Halfway into this third week of Ango, my fellow participants and I have made some interesting observations of the atmosphere of practice now that the excitement of receiving so many guests has passed.
While this is my first practice period, it is the third for Houston Zen Center and others have made some thought inspiring comments about how it feels. Having only done two week long retreats and a handful of half day sittings, this hasn't quite had the same feeling.
With sesshin, you're there. You're there to practice and that's it: sitting, eating, and working. It's a full immersion experience for the week. For most you only leave to sleep. It's very different than daily life in that you don't have the distractions or responsibilities of the outside world to interfere with... well it's called a "retreat" for a reason.
In our daily life, practice is something we sometimes only do on the cushion. It's easy to forget about it as the distractions of every day life get in the way. Yeah, that's not how it's supposed to be, and even though I pride myself on how my practice is especially my everyday life, none of us is perfect and we all forget.
What's been interesting about the practice period is that it has us situated between those two extremes. We're all participating in different ways, but there's always someone there practicing away. There's the intensity of sesshin, but with each of us venturing out back into the world to conduct our affairs independently then returning in various capacities.
Normally a handful of us show up in the morning and get everything going for a little more than an hours worth of activities and then the place is cold until the evening when it happens again. Four hours on Saturday we have activities but each time we have to get back in the mood. During this practice period, someone has been there to keep the place warm by feeding the practice fire.
It's been an interesting experience in the kitchen for me as this practice blends my usual daily life with life at the Zen Center. I spend a lot of time planning menus and preparing shopping lists if not shopping myself. One of my first comments to my teacher upon completing my first sesshin was of how different it seemed from everyday life, to run away to Tassajara was especially exotic after living a taste of what it could be like for a week. It troubled me how easy it was to assume the culture of monastic life and how much I would miss "normal life" if I spent a summer there. She told me that when you're there, that is normal life, which didn't exactly ease my concerns.
But nearly a month into living a life between the two, the "practice" life has become my daily life. I don't feel I have had to, or become, a different person to live it. There's an extreme nature to monastic life that, while I can see the appeal, it still doesn't seem like the life for me. In the Ox Herding series, "returning to the marketplace" is the last step and refers to coming returning to mundane life to live as an example of enlightened activity. The tradition is that temples were up in mountains so returning to the market place was synonymous with leaving the monastery. I've always said that I never want to leave the marketplace. I'm not interested in an enlightenment that involves going somewhere else. Even if it takes longer, I want it right here.
I really feel that 45 days of this with an actual sesshin at the end will be very different and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens. The regime of sesshin helped my provide my own structure to life afterwards but wore off fairly quickly. Maybe a little over a long time will build better habits and I'll continue to live right here, between the two worlds of mundane life and the monastic.