Things pull at me. Intuition will grab a cushion, sit on my shoulder, and whisper in my ear until I listen. Not in a stalkerish kind of way, but more like that fun friend who calls you to adventure. (I’m blessed to have friends like that! You know who you are.)
When I first heard the call, I was puzzled. Really? An Abbey? I clicked on the site: http://www.shastaabbey.org. There was an application process. I filled it out. (Adventure gets bossy sometimes.) As a spiritual practitioner student studying different types of religions, I wanted to learn more about Buddhism so it made logical sense that way. As a long time meditator, I wanted to see how monks meditated. It seemed to me they’d cornered the market there. And, God knows, mindfulness is trending as our culture grows more and more distracted from what truly matters.
I was also up for the challenge of three days of silence. I love people and I love to talk, but I hate surface chit chat, and the idea of being with new people without having to do that was strongly appealing. When the application came back and I was in, I made a decision: rather than getting more background on the Abbey or Soto-Zen Buddhism, I’d go in cold and soak it all up: the philosophy, the lifestyle, the sacred space.
When I arrived at the Abbey on Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I was struck by the beauty of the space. I can’t imagine a more perfect place to put an Abbey. Shasta Abbey sits in a forested plot so close to the base of Black Butte and Mt. Shasta, I felt like I could reach out (if I had a really long arm) and touch it. Everywhere I went in the Abbey I saw majestic Mt. Shasta smiling back at me. From my room. From the dining room. Along the pinecone-speckled walkway to The Buddha Hall. From the gardens lush with orange spring poppies and purple iris. Everywhere.
Shasta Abbey was started by one of the first woman Zen Masters who studied Soto-Zen for 8 years in Japan. Her name was Houn Jiyu-Kennett (1/1/24 – 11/6/96) and she is quite a respected Reverend Master. After studying in Japan, she returned to England where it became apparent that they were not quite ready for a female Zen Master. That didn’t get in her way. She set off for California (originally the Bay Area) and then landed as the first Abbess of Shasta Abbey. Her presence is still felt, and there is an equality feeling between genders, perhaps from this history. At the Abbey, there are only monks (not monks and nuns) and they all shave their heads and wear the same brown robes. The only difference is the color overlays which designates their seniority in the monastery. Throughout the weekend I heard many a monk refer to a Reverend Master Jiyu story with a nostalgic glisten in their eye. I wished I’d met her.
As I walked into the visitor’s office, friendly monks greeted me, and a fellow Bruin came and escorted me to my room. She and her husband live at the monastery, but are “lay” people–not monks. There are a number of these people at different parts of their journey that live on the grounds and participate in the monastery. My greeter set me up with a weekend schedule (jam packed with multiple meditations, meals, Dharma talks, services, etc.) and oriented me to the space. My room was simple and clean: a twin bed, a desk and a chair with a window opening up to mountains and forest. My docent showed me the bathroom down the hall, all the common areas and rules about using them, and all the books the monastery generously provides (for free) for those who want to learn about Buddhism.
One thing struck me right away: this monastery was very tidy, organized, peaceful, and welcoming. I felt like people had read my application, were happy I was there, and were invested in me just because I was another living being. Throughout the weekend I learned this is really key to Buddhist philosophy. It is perhaps the kindest, most compassionate path as a whole I have seen. There is a clear respect for ALL living things and an understanding of how we all fit together in a symbiotic nature. Kindness, compassion, love, and an embracing spirit make the whole area feel like a big hug from a really good hugger. (On a side note: in a Dharma talk, a retreat participant asked the monks if they hug. The response was all monks are different, but usually if we see one coming, we bow as our default greeting. After all, celibacy is a vow monks take at Shasta Abbey.)
Dharma talks are teaching talks and we had several of those. I was confused by the word dharma and I wasn’t sure why. I asked the question and the answer was cut and dry: it’s the teaching and it’s capitalized. But if you remember Dharma and Greg like I do, or you listen to Deepak, you might think of dharma as that something that upholds the positive cosmic order. Many people came up to me after the talk, all with their own suggestions of the various meanings of dharma. When I checked with Merriam W. the overall gist is it’s one of those words that varies from belief system. Just know that in Soto-Zen Buddhism, Dharma is The Teaching and is sacred.
