I was a bit slow joining the Zoom sessions. My first encounter with the platform was an Angulimala meeting (the Buddhist prison chaplaincy organisation which holds four meetings a year at the Forest Hermitage in Warwickshire under normal conditions). But I held back from the StoneWater sessions for a while for some reason. I’m reasonably tech savvy so it wasn’t that – I’ve even got a mobile phone! But I plunged in with an online sesshin in December 2020 and since then I think I have attended pretty much every sitting. It is now definitely part of my daily routine.
I’ve been practising Zen for a while, but in between sesshins, in the last few years, I got very slack. Before Covid I had a sitting group at my house once a week, and then sitting with prisoners several times a week too – but that was about it. I didn’t sit at home much at all – contrasting with my early days when I would sit a minimum of two hours a day. As we all know, sitting on your own is all very well, but it is hard to keep disciplined and motivated. Residential sesshins have their trials and tribulations – the sniffer in the zendo, the inevitable snorer in the dorm – but you do put in the time on the cushion. In between I tended to slacken off. But I remember Genpo Roshi saying that it’s important to keep up the momentum – if you want the kettle to boil don’t keep taking it off the heat.
I’ve worked with koans off and on over many years, but I would leave them alone unless I was on sesshin. With perhaps a six-month gap between retreats I would sometimes even forget which one I was on. Now with Zoom I am much more regularly engaged with them. I am usually able to present one or two a week. I love learning them and getting immersed in their world. It is like dancing with the absolute – but more flexibly than strictly – ha ha! Koans are not for everyone, some find them an unnecessary annoyance and a disruption of the tranquillity they are looking for from meditation. Roshi Jiyu Kennett, founder of the Soto OBC school, disapproved – “Why give yourself an artificial bump on the head, when there’s one there to sort out already?” But I love working with them, and there’s more regular opportunities to share my responses with the teacher than has ever been the case before. I have a slight problem in that I have fairly recently acquired a parrot. She’s quiet when I am sitting, but when a conversation starts up, as in dokusan, she likes to join in, and is especially keen on koans for some reason. You wouldn’t believe how humiliating it is when the parrot’s response to the koan is approved and mine isn’t!
Seriously though, one of the big problems for us lay-people if we wanted to do koan practice was having regular access to a teacher. I know some have presented answers by post, or now email, but that’s not for me. I’m not interested in passing them all, I’m interested in what they bring up, and that can only be seen in a lively process of interaction. And we can do that with Zoom. I’m not sure how many koans are left for me, but I will be disappointed when I come to the end – I will probably just start again with Mu.
So Zoom has provided me with a regular sitting schedule, and I’m grateful for that. It wasn’t why it was set up originally of course. I think it was devised so that businessmen and conference-going enthusiasts wouldn’t be deprived of their committee meetings, sitting around having blue sky thoughts and discussing profit margins and key performance targets. But people seem to have been very creative in adopting and adapting it for all kinds of communities. It is surprising how flexible Zoom is. If we couldn’t do the “break-out” room thing for dokusan, then it wouldn’t be so useful, for example. I feel it has strengthened the sense of community, of sangha, within StoneWater, when the virus might easily have disrupted it.
So I hope we keep it going, and I hope it continues to be available. As with many online programs, there’s always the danger they will “improve” it, or start charging for it, or it gets taken over. But that’s anicca for you, so we shouldn’t be surprised!