles, 8pm, eight hours behind UK time. Tenshin meets me. Drive through desert landscape to foothills of San Jacinto mountain range. Climb steep winding road and finally unpaved track to wooded grounds of Yokoji Temple, Zen Mountain Center, 6000ft above Joshua Tree National Park.

Join the Ango schedule the following afternoon. Given the Godo (assistant teacher) seat next to Tenshin. In Tenshin’s absence, simultaneously learn and lead forms and ceremony. Fortunately much helped by non-verbal signals from resident monks. All meal time except breakfast, formal oriyoki. There are about twenty participants for the whole three-month Ango of whom ten are full time resident monks (male and female). Later for the 7-day sesshin 40 people will attend.
Morning work meeting. Extremes of hot and cold, drought, electrical storms, wild animals and insect life, forest fires and the remoteness of the community combine to require constant maintenance of the buildings and land. This is notwithstanding sustaining the busy schedule of a traditional training monastery. Impermanence is ever, obviously present. A great opportunity to practise at the coal face!

One day we rehearse the Shuso ceremony for Ryodo, who is head monk for the ango. Bells, gongs, clapper, chanting, drum rolls, incense smoke and much bowing. For the real thing Tenshin will wear ornate robes and sit on a gilded high seat. The altar cloth will be of gold brocade.
On another day, after morning zazen, we hike in procession to Maezumi Roshi’s memorial site in the woods above the temple grounds, we offer incense and chant sutras. Moving on we climb higher to a shaded glade, the location of the center’s well and the source of all Yokoji’s water. Repeat the offerings before returning to the dining room for breakfast.

The Shuso ceremony is held on a Sunday to give lay practitioners a chance to take part. In open dharma combat Ryodo is tested on his understanding of the koan, case 20, Book of Serenity (see below). Ryodo does very well. As Godo, part of my role is to compose an appreciatory verse (see below).

Sesshin starts the same night. An electric storm passes immediately overhead. Lightning forks illuminate the night sky, thunder rumbles and then cracks loudly, torrential rain runs in streams off the temple roof. Fast-running rainwater cuts deep culverts in the path outside. During kinhin, two monks in robes run outside with shovels and redirect the flow. During sesshin I set my alarm for 4am. I meet Tenshin at 4.20am to discuss the day. In the Zendo for 4.50am. Start with service which includes chanting all the names in the lineage back to the Buddha and 27 Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, very fast. It wakes us up. Zazen begins at 5.20am. The day ends at 8.50pm. In the week I give daily afternoon interviews and two dharma talks. Last day of sesshin, I am lying on the ground in a copse of trees, back against a small pyramid shaped rock, waiting for the breakfast bell. Morning sunlight finds its way through the leaf canopy, thin shafts dapple my face. In the distance I can hear the tractor laying gravel on one of the temple car parks. Birds swoop and twitter. Insects hum and buzz, some land on me and then fly away. I am happy.

Case 20: Jizô’s “Most Intimate”
Jizô asked Hôgen, “Where are you going, senior monk9?” Hôgen said, “I am on pilgrimage, following the wind.” Jizô said, “What are you on pilgrimage for?” Hôgen said, “I don’t know.” Jizô said, “Non knowing is most intimate.” Hôgen suddenly attained great enlightenment.”

Appreciatory verse:
Ryodo the potter stopped the wheel broke the mould,
Blue jays screeched a rattlesnake slept,
Yokoji temple sparkled,

A mountain diamond glistening above Apple Canyon,
The 10,000 things celebrate,
Ryodo spins the wheel fresh clay in his hands.