In fact, keeping the Sacred at the fore is a key concept along this path. Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and statues of Avalokiteshvara (the Buddhist name for Kwan Yin, Goddess of Compassion) are along the paths. The tradition is to stop, bow, and take a moment for mindful awareness each time you pass in front of one. The gesture is one of respect, but also it was explained that in a world where our faces are glued down at our screens or the ground, mindfulness and gratitude is important to remember for ourselves and for our world. I found this to be so true. I found myself bowing to everything: the statues, the trees, the mountains, the people, the morning. What this did was keep me in a reverential, thankful place and that felt like such a peaceful place to be.
That sacred sauce is poured on everything, including meal time. As not killing (animals or people) is a key precept of the faith, all meals were vegetarian and DELICIOUS. The monastery depends on alms (donations) from those in the community who donate money, food, or items the monks need from the alms list on their website. The list tells what is appropriate and not appropriate to bring. And because they are at the mercy of what others give, the kitchen crew impressed me to no end with the creative ways they put balanced meals together.
The first night we had beet and potato soup with cottage cheese and bread from local bakeries. Everything I ate there, I loved, and was so impressed by the creativity, love, and ceremony that went into each meal. I’m pretty sure there needs to be a new reality cooking show where monasteries go on and have to use only the ingredients that have been donated to feed a hundred people tasty, well-balanced meals.
Meals are a special and unique time. For example, when you enter into the dining hall, you sit two feet across from another person with a person on each side of you. There were 30 people at this introductory retreat plus the senior monk leading the meal. The leading monk clanks together two wood sticks, leads some bowing, says some ceremonial verses, and starts the dishes down the line. The lay people enter silently, eat silently, and clean up silently in a very orderly fashion, placing cutlery, compost, cups, and plates in their respective gray bins. The monks are extremely aware of their environmental imprint on the earth (and have been well before it was trendy to do so). Each person is encouraged to take only what they can positively eat and half way through the meal second serving is announced with an option for more. As each dish is passed to the next person there is a mutual bowing that occurs over and over again. I’m going to estimate there are about 30 bows per meal. Lots and lots of bowing. Nods of respect from one being to another, a mindful acknowledgement of another being’s light. As I sat quietly eating, gazing out at the face of my favorite mountain in the world, and thinking about how unusual this experience was–but also how AWESOME–I understood why they named it The Medicine Meal. This was a time to nourish both body and soul as a community without egoic distraction.
This level of mindfulness was a theme retreaters were asked to maintain throughout, but especially during meditation proper. We were lead in an hour long meditation instruction with form, theory, props, chairs, cushions for sitting meditation. We were shown how to hold our hands (mudras) in both sitting and walking meditation to maintain mindfulness. We were even given a period for working meditation which was actually super enlightening to me. My job initially was to brush down spider webs and guard Liam who was really high up on a ladder. I’m really not quite sure how helpful I would have been had the ladder fallen over, but I was ready to run and get help. It occurred to me as I was brushing down spider webs that I might kill a spider and what with the no killing rule, I wondered how they reconciled that issue. I verified with a monk. “Oh, no. We take them down. They put them up. It’s a game we play.” Okay, then. The awareness was interesting, though. Because of a shoulder tear that quickly got aggravated, I was kindly shifted to dusting the altar which was actually magical and felt more congruous with the Buddhist Way. Here’s the altar in The Buddha hall. It’s breathtaking.
During the several long periods of meditation morning (6:00 a.m.) and night (7:00 p.m.), between which time you are asked to keep The Noble Silence we sat in The Buddha Hall, eyes open to stay alert and stared at either a white wall or a white screen two feet away. We were taught to notice if we had an itch, but not to scratch it. Instead, just notice. Watch it come, watch it leave. Oh my goodness! What a revelation this simple practice showed me. Change is constant. It doesn’t need to be responded with panic and reaction because no sooner does it appear in an uncomfortable way than it vanishes. Here’s my new mantra for life: Feel the itch. Don’t suppress it, feel it. Notice it. Don’t scratch it. Then watch it be on its way. I challenge all you LA drivers to practice that one on the 405! Just remember: eyes open. The idea of eyes open is so you can transfer this idea into all your waking activities and stay Zen. I was resistant, but I kept my vow to keep an open mind, and it actually is pretty amazing how it works.
Back to the Buddha Hall. It’s larger than this picture shows. In addition to the main hall, there are two rooms with huge big wooden doors that open during the ceremony and the monks enter into the main area in their formal robes with silk mats they use both on the floor (for more bowing) and on the chairs when they sit. The feel of the space is sacred. There are gongs, and chimes, and bells, and a drum–and just because Reverend Master Jihou wanted to make the hymns “Western friendly,” an organ. The organ makes chants about consciousness sound very similar to the ones I used to belt out when Grandma Opal took me with her to the Methodist Church during the summers I spent with her in Poway, California.
Buddhist services hold similarities with Catholicism and Judaism when it comes to ceremony. Uniquely, though, there isn’t as much a message as ritual. The service is filled with song, bowing, incense offering, monks entering and leaving, chants, candle lighting and so forth. However, as this was Memorial Day, there was a special community ceremony to honor ALL those hurt in war (not just “our” side, but everybody and all things. I had never seen this done in any religious institution and was so touched by the respect for all life, not just a selected group.) The group that gathered, and groups of people who follow the Buddhist teachings in general, are called the sangha. The sangha is a key component to the Buddhist way. (Homage to the Buddha. Homage to the Dharma. Homage to the Sangha.)
We met many monks during Dharma talks and meals and instructions, but I must admit my favorite became Reverend Margaret. There is an option to sign up for “spiritual counseling” during the weekend and I was assigned to her. I wanted some one-on-one time just to make certain I was being respectful by taking pictures. Retreat rules request nobody use cell phones and take a tech vacay so I was very careful not to go against that, which included picture taking. I sat and talked with Reverend Margaret about how best to handle that, if it would be considered an act of dana or it would be disrespectful. We talked about her personal path to senior monk and how long she’d been at the Abbey. We marveled at the beauty of the gardens around us while we sat under this fruitless plum.
Reverend Margaret spoke with such candor and gentleness. It was clear to me we were equal beings and she did not hold herself levels above me as you may feel with leaders in some religions trapped in their ego. There was a fun, peaceful, grounded, humor about her, and just sitting with her in the garden fed my soul. I will look for her again. This is her standing next to her great Master’s stupa. Here is what the stupa says on one side. It has a unique saying on all four.
As I was talking with Reverend Margaret, I asked her about dream yoga. I’m quite the dreamer and have many synchronicities during the day that tie into my night life. She informed me that was Tibetan Buddhism and that’s the moment I realized there was actually more than one flavor of Buddhism. It’s seem so obvious now, but you don’t know what you don’t know. In one of the Dharma talks, a monk said the Dalai Lama (a Tibetan Buddhist) said that Buddhism is the cake and all the various types of Buddhism are the icing. There is no “icing bashing” that goes on here. Instead, there is an embracing of other ways and a solid focus on describing Soto-Zen. My dream yoga will have to wait.
One of the great things about completing an introductory retreat is that after you learn the program, you are welcome back any time. The monastery works on the idea of dana. There is no set fee or even a “suggested donation.” This is by design. And dana comes in many forms, not just money. There is an understanding that when beings are generous with other beings, those beings will be generous back. And let me tell you, these beings are generous. There is an exchange of energy so strong it creates a swirling vortex of kindness, compassion, and giving.
Gassho, Shasta Abbey. You have shown great kindness and I will remember you.
Please consider Shasta Abbey when you give. They are truly grateful for your donations and say so every meal time. Here is their website again. On that site is a list of what they need: www.shastabbey.com