‘Retreatants’ by Stuart Hollyoak

In August 2015 I spent 5 days in Keizan Sensei’s home in the Lake District for the annual lakes retreat. I went simply because I wished to go. I brought no expectations of satori or kensho as I thought it would take years before I’d even catch a sliver of either, if at all. But, that first sesshin was significant in its insignificance.

The zendo in Sensei’s home was slim with a wooden panelled floor for ease in kinhin, walking meditation. For the entirety of the retreat I sat on the end of the row, a spot I reserved for myself because I thought at the time that it would improve my sitting to have no one opposite. It didn’t. On the contrary, to have someone sitting opposite gives me an incentive to stay awake and alert lest I fall asleep.

I found I could only sit with what was and what was was not what I wanted. The heavens did not open. There was no orgasmic high signalling the beginning of unending happiness. The cushion which I was kneeling on was pressing on my unmentionables. I sat disappointed, and uncomfortable.

Each day a period of mindful work, samu, followed breakfast. Before the hour commenced we gathered around the kitchen table upon which lay the ingredients for the forthcoming meals and chanted the meal gatha. We reminded ourselves how the food came to us, to consider if our conduct, our ‘virtue and practice’, merited the food to come. Lastly, we reminded ourselves of how we were eating to support our life and our realisation of the Buddha Way.

What occurred to me later on that day was a variant of the old philosophical question that goes, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I thought that if all sentient beings could not be present to hear my dedication, did the dedication count?

In samu my work was to assist Stephan, the tenzo or head cook, by preparing the ingredients with Sarah, fellow retreatant. We diced beetroot, peeled carrot and parsnip and chopped lettuce among other things. Nothing, it seemed, worthy of a eureka moment.

A caricature of Sensei was tacked to the arch separating the kitchen from the living room. It caught my eye when I first arrived. He was sitting in zazen, smiling, complete with the small cushion he uses to support his hands and a burning stick of incense behind him.

On the second day I joined John and Jutta, two other fellow retreatants, for a walk. I planted my feet with care as we ascended the hills. There was lots of sheep shit and I only brought my leather boots along. When we reached the summit and went a little way down the path we came across a congregation of goats that dispersed when we came close to the gate. Downhill a white horse grazed on a nearby field. A river hissed close by. When we levelled out and rounded a bend we met it soon enough and crossed the bridge for a closer look.

The current was just as it was and it too didn’t satisfy me. It had to be something more just as sitting had to be something more. Though I had eyes (and glasses) I felt I wasn’t really seeing the river. I left it unresolved and we cut across the field leading back to Sensei’s home while sheep watched us from afar.

On the fourth day, Sensei told us that Ken Jones had died. We held service for him in the afternoon with each of us bowing to the altar in turn while the others chanted Enmie Jukku Kannon Gyo. Sensei gave a dharma talk that touched upon Ken’s death and the implication of death in our own lives.

The day I left Sensei came into my room to say goodbye and gave me a hug. I thanked him for his hospitality and thanked Stephan when I saw him in the kitchen for the food. After saying my goodbyes to the rest I set off back to Liverpool with Sarah. At home while the crumpets toasted, I mourned the end.

The first book I read on Zen was Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I discovered it in the footnotes of Fabrice Midal’s biography on Chogyam Trungpa when I was still practising in the Tibetan tradition. One chapter in particular called ‘Nothing Special’ stood out for me.

What I came to dislike about the Tibetan and Theravada traditions was that to practice within those traditions was to be stretched on contingencies, the enlightenment that was always around the next bend, and never in the here and now. I imagined that if I was dying while still in one of those two traditions I would realise that I’d never really lived my life. ‘Nothing special’ brought me back from my thoughts to the here and now.

In time I got stuck on ‘nothing special’. ‘Oh, a river. Nothing special.’ ‘Oh, goats. Nothing special.’ It became indifference because I thought that was it. To see and not intellectualise was ‘real life’, was Zen. But as the saying goes, ‘once you think you’ve arrived, you’ve already started your descent.’

In the long process of putting all this down again a feeling of disappointment came to settle in me. My ego wanted to come back with something tangible, some object, as proof to myself that it wasn’t a waste to go. Something for something. Of disappointment Charlotte Joko Beck says that ‘Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment. We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us. This discovery is our teacher.’

I’m not sure what the teaching is in my case but I’ll wager that it is sometimes I get what I get and not what I expect. Things are as they are. The sitting was as bad as it was. The beetroot makes a bloody mess and the river just flows.