Standing atop a soaring mountain is for the time being.
And plunging down to the floor of the ocean’s abyss is for the time being.
Being triple-headed and eight-armed is for the time being.
The meditation hall is being prepared for a ceremony so we meditate in the common room. Some face the wall. The rest sit before the windows, drawing the curtains so nature won’t distract them. I keep mine open onto West Allen. The slab of flitting birds and vaulting rabbits is flanked by the dry-stone wall with a lichen-embossed wheel of life. We pitch our dishwater to hungry ghosts in the tangle of iron-red reeds that lies beyond. The next stratum of elongated Japanese pine trunks fan their flattened boughs concealing the river. Above that, on the upward embrace of hill, hares lope and deer graze by a copse. The edgy, churning sky frets, clouds bumper-to-bumper over the distant ridge, green and ochre since the snow melted.
Yesterday I walked to West Allen. Swinging over a stile into thigh-high grass all at once, a doe leapt ahead of me. She curvetted effortlessly away, clearing the wire in a leap of grace and my heart soared with her; civilisation as trivial as a fence. I trailed the muddy track, clambering over gates, gathering grey sheep’s wool and delicate grouse feathers from the gorse. At the river’s bank my shoes sank into the mud. Just off the path I rinsed my hands and feet in a rain-filled bath. The bridge I’d crossed the previous summer was rent and hung precariously. I retraced my steps, meeting a tractor growling downhill, the farmer’s two muddy, dreadlocked collies stopping to lick my hand and wag their tails. The sheep welcomed them to their pasture with a tremendous bleating and trailed them to the feed silo.
Six days of meditation ahead. This monastery is perfect, but the obstacles are within. Stones in our minds, weighing on us. The first evening is difficult. The following day, impossible. Given silence and amplitude, our neglected demons clamour. We bring our ghouls with us or manufacture them. Fashioned the way children invent night frights to scare us back to ourselves. The bell rings at 5:45am. We stumble, fold mattresses and duvets and jam them into our cupboards. Reverend Aibreann is just ahead of me in the shower. Padding through the refectory, bow to the Buddha painting, up to the hall, shoes off in the stairwell, bow at the doorway, shuffle for meditation mats and cushions, bow to the Buddha statue. Prepare the seat, bow to the wall, bow to the others. Thirty-five minutes facing the wall. Eight minutes of kinhin. Another thirty-five minutes at the wall.
Cleaning the hall followed by breakfast of porridge and tea. The work sessions in the garden, pulling spidery weeds. In the kitchen laying out trolleys. In the project room unfolding wagesas. I told my lover I wouldn’t bring him here; it isn’t true. Like spikes, dripping water, blades or cranks, I’ve brought the full array of implements with me: family, past relationships, my desire or lack of it. My own anomalous collection of stones. The way . . . or how far from it I’ve drifted.
And being a figure of a Buddha standing sixteen feet high is for the time being
Or sitting eight feet is for the time being.
Being a monk’s travelling staff or his hossu is for the time being.
We are here for the precepts. Commitment. Ordination. Confirmation. Getting off the fence. The vows are sixteen; two overlap and are sticky for me. Non-coveting and not selling the wine of delusion which imply not setting oneself up to be coveted and not buying the wine of delusion. Not lying, not killing, not stealing, not drinking are child’s play in comparison. The jewel, Reverend Oisin reminds us, is ourselves. It’s always a shock. Uncovering it is our work.
By the end of the first day, I am experiencing something resembling asthma. Tiny shocks flicker from the edges of my lungs to my serrated tonsils and pressure builds at my temples. Chills run between my shoulder blades. High on hunger, I can’t sit, let alone stand. I’m given a room by Reverend Aibreann. I feel like a tall water tower, bricks collapsing, one by one, water gushing. I try to slip stones in, but nothing slows it. All that remains is anguish and hopelessness. I sleep for twelve hours. And again, for another several.
The day of ordination Reverend Aibreann knocks on my door to ask me to attend. I shower, dress, and eat for the first time. “Do you wish to become a Buddhist?” “I do.” Each kneeling before the master, the razor to the scalp three times: Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The white horsehair fly whisk and all sixteen precepts: “I will. I will. I will. . . .“ Reverend Fionn recites the prayers over lunch of potato pie and broccoli. I don’t keep this down either.
My palpable emptiness lifts me. Suddenly meditation is untroubled. I start to look forward to it. “Practice is enlightenment,” Master Eamon says. We live our week in silence. Sixteen heads bowed, unfolding napkins, placing cutlery, cup, and wash-stick as prescribed, passing food one to the other, bowing with each offering, reciting the prayer to exclude greed from our minds, eating only to attain enlightenment, lifting our bowls to our foreheads. We work side by side. Sleep a foot apart in silence. Meditate in silence. Wash our hands silently. Without looking up, we intuit who’s sitting next to us, which monk is reciting, who’s drinking tea in the common room. We get to know our companions better than those we speak to out in the world. More importantly, we get to know ourselves. Released from the distractions of small talk, the mind is free to go more deeply into itself.
Reverend Oisin recalls Theravadin monks who beg each day, accepting whatever lands in their begging bowls without discrimination. He draws parallels between their bowls and our lives. We can’t choose what lands our bowl. Only what we do with it. We sit in the common room with its stained blue carpet, office chairs, coffee tables with foam coasters. A tray of boxed teas and instant coffee alongside a kettle and jug of milk sits on a blue laminated table. At one end is the Buddha altar, on the wall hangs an appliqué triptych of Japanese pines.
And being the pillar supporting the temple teaching or a stone lantern before the meditation hall is for the time being.
Being a next-door neighbour or a man in the street is for the time being.
And being the whole of the great earth and boundless space is for the time being.
—Great Master Yukusan Igen, 9th century
The last ceremony begins in the novices’ common room. Opposite me, a portrait of Throssel Abbey’s founder, Master Jiyu-Kennett, has the property of shifting in the candle light; a baby morphs into a young woman, then an old man and transmogrifies into a skeleton. Chanting “Namu Shakyamuni Buddha” through darkness, we stumble into a maze of red silk corridors that twist, double back on themselves. We offer pieces of paper on which we’ve written all we wish to let go of. The stones are flammable, ephemeral. The master offers us incense as two celebrants chant to shed greed and delusion. The monks accept our papers, setting fire to each and dropping them into a cauldron. Once ash, they stir them and scream, shrilly and abruptly, faces contorted. Zen is beyond reason or intellect.
Compartmentalisation is mind imposed. The rooks recognise nothing but boundless air. Rabbits on their haunches groom outside the kitchen or further afield. The sky, though it appears to toss and turn on the rim of hill is, equally, resting in my lap. This synthesis is life. Stillness and myriad movement, scores of textures, light and shade, near or distant; an undelineated, confederate whole. As the generations before and ahead, ancestral marrow, progenitor bone and filial flesh, all wrapped in my skin. Or the unbroken red line of Zen genealogy spanning back and forward, unfurling in all directions from the Buddha to me, to every sentient being, and back again.
Turning over our stones. Turning over our stones. Putting them down. Picking them up. Turning them over. This is what old people do. Recluses. Farmers. We all do, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. We turn our stones. And contemplate fossilised imprints that cannot be effaced. Invariably, others’ help is need to let go of those that burden us. On occasion, we build houses or temples with our stones, carve statues or erect cities. Or bury our dead, or ourselves, beneath them. If we tend towards ecstasy, we caress or embrace them. If we are wise, we forget our stones and just sit on them. Watch the world. Ourselves. And be. All endeavours, even the stones themselves, are just for the time being.
Advaita, non-duality, is at the centre of all things. Writing, meditating, washing dishes, loving; all equal. We get caught up in concepts of profane and sacred; what is worthy of attention and what is not. Mindfulness (shaped by wisdom and compassion) brings us back to equanimity, where there are no labels, no segregation, no hierarchies. Where change is the only certainty, interdependence is inherent, and reality is the present, the possibility of realisation is open to every sentient being. This inspires me. What a way to meditate, wash dishes, love or write. What a way to live (and die). I am full of gratitude to my teachers from all walks of life, including those at Throssel Hole; in gassho.
Cassandra has wandered from Guatemala to Burma, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. These days she lives in Devon. She’s published stories in Ambit, Chicago Quarterly Review and The Cost of Paper. She did a creative masters at Edinburgh and has been accepted at the University of Exeter to do a PhD on the sacred and mundane in short stories from a Zen Buddhist perspective. She’s run a bakery, managed a charity, sub-edited and set up a children’s library foundation in Guatemala.