I arrived at the monastery after a 2.5 hours scenic drive through rural PA and NY, crossing rolling green hills, mountains, rivers and beautiful meadows.
I called the monastery from Livingston Manor, a town 45 minutes away, as they asked me to, so that they knew I was coming. 20 minutes in a one lane road and another 10 minutes uphill on a gravel road (did I mention it’s one lane?), this Koan came to me: What happens if two Buddhists come head to head in the one lane road to Dai Bosatsu? My answer was: They both get out of their cars and Gassho each other. Later, when I shared this with a monk, he said his answer would be: They would continue their road and pass through each other. I love his answer…
In Zen Buddhism, Koans (paradoxical questions) are tools for teaching getting out of the box, or out of the limitations of the mind. A good classical example is “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”
Just 3 days ago while I was planning for an urgent business trip to PA, I had realized that Dai Bosatsu was only 3 hours away from my destination. I felt a sudden excitement even thinking of the idea of being there again. When I called the monastery and asked if I could stay for the weekend, they asked me if I’d be willing to work since they don’t have any other programs to accommodate visitors like me- they said this was their volunteer work weekend and I could stay if I could help around. I gladly accepted.
I pulled my car in the front door of the monastery to drop my baggage off and returned my car to the fenced parking lot hundred yards down the hill, so that the beavers wouldn’t eat my tires at night. No kidding, beavers come at night and eat tires. That’s why they have a fenced parking lot. As I got out of my car, I saw the monks from the 2nd floor window looking out to the lake. They greeted me with a smile that made my heart fill with gratitude.
After I parked my car, I walked up the road to the Monastery enjoying the beautiful Beecher lake view. On my right, I saw a few people, who must have been the Yoga Retreat attendees, laying in the front yard of the Guest House. I thought how lucky they are. I was lucky last year to have been to a Retreat here, and so I was again this year to come back to serve. The Beecher Lake was shining under bright sun, a gentle wind creating crystal ripples. I took it as a welcome.
As I dropped my baggage to the room, I looked at the futon on the floor and neatly folded blankets, comforter and sheets on top. I didn’t know later I was going to learn to how neatly fold the sheets and blankets, “Zen-monastery- style”, and how much mindfulness goes into the task of folding as mindfulness goes into every act here.
They say Dai Bosatsu is the most authentic Zen temple outside Japan (I hope I can go to Japan one day and verify this, ha ha ha). It has all the Japanese design features, with the roof, large stairs leading to entrance, a Zendo (hall for meditation), a Dharma Hall (hall for ceremonies and chanting), very simply designed rooms with oak floors, with futons, a dining room with low tables and cushions to sit on the floor, bells and gongs, even Japanese style hot tubs. Behind the scenes to most visitors, a large kitchen, a large basement with food storage area, laundry room, trash and compost room, walk-in refrigerator and a lounge for residents and visitors. There are off-limit , private areas, I assume private quarters of residents.
I reported to the main office to inquire about my first assignment and I was sent to the back porch to help another volunteer to clean the porch. I quickly realized hierarchy in a monastery is very important. When you’re assigned to work with someone, you need to listen carefully, follow instructions and do your job mindfully. After finding the new Web Master, I started cleaning the spider webs off of the ceiling of the porch. I started with such an enthusiasm that my new-volunteer-friend had to remind me to slow down and not to exert myself. I would later understand how important it is because: the goal here is to find mindfulness thru service not to exert yourself and because it’s hard work, you should really manage your energy. She came back to remind me to be very careful not to kill any spiders. Of course!!! What bad karma I’d get from killing a sentient being, especially a helpless spider in a Zen monastery.
Few minutes into cleaning the spider webs, I decided to create a process; clean horizontal beams first all the way and then the vertical ones, back and forth, in and out, like everything in a monastery, even cleaning has an ebb and flow to it. It’s a constant flow, a wave. Ten minutes into it, I realized I was not cleaning the spider webs in the beams, I was cleaning the webs in my mind. As soon as I realized this, I made an intention to clean out anything that I don’t need any more. I saved lots of spider lives though, for those I couldn’t… sorry… I accept the bad karma.
I had a short break to take a shower , pick up my robe and get ready for dinner (yes, you need to wear a robe in certain parts of the monastery and for formal meals). The dinner tonight was informal. Well, informal doesn’t mean you walk into the dining hall. You are reminded the dinner by bells and chimes and wooden clappers then you get in a single line outside the dining hall. You walk into the open buffet silently, pick up your food, offer few rice to the offering table and sit in your table in seiza (traditional way to sit down on your heels) until everyone is gathered ( for those who can’t sit in seiza, chairs are available). Prayers followed by a joyous meal. Mindful! chatting is completely allowed.
I couldn’t have picked a better time to come because 1) there was a special concert by a famous Shakuhachi player and his 2 students that night and 2) two days later was the Mandala day that the monks was going to celebrate with a special recitation of Lotus Sutra and I got to be part of it. How cool! Yoga retreat participants, monks and all volunteers gathered at the Zendo, the main prayer room, for the Shakuhachi concert. Shakuhachi is the only instrument played in Zen Buddhism and it’s very hard to learn to play, let alone master it, and these folks were definitely masters.
I was already stressed for the breakfast ceremony the next morning, because it was going to be a formal one, so I asked to have an orientation. A young monk gave me and another volunteer an hour orientation on how to properly eat breakfast, it could take pages to explain it, so all I can say is that it is very ritualistic and it follows a perfect order like everything else here, and needless to say it follows waves and cessation, waves and cessation. It’s not only being mindful of your acts but also being in close rapport with your partner sitting across, as some acts requires acting together. After going thru the breakfast ritual we went to Zendo and rehearsed the “entrance” , “sitting” and “ prostration” rituals there. I was ready for the next morning. It was 10 o’clock already and all I could think of was my bed.
I survived the breakfast. I’m sure I made some mistakes but I know that for as long as you try your best, you’re excused. My first task of the day was to serve breakfast to the Yoga Retreat attendees at the Guest House and clean up after. How ironic it was that I’m a yoga teacher and here I was serving to yoga teachers. I loved it. We had to be transparent, not be on their way, but also keep a close eye on what’s going on and make sure they have everything they needed. The task included going thru the trash and making sure that everything compostable goes to compost (most people throw their used tea bags into trash). A monk later warned me to check any metal pieces in the tea bags since they feed the compost to animals, we don’t want them to swallow any metal pieces. I can’t explain you enough the level of recycling, reusing, going on in the monastery. It gave me a whole new level of understanding of sustainability (given this is my day job and hobby). Nothing is thrown away, everything is re-purposed and used again and again. We even washed and cleaned used ziplocks inside and out, aluminum foils and saran wraps for reuse. When a cloth napkin is retired, it transforms to a dusting wipe. Every piece of rag has a letter in its corner indicating if it’s for kitchen counter, dusting or floor and the letters correspond to Japanese names. Few yoga students also asked to do seva (selfless service). So we had few helpers to help with the dishes. It was fun. As they headed to their yoga class, we quickly cleaned after and headed back to monastery for the next task.
I was asked if I could help wash a car (of someone who’ll leave soon for the city) and you won’t believe but we washed the car with only 1 bucket of water. If you dust first and use a spray bottle for the glass, all you need is a bucket of water. Another lesson of sustainability learned.
One of the precious times at the monastery is the morning tea break. Around 10:30-11 AM, monks, residents and volunteers get together at the patio to enjoy drinks and snacks. Literally everyone drops what they’re doing and get together to relax and recoup. It quickly became one of my favorite times.
The afternoon was more cleaning and helping in the kitchen. Another volunteer and I cleaned the lodge. This is a small recreation room for monks, the perfect place to spend long winter nights. It has a small kitchen, comfy couches and is perfect to sit down and read a book, especially given that they burn wood and they keep the temperature at 50 degrees in winter (remember this is upstate NY). I could spend a whole afternoon sitting and reading here but we were on a mission and we had more to do. After a thorough cleaning at the lodge, the next task was to help in the kitchen. I don’t know why but it felt that was the most stressful. I learned a lot though. I learned how much mindfulness goes into preparing the meals. Cutting, chopping and cleaning is the volunteer’s job. The cook puts it all together.
They were all extra nice people but I must talk about the cook. First of all, according to belief, it requires a very good karma to be a cook in a Buddhist monastery. It’s an extremely important job and our cook was no different. She is the embodiment of Buddhism to me and I bow to her with deep respect.
I was asked to help in the kitchen next to prepare for the evening meal for the yoga retreat. Once again I’m amazed how much mindfulness goes into preparing the food and cooking. This meal was no different. Somehow the guest felt it too, they complimented the food and they even took pictures before starting to eat. The monk who was leading the dinner kindly let me go and take a walk around the lake because this was my last night as I was leaving the next afternoon.
Walking the trail we had walked with my friends last year brought back all the joyful memories. It was a tribute to last year. When I reached to the Buddha statue across the lake, I even found a gift, a blueberry branch grew underneath the statue and I gladly ate it as a Prasad (sacred meal) from Buddha.
I enjoyed a long meditation at the Zendo that night before going to bed and it was very peaceful and deep. Another 5:30 am wake-up call tomorrow morning so I’d better be in the bed by 10 pm.
Just as the previous morning, I woke up at 4:30 am, an hour before the official morning bell. No alarm clocks… every morning, a monk walks down the hallways with a bell to announce the wake up time. Meditation starts at 6 am. It must be the clean air, I was wide awake already. Since it was my last day, I got up and went to Zendo for a longer morning meditation. There were monks meditating already. I guess you can’t beat them. I forgot this was the Mandala Day and we were summoned at the Dharma Hall for the Lotus Sutra chanting. Boy… it was long…. Heart Sutra is my favorite but Lotus Sutra is the next and I believe we were chanting only one chapter of it. Even though I don’t understand a single word, all chanting is in Japanese, I could feel the energy.
Next was the breakfast- since most volunteers had left, another volunteer and I had an intimate breakfast at the kitchen floor with the residents and monks. It was formal breakfast again, and this time I messed up big time. Things proceed so fast, if you lose one moment of awareness you may quickly fall behind and falling behind impacts the group flow and energy, so I felt very bad but thankfully the cook who was sitting next to me asked me to follow her and I caught up with the ritual. A short satsang followed the breakfast, by readings on Zazen.
Zazen is considered the heart of Zen Buddhist practice. The aim of zazen is just sitting, breathing, observing and all thoughts pass by without getting involved in them. It’s funny because I started my meditation practice with Zazen over 10 years ago, even my e-mail address which I had picked around that time has “zen” in it. However it was so very hard for me to do Zazen back then, I got so lost that, frustration pushed me to discover different types of meditation until I find what works for me. Now I understand how important it is to have guidance of a teacher along the way. Now 10 years later I can finally meet with Zen Buddhists at the same point I started, sitting, breathing, observing.
It was time to work again. I wasn’t on any assignment this morning but I really wanted to help, so I assigned myself to cleaning the rooms of the visitors. I teamed up with a young Japanese monk and another volunteer, together we vacuumed the futons, shook the blankets and comforters and folded them properly (did I say there is certain way to fold them, as there is a certain way for folding sheets, pillow cases and towels as there is a certain way of doing anything here). The whole purpose of that “certain” way is to bring awareness to what you’re doing. I was also assigned a task that I wouldn’t think in a million years. When I arrived 2 days ago I thought how cool it would be to be assigned to clean the Dharma Hall but they probably would not let me do it since it must be a precious task. Well… when another young monk asked me if I could sweep the floors, I could jump up and down, but I had to be Zen instead so I gladly accepted and swept the floor in a certain way (to the side, one row at a time, up and down), another wave.
Tea time followed the hard work. How precious it is to sit down, relax and simply chat with other volunteers and monks at the front patio. Then I helped to fold the laundry and we got busted by a monk while speaking loudly and it was embarrassing. I guess some habits never fade. I was talking about Reiki to another volunteer and I got over excited. One should remember to keep quiet even you’re down at the corner of the basement, in a Zen monastery.
A delicious lunch followed at 1:15 pm- why 1:15, I don’t know, there must be significance. Before lunch I simply sat in the porch, wiggling my legs, I checked out the ceilings I cleaned two days ago of any spider webs. It was a good job done. How quickly it past by, I worked hard but I completely enjoyed every single moment of it. I made one final wish: May I be back one day?
A big gratitude goes to the monks and residents of Dai Bosatsu who accepted me even though I’m not a Buddhist. I truly hope I deserved their trust. Big respect to all volunteers, because it’s very hard work, but what you find at the end for yourself is precious: Mindfulness thru service.
Zeynep Premdasi Yilmaz
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