Streets, Zen and Bodybuilding 1
In 1998 I wrote down some experiences of my first ten years of Zen practice. I imagined and told the story of a morning sitting during a sesshin. If you like, follow me, the narrator, into the meditation room: We enter the Zendo together, find our place and sit down on the meditation cushion…
BEFORE ZAZEN, 5:50 am to 6:00 am
With my left foot ahead I enter the meditation room, the Zendo, and bow to the altar. In the darkness, I barely recognize the silhouettes of those who have come to the Zendo ahead of me and are waiting on their cushions. My seat is on the other side of the altar, and I have to take the long way through the rows, past the altar, to the cushions diagonally to the other side of the Zen Master’s place, the Roshi. From here I have a good sight of the whole hall; I like the place, I was lucky.
It’s cool in the Zendo and I chill on my bare feet. Tomorrow I will put on socks. Now I feel the wooden floor under the soles of my feet, it squeaks quietly as I stop in front of my cushion and bow in front of my seat. I turn around so that I don’t turn my back towards the altar and bow a second time, briefly, to the people sitting opposite me. From over there a person with folded hands answers me.
I step backwards onto the mat and sit down on the cushion.
I’ll take my time crossing my legs. With my legs tightened I cower on the cushion. I try to buy time. Already four days of sitting motionless, zazen, are stuck in our bodies and a few more days remain ahead of us. In the middle of this meditation week, the Sesshin, my laziness slips in. I try to find niches where I can recover. Now I feel the tiredness, the eyes are heavy, the muscles sour, the bones thick. Nevertheless, I feel refreshed after the night’s rest and am curious to see what the day will bring. The schedule is clearly defined, every minute is set and we don’t have to think – but that’s exactly what it’s all about: What do mind, thinking and feelings bring to us today?
The sesshin’s structure frame are the four daily meditation blocks of three thirty to forty minutes zazen each, paused by walking meditation. We also take the meals while seated: so we keep ourselves in the formal meditation posture for about eight hours.
A two-hour working period in the morning called Samu, and a two-hour silent lunch break structure the same daily routine. Simple, but with many pitfalls for the ego.
My right neighbor has arrived in front of his cushion and is bowing. I respond with my bow. He settles down, flattens his mat, crosses his legs, breathes deeply and stretches his back. I haven’t spoken to him in four days! It’s time for me to get into my zazen position to avoid hastily getting into an awkward posture just because Roshi might come a minute earlier and I haven’t explored the best position yet. Every morning I’m afraid of having a wrinkle under my buttocks causing my blood circulation to be disturbed, or of sitting crooked so that pain can creep up on me and I have to resist it motionless under Roshi’s eyes.
I lower my knees to the floor and put my right foot in front of my left. Over the crossed legs I bend forward and shake the buckwheat husk filled cushion and stuff it under my butt. Then I bend my upper body back and forth until I feel comfortable. Isn’t there something pinching? I sway back and forth, circle, sort my clothes and feel as insecure as every morning, even though I have sat on such a cushion thousands of times. It is an adventure, an expedition into the vastness of my mind, into the tundra of my being and the colors of my being.
The last shadows hurry to their places. Robes flutter and hastily the latecomers take position, a last sigh – in the Zendo it becomes very quiet.
From outdoors we hear footsteps, the sound of fabric, motion – wood claps loudly on wood: the signal that Roshi has crossed the Zendo threshold. I know that there is no turning back now, time stands still…