A different retreat
It had just rained when I went outside today to feed the birds but it was also warm and I could hear what seemed like millions of birds chirping in the trees - it took me suddenly back to a trip I made to Hawaii years ago, a retreat sort of, and I thought I'd write about it because I did so really badly at it.
The zendo we belonged to asked for volunteers to go to Hawaii for three weeks to help build a new zendo there, we applied and were accepted.
We were met at the airport and taken to the old zendo which was in a very nice suburb of Honolulu. The building was a two story structure slowly being eaten by termites - eek! - and surrounded by a beautiful garden with papaya trees in front. Only a few people were actually living at the zendo - my sister and I and another woman from somewhere in the US shared one room on the upper floor, a number of guys shared another. Our windows had no glass at all, only screens, and each morning we were woken up by the unbelievable cheeping of what sounded like millions of birds. We ate (vegetarian) together outside at a table under a huge macadamia nut tree - either cooked cereal or fruit with yogurt and peanuts. We then would meditate (zazen), sitting on the floor, facing the wall. After this we'd break up for our duties .... some would go to the site where the new zendo was being built, while others would stay home and do chores. In the evening we'd meditate again, eat dinner, listen to talks.
- one of the trees we saw in Hawaii was a cannonball tree which has unusual flowers
I got sick almost immediately, probably due to shyness/home-sickness, and so for the first week I stayed at the zendo, dusted cushions, swept leaves, did laundry, made meals. Later, though, I was able to go along to the building site - I wasn't much help, not being able to see very well, but it was interesting. Each day it rained, so the first rule of business was to bail out the construction pits that had filled with rainwater - muddy. But we stopped at a doughnut shop on the way, so it was worth it.
All our time wasn't spent meditating or working: my sister and I got a map and walked all over Honolulu, saw the boxfish at the Waikiki Aquarium, went swimming, visited the Hawaii State Art Museum, looked through the Ala Moana Center, and saw one of our cousins who was then living in Honolulu. I remember us all from the zendo going to a movie one night too, and out to dinner at least once, plus we went on a trip to Diamond Head and saw some pineapple plantations. Then there was the late night trip to a park .... I'd opened one of the kitchen cupboards to find a rat staring back at me, so we set a humane trap for him with some papaya and then took him to the park to set him free.
But back to the utter failure of my retreat in the spiritual sense. I had the best intentions - I'd spent time meditating, practicing the style of Shikantaza ