Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Hermitage of Winter

It was an intimate Fall sesshin at Open Gate this year, a two day respite from the thundering roll of modern life. Rain fell steadily throughout the day on Saturday with Sunday becoming dryer but noticeably cooler. The sound of the rain on the roof and tumbling from the eaves was reminiscent of chanted sutras echoing from distant halls.

The openness of the paper windows and intimate proximity among the fir and cedar trees gives one the feeling of being snuggled in the bosom of Mother Nature; far beyond the artificial cares of the work-a-day world. Every sound of the forest and pattering raindrop drifts through the hall as if it were happening inside. Inside and outside lose their boundaries as sounds mingle with thoughts, both fading away as echoes in the mind.

Autumn marks the beginning of a period of deeper practice for the Wayfarer. Life slows as falling leaves mark the coming of shorter days, winter weather and evenings by the fire. The intimacy that comes with staying indoors and longer hours of darkness that come with the season is ideal for those of us in the contemplative traditions. Traditionally, in southern Buddhism the rainy season was called Vassa and was the only time that monks really stayed in the monasteries. In Zen and the Northern latitudes, this became the period of the 90 day Winter Retreat (known in Korean Zen as Dong Ahn Geo) and is typically the longest period of continuous deep practice.

The word contemplate from which the term contemplative is derived, is from the Latin and literally means “to dwell within the temple” which is important to the student of Zen. While the word contemplate itself often means to; reflect, ponder or study, which is really not what Zen meditation is about, the literal meaning  “to dwell within the temple” is. While I will be the first to admit that my Zen practice also includes plenty of; pondering, reflection and study; my time “dwelling in the temple” is completely set aside from any of these ancillary activities. To my understanding; to “dwell within the temple” is precisely the practice of zazen and although- pondering, reflection and study, do find their way into this contemplative Zen lifestyle; just “dwelling within the temple” without any of these other objectives is the fundamental point...


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