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Buddha's puzzle

December 1976: Los Altos, California

A five day Zen retreat. Time to get up was 3:40 a.m. and the evening before I offered to take responsibility for the wake-up bell. I knew this at least would give me the motivation to get up at all. When my alarm-clock rang at 3:30, I noticed that the somewhat mountainous climate made the nights very cold. Dutifully I went around the sleeping rooms to wake-up everyone.

Sitting. 40 minutes in half-lotus or Burmese sit preferably without moving the legs. In spite of the uncomfortable position I fell asleep for some moment. Then I woke up as the pain was growing in my legs. The cold and the pain were taking their turn to keep me busy. Most students--as the meditators were called--enveloped themselves in a blanket. I did not have one. ``Why didn't I take a blanket?'' went through my mind. ``Did not think of it while waking up the others, and moreover walking under a blanket like a phantom is not exactly the dress-code for waking up people.'' Daydreaming on these and similar thoughts. But mostly there was pain and the cold. The bell indicating the end of the sitting period was a relief.

Walking meditation. As usual 10 minutes, performed very slowly. In the dark hall, lit by a few oil-lamps, one could see the vapor coming out of each person's mouth or nostrils. We were like horses in a meadow during a cold winter night. It was allowed to go to the bathroom during the walk rounds and I sneaked out of the meditation hall to get a blanket. After the walking round we did a second sitting session, again for 40 minutes. I did not really get warm in spite of the blanket. Sleepiness and stiffness were also bothering. This time the cold did win from the other disturbances. I stayed awake.

After the second sit it was breakfast time. Still shivering I went up to the dining hall, following the others. Eating was done in a formal way using oryoki. Three bowls of food: rice-porridge, vegetables and some fried tofu and onions. Not bad, specially because it was steaming warm. At the end each of us had to clean the bowls in a ritual way. Hot water was poured in them and with our chopsticks and a kind of spatula we had to wipe them clean. Then we had to drink that water. My mind cognized it as ``used dishwater'' and I had to gag at it. Other students drunk it obediently and I forced myself to do the same. Actually its warmth was nice.

In the meantime it had become light. We went back to the meditation hall. Feeling somewhat better I continued. Sitting session. Walking round. Sitting. Walking. Sitting. It became warmer at last. Now it was the pain that was bothering most during sitting sessions. Walking. Sitting. And so on. In this way the day passed. Next morning it was as cold as the first one. The motivation to get up had diminished. No longer bothered by ideas about a dress-code I took with me the warmth of the bed when going for the wake-up round. Sitting in the meditation hall. This time pain and sleepiness were the disturbances. Only for me it seemed. During the practice the group was concentrated and serious. No one showed the slightest sign of wanting to quit.

The students were varied. Artists, former hippies, housewives, university students and other nice people; all having different ages. Looking at them, now transfigured again in the steaming horses, questions came up. ``There must be a very serious reason,'' I wondered, ``why we are doing this; or else we are all completely mad!?'' This was Buddha's puzzle: ``What is meditation all about?''. I did ponder over it at the next sitting session. But then the pain brought me back to here and now.

Again I did pull myself through the day. For personal reasons I could stay at the retreat for only two days. At the beginning the teacher Kobun Chino Roshi (1939-2002) had agreed with this. That evening I left. Back in the world I was happy to be out of the place. The earnest discipline had surprised me. But, to be sure, it had not attracted me. ``So why is one doing this?'' and Buddha's puzzle remained.

next up previous contents
Next: High School Up: THE QUEST Previous: Part I Building motivation
Henk Barendregt