Just Sitting *

The Way is perfect and all-pervading.

How could it be contingent upon practice and realization?

. . . What is the use of going off here and there to practice?


~ Eihei Dogen


Are your lessons done?

~ Leonard Cohen


We come to winter sesshin at Hokoji, Phoenix Light Temple, ** during December’s cold moon, with our special teas, snacks, sitting gear, baskets, backpacks. This time twelve of us.Sesshin means gathering of heart and mind.Hello, so glad it’s you. Light fire, turn on space heaters, and roll out our bedding. I ask Ara which way will his head face when I move past with my flashlight. I don’t know yet which direction, Ara says, Depends on draft, what time moon rises, and pattern of its crossing.

We wake at 4:45 to the sound of Tenzo’s app. gong   gong gong. Ara cares for each grain and vegetable as if it’s an eyeball. Zen Master, Dogen asks this of the cook.


Twenty three years ago I drove up El Salto Road one mile (first paved, then dirt) from Arroyo Secco, New Mexico. Down Paw-A-Suki, two houses to left. I open door to the little Zendo, pull blue curtain aside and get this internal, magnetic whoosh. Tears leap out of my face. Two lines of black cushions along walls. At one end, on the shrine, a carved Manjusuri sits calmly on a lion whose eyes bulge, mouth open, teeth exposed. I hear people say their heart feels full. It’s my feet that feel full, planted, at this first encounter and also endlessly. I wait for people to sit. Bob Watkins points to an empty seat. When I first called the number for Hokoji, Bob told me to give my sheep or cow a big pasture, which he heard from Suzuki Roshi. I wrote it out.


This place yanks at me a week before I leave, last week. As I drive I see a snow rainbow in a cloud for a long time. Bob Watkins died last week, on Buddha’s enlightenment day, and I wonder if that rainbow-cloud is Bob. I know 96-year-old Stan White is dying in Santa Fe.

A heavy old wheel turns and I am facing a new direction.


Retreat illuminates everything that moves in a work-at-it way, both choreographed, and improvised. We flock together as we eat, walk, clean, sit. It’s not glamorous. Sesshin doesn’t buff up my idea of who Katharine is. Dogen says, “If there is a slightest discrepancy, the Way is as distant as Heaven from earth.” ***

Zazen, (sitting) practice isn’t a technique I put on top of myself. I don’t over-correct. I sit slumped, almost asleep, up right, or in tears, just like my regular life. I go off on something, and return to what I am doing— sitting, breathing. I am still and it is quiet. I hear the buzz of silence, or is that my ears, the Taos hum? I cannot separate this place from its lineage. The practice itself does not appear to be different from me, or the mouse jumping in walls, or snow sliding off roof, or click of heater. It’s not special or particularly creative, exciting, healing or therapeutic. Nothing happens. Yet, I must acknowledge there is a difference between one who opened the Zendo door in 1993 and me, now. The difference is not about deep profound wisdom or light-hearted sense of not-knowing. I’m not psychologically healed. It’s not about lack of fear. What has changed is that I am willing to return to Shikantaza—just sitting .* For me this means, return to compassion.


The big pasture. Beginner’s mind. If I am sitting for some kind of solo transformation and then I get the big awakening do I stop sitting, and what about others? If I get to the other shore then what do I do with the raft that took me there? If my practice is different than my days or insight then there is a split. If the poem and its form are two then the poem is not whole. What I mean to say is, realization is here, as practice, as this world, thrashing and limping along. Kobun Chino, Roshi made this big calligraphy, Sitting = Enlightenment.


I knock over a bowl of sesame seeds and say stupid things. I notice every little glance, whisper and mistake. And, the emptiness begins to take hold. Dissolve into the pressure of gravity, sky and winter light low against El Salto peak. And then it is dark. To let go and go and go, let go, let go, go .. . Silence. Stillness. Nothing is happening here. This little water fall is frozen and there is an inhale, sound of snow, someone’s stomach, heart thump.


When Tenzo’s alarm goes at 4:45 my eyes are already open. I wash dishes, serve food, and my knee bugs me so I stop serving. Then better and I serve again… It’s cold and my robes are constrictive; people don’t seem to like me, and it’s rough watching myself. I cringe after I speak, disturbing the beautiful silence. I want something. I look in the mirror to check to see if I still exist. I could leave…Then it is snowing and I can’t leave. I walk outside and snow comes more down. Tension goes zooming through the room fast. There is a confrontation. Someone gets up and drives away. Then comes back. We discuss things at tea and it feels superficial. I…I…I…I…I. We chant to stop our self-clinging, sit buoyed by others. There is a touching story and we are touched. We say to each other it was the best one and we are the family of choice… We call ourselves the misfit Sangha where everyone is welcome. I tell the story of Kobun Chino being the younger brother and how Acharya Dan Hessey wept and kept repeating, “Younger Brother Zen”…. and wept some more.


Driving home I listen to KRCC. Krista Tippet, Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzburg laugh like they are at a slumber party and speak humbly of their own anger. **** What should we do with our enemies, was the question. Then the message: Send love. This is a love that is not submissive. It has energy. It is real. Salzburg likes that a person can take a noon yoga class in the city and offer her practice out. She thinks this loving kindness practice is for us now, all of us. We don’t have to be monks, and it can happen in a flash.


Can I see the crash and spill, the conversation, the person, as beloved? Do I dare see them as me? What does it take to not slam hate onto hate. Pressure onto pressure. I can hurt others in ways I am not aware of. Salzburg says begin with yourself. I figure I’ve been doing that all week so I go straight for the throat. I throw this practice with everything I have. I shot-put porous bundles onto various doorsteps in my worldly neighborhood. I translate anger and fear into presence, kindness, love. I do not have to be in agreement with the acts of so- called enemies. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you have a sense of well-being and peace.

What about Shikantaza? Why would I be sending little kisses when I could belt out the real thing? I decide loving kindness practice is for emergencies. As Chogyam Trungpa says you can do this “on the spot.” The stain of the particular conditions of our time needs this.


When my dad was in a drug induced comma inside Intensive Care Unit I sat and whispered, May you have a sense of well being, may you not be harmed, may you be healthy, live in peace, and have no enemies. Then I imagined he wished this for me.


During almost the last sitting period of sesshin a young woman walked in the Zendo. I point to an empty cushion. As she sits beside me I am grounded, still and deep like a chunk of rock that fell off the mountain and tumbled here . . .. I sense the young woman’s restlessness. Peripherally I see her posture looks uncomfortable. I am both she, and not she.


When I leave sesshin everything appears to be sitting, cars going by, cashier at gas station, snowy road, lumps of land I rush past and through.                 I think maybe I’ll start using the word, love.


~ o ~



*Shikantaza(Just Sitting) – sotozen-net

** Hokoji – just sit

*** Fukanzazengi, Eihei Dogen

**** Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman — Meeting Our Enemies and …