The Bus to Enlightenment

My Weekend at Zen Mountain Monastery

Remington Write
Nov 18 · 6 min read
Photo Credit — simplytaty / Flickr / Where I sat for long periods of time

I had it bad. I was a hardcore little zazen fiend who never missed sesshin, began each day reciting the Heart Sutra and sitting for half an hour, and who was completely confounded by her one and only koan (hint: MU!).

When I read about the Introduction to Zen weekend at John Daido Loori Roshi’s Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York I knew I had to go.

This was years before I moved to New York City and I’d never traveled on my own before. I was working in a little poster kiosk in the lowest level of Cleveland’s famed Terminal Tower, selling cheap posters and learning framing. The day before taking the bus to New York City I was framing several smaller Ansel Adams’ posters.

I wrote a message on the back of one and then finished sealing it. I don’t remember what I wrote and wonder if anyone ever disassembled the piece and found my note.

I boarded the Greyhound in the evening and don’t remember sleeping at all; I was so excited. New York City and then a weekend up at a Zen monastery in the Catskills.

And I was doing it all on my own!

When we crested a roll in I-80 and I got my first glimpse of Manhattan in the haze ahead it may as well have been the Emerald City to me. It was beyond magical. I was all but bouncing up and down in my seat. Has the Lincoln Tunnel ever been experienced as such an enchanted transition?

Who am I kidding here? Countless wide-eyed kids like me have emerged from that grimy endless tunnel with unuttered dreams plastered all over the insides of their mouths.

Then I hit The Port Authority.

This was 1996, not that that pit is much less chaotic and noxious in 2019, but this was a very different New York City than the one we walk today. I didn’t know how to get to my Trailways bus and approached what looked like a bullet-proof information booth.

I shouted my question and got a shrug and jerk of the head in response. When I successfully located my next bus I felt inordinately proud of myself.

The bus to Mount Tremper went up to Amsterdam Avenue and on into the Bronx and northward from there. I stared out the window, rapt, at corner stores and delis and restaurants and old apartment buildings and schools and churches and all those people scrolled past out there. Then the most radical of ideas began to come right up to the front of my head:

Could I live here?

I bet I could live here!

Of course, I can live here.

This was happening in early October and, as we left the last of the suburbs and began winding up into the hills, the colors were stunning. The bus dropped me off at a small footbridge and I was hours earlier than any of the other participants. The monastics didn’t seem put off. Someone showed me to the dorm where I’d be sleeping and then led me down to the enormous kitchen where I got to help prepare lunch.

The monastery used to be a retreat for Lutheran ministers so the main building could have been an etching from a German folk tale. Highly pitched roofs, mullioned windows with wavy glass, and a massive fireplace that a tall man could stand upright in and have to reach to touch the top stones.

The place might have been built by and for Scandinavians but now it was redolent of incense and myrrh. Silent monastics with completely shaven heads, men and women, silently moved about the place with quiet smiles. I was in heaven.

We were roused at 4:30 am by one of the monastics making the rounds with a bell and given the Western indulgence of coffee and a quick trip to the bathroom before trooping up to where we’d be sitting for the next hour.

I was used to 25 to 35-minute sitting periods, but sitting for the 55 minutes here was giving my sense of spiritual superiority real ammunition. True, we did stand and do silent walking meditation halfway through the hour.

Then it was down to either help with breakfast or set the table.

After breakfast was work practice time. We all joined the monastics out back and got our assignments. My assignment both days was to go with a group to the cemetery in the woods up the hill and carefully remove the layers of pine needles which had covered the moss-beds.

On my knees, wearing gloves that were too big for my little hands but necessary in the cold, misty morning, I soaked the knees of my jeans and assiduously gathered up bags of pine needles to carry back down and add to the compost heap.

After lunch, we were “invited” to participate in what was called dharma combat. Two or more monastics provided the structure and all were expected to join in this conversation about the true meaning of the dharma. Did I say anything? I guess I must have but don’t think I contributed any startling epiphanies. The truth was that I was in way over my head here.

After dinner, it was back up for more sitting practice and then bed in our chilly dorm rooms by 9 pm.

On our second afternoon, a monastic told us with great enthusiasm that Abbot John Daido Loori, Roshi, the founder of the order and monastery, was present for Dokusan. This was our opportunity to sit down one on one with the big guy himself.

This was such a Big Deal that we were instructed to grab our zazen cushions and run like hell to get in line when Dokusan was announced after dinner. I didn’t run fast enough and so was added to the list of slowpokes who would get to have their meeting with the Abbott the next day.

Great. Now I’d get to lay awake all damned night trying to figure out what to ask this zen demi-god.

Dokusan at Zen Mountain Monastery is a very formal affair. One by one we were led into the presence of the Abbott and instructed to do three full prostrations before being summoned to sit seiza-style in front of our teacher.

I’d come to this weekend thinking I didn’t need some hand-holding introduction to zen practice but now, sitting before the kind but removed smile of the Abbott, I again realized I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing or why I was doing it.

I think I asked something about how to live more generously and with less fear. I don’t remember his answer.

But that turned out to be my pole star.

I rode back to New York City next to a woman I’d befriended during the weekend. As the bus made its way down the interstate in New Jersey, with Manhattan throwing up its ramparts on the other side of the river, I turned to my new friend and said: “Sorry about the language here, but that is unfuckingbelievable” (meaning Manhattan). She was a teacher at Columbia University and smiled. Yes. Yes, it is, she agreed.

Four years later I moved to New York City.

But that wasn’t in response to the polestar the Abbott so gently and generously offered me that day in October 1996.

Am I enlightened? Yeah, right.

What I am is a more patient, generous, compassionate woman who is not necessarily without fear but who keeps walking right into the scary things and then turning to hold out my hand.

You can do this, too. We all always could. We just forgot.

© Remington Write 2019. All Rights Reserved

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