Friday, January 12, 2018

Kyol Che

I'm leaving in a few days to sit Kyol Che.  January 2, 2018 started the beginning of Kyol Che at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland Rhode Island.  Kyol Che is a term meaning "tight dharma" and is a 3 month meditation retreat observed by the monastics in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  There is a summer Kyol Che as well that is 1 month long.  I've always wanted to do a longer retreat and so decided to register.  The longest I've sat is 1 week but I've also done what we call " hard training" for 100 days prior to taking senior dharma teacher precepts.  During that time, I arose at 3:30 am and did prostrations, chanting, sitting, and walking meditation until time to get ready for work.  The first week was difficult but then something appeared - a strength, an energy that is unnameable and the practice deepened. 
   Kyol Che is an extension of that.  This retreat is indeed "tight dharma".  I downloaded the instructions and information.  No cell phones, ipads, ipods, computers, kindles.  OK, I get that - no electronics - check.  It goes on.  No caffeine - What?!  Ok - check! Wean off caffeine.  No eating between meals.  Ok, I can do that (maybe).  Silence - for three months??!!!  Ok - I think I can do that.  But then, for me, comes the kicker.  No reading, no journaling and no contact with the outside world ---including my family.  Bit by bit, the instructions indicated, everything that supported me and propped me up was about to be stripped away.  Bit by bit, I would be forced to actually face the great questions of life and death, doing the work of looking inward.
    Why would I want to do this? What is it that drives my heart and mind to understand this fundamental nature of ours?   Kyol Che sounds so hard to do!  Many years ago, a student Zen Master Seung Sahn's, Su Bong Sunim, was doing a solo retreat in the mountains.  In the middle of his retreat, he became assailed by doubts.  "Why do ths?  This is a ridiculous practice.  Why bother sitting?"   He finally got fed up and decided to call his teacher.  He left his retreat cabin and walking through the woods for several hours, he went into town.  He found a pay phone, dialed the number, and waited for his teacher to answer.  It was many minutes before Zen Master Seung Sahn came to the phone.  Immediately Su Bong Sunim said, " I'm tired of doing this.  Why should I do a retreat?  Why should  I bother sitting?"  Zen Master Seung Sahn yelled into the phone, " Not for Me!!" and slammed the phone down.  Su Bong turned around and went back to his cabin and finished his solo retreat.
    What does this mean - this "not for me" answer?  It means we do this meditation practice to understand our true nature, which is Great Love, Great Compassion and the Great Bodhisattva Way. Doing a retreat, whether it is a long retreat like Kyol Che or a shorter day long retreat, is like hitting the reset button on our lives.  As the quiet of silence and withdrawal from the world seeps in and the breath becomes our focal point, our center becomes strong, our sense of unity with all things emerges, and the energy and wisdom to help all beings comes to the fore. 
     Just as a last note - as I do this practice until the end of March, I would ask you all to sit with me - even if it's only a few minutes a day.  This is called Heart Kyol Che and it is a way of calling to mind those who are sitting Kyol Che and staying as one with them.   I will be calling each of you to mind and chanting Kwan Seum Bosal for you.  See you in the spring!

Saturday, October 9, 2010


At our last retreat one of our sangha members literally moaned in our ending circle talk and said ,"This doesn't feel spiritual! This is torture!" Everyone in the circle laughed hard because each of us were dealing with aching knees and backs and bottoms. We all knew EXACTLY what he was talking about! Not to mention the torture of sitting moment after moment watching your mind make things up over and over again and struggling each time to bring it back to the breath or the mantra or the great question. And yet..........when the retreat is over and freedom of movement returns there is a quality to our lives that is different - more spacious and full of gratitude for each other and for our practice. We find ourselves open and quiet - truly clear mirrors for this world. I'm always struck by the loving, grateful attitude each person displays at the end of a retreat. In spite of the physical pain, retreats are worth every moment.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Zen Master Seung Sahn taught that this "don't know" mind is the same for everyone. When one is not thinking than your don't know mind and my don't know mind and the don't know mind of all things in the universe are the same. I read a quote the other day - "I am like that. You are like that. All this is like that. And that's all there is." Makes me laugh for the truth of it. And yet, when I look around the dharma room, I see all these people with different likes and dislikes, different tastes, different voices, some male, some female, some happy, some sad. Oh - so many differences! Where did all that come from? Zen Buddhism teaches that we make our world. We make our likes and dislikes. We make happy and sad and good and bad. We make a world of opposites and opposition. Each of us are born with karma that sees and reacts to this world in different ways. We make these differences. But these differences are not part of our true nature. Our true nature is the same, person to person, and is the nature of all "that." Seeing beyond our differences means reaching into the heart of the great work of life and death.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting Something

The practice of Zen meditation is multi-faceted and actually not easy to put into words. Each person must find their way in this practice on their own. Simply put, this practice places our lives in the very forefront of humaness - of being fully alive right here, right now. Zen Master Seung Sahn says that Zen is understanding our true nature. I find it interesting that he did not say "finding" our true nature - but to "understand" our true nature. Everyone always thinks they are going to "find" something or "get" something from practicing meditation. I certainly thought I would "get" enlightenment or "find" peace in my life or "become" more compassionate etc., etc. But when I really looked at myself during meditation, all these "gettings and "findings" and "becomings" were really about continually propping up my ego. Even becoming more compassionate, although a very noble motive, was more about letting everyone see how compassionate I am. "Ah, there she goes, Rebecca, the Mother Teresa of Topeka. Isn't her compassion for others just amazing?!" "Ah, look how serene and Buddha-like I am after achieving my great enlightenment after only 2 weeks of sitting! I am the greatest, aren't I?!"
Very funny stuff! Even in the midst of really wanting to help, my ego just keeps rearing it's ugly head.
So instead of continually wanting to get something, I realized this need to continually let go of wanting something. Let go of this insistent need to be the best, the smartest, the prettiest, the most enlightened, the coolest, the friendliest, the most compassionate and on and on. And then letting go of the idea or concept of an ego at all. When there is no ego to protect, then openness appears. Judging yourself and judging others disappears - how could compassion not appear? The Great Way is not difficult just don't make good and bad. This is understanding, not finding.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who is peeking out the window?

Submit yourself to a daily practice
Doing that is like a ring on a door
Keep knocking and eventually
Joy will peek out the window
to see who's there - Rumi

My mother was a very depressed, rather cold person and growing up in my household was not very much fun. Mostly my siblings and I either fought or drowned ourselves in books. I was one of the few children in our small town who actually completed the library reading program in the summers. Everyone else was playing baseball, going on picnics, swimming or playing with friends. My concept of play was somewhat skewed to say the least. I don't remember ever playing and having fun. So when I read this quote from Rumi the first time I was somewhat taken aback. Joy? I didn't get it. I thought spiritual practice had to be a serious practice, full of angst. Then I started zen meditation. The first time I walked into the dharma room there were all these people, eyes downcast, faces drooping, silent statues and boy did it look serious! And I thought, "OK, this is really for me!!" Serious practice - no laughing, no talking, no joy, just facing the floors and whatever came up in your mind. My mother probably would have loved it! Our temple rules say that zen meditation is the great work of life and death. How much more serious can it get than that?

And yet there are so many zen stories of masters, who after their enlightenment, are infused with - (dare I say it?) - deep, abiding joy - an aliveness that comes with understanding our true nature and the nature of each and every thing. Where does this joy come from? It comes from our submission to a daily meditation practice. It is an outgrowth of the work we do on our cushion - everyday facing ourselves and our delusions over and over and over until we are so tired and confused and frustrated and boiling over until one day we look into the sky and all our questions are answered without reservation. One ancient zen master put it like this:

"Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word "Mu". Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a conception of vacancy or a conception of "has" or "has not". It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try. All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united. You will know this, but yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream. Then all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be as if you snatch away the great sword of the valiant General Kwan and hold it in your hand. When you meet the Buddha, you kill him; when you meet the patriarchs, you kill them. On the brink of life and death, you command perfect freedom; among the sixfold worlds and four modes of existence, you enjoy a samadhi of FROLIC AND PLAY."

'General Kwan's sword was said to be seven feet long - a very powerful sword indeed. And with this sword on your cushion you cut off all thinking, all concepts - even the concept of self, of right or wrong, of Buddha, of God, spiritual practice,...everything gets cut down. And what is left when this work is done? After all the anguish? After all the self-pity? After all the tears and self-doubts? After all the fatigue? Joy peeks it head out the window to see who's there.

I hope you are all doing well and that you are finding joy and happiness in your everyday practice.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Just Do It

"In spiritual practice there are just two things; you sit and you sweep the garden - and it doesn't matter how big the garden is." Anonymous

Zen Master Seung Sahn who founded the Kwan Um School of Zen used to say "Just do it!" Said it long before Nike Corporation got ahold of that saying. I sometimes think that the Kwan Um School of Zen should have the "whoosh" logo as it's own :)! "Just do it" has helped me immeasurably throughout the years. As a midwife, I often get called out in the middle of the night. One can get mighty grouchy doing that. There were many times pulling into the parking lot at 3 am that I just didn't want to get out of the car. I'd daydream about calling the nurses and saying - "Call someone else - I'm going home and back to bed!" As I'd walk the basement hallway to labor and delivery, the phrase "just do it" would come to my consciousness - and the angst would fall away. Oh - ok - no griping, no complaining, just one foot in front of the other and then a new life enters the world.

Practice in the dharma room has also produced some of the same feelings. Why do I have to bow so many times? I don't want to chant this morning. It's too early to get up and practice - I'm tired. I want to get up off my cushion. I don't like that chant. I don't like this. I don't like that. Or - just as compelling - I like this. I like that. Isn't the chant beautiful this morning? Weren't those bows invigorating? Oh - how the universe opened up for me this morning!

We are so taken with our likes and our dislikes. That is how we define ourselves. However, by holding on to ourselves and what we want and don't want doesn't allow us to function fully in this world. It's doesn't allow us to help the suffering in this world. I have often wondered how Mother Teresa dealt with the smells of the sick and suffering she encountered. I'm sure that would have bothered me a great deal. And yet by ignoring the smell and the grossness of all she encountered, she made the world a better place.

It doesn't matter what our likes and dislikes are - we are told to become like clear mirrors -clearly reflecting this world. When someone is thirsty, give them something to drink. When someone is hungry, feed them. When someone is having a baby, go help them. The garden of this world is so big and yet it doesn't matter how big the garden is, you sit and then you sweep it. Just doing it, day after day after day - putting down your condition, your situation, your likes, your dislikes - only sweeping the garden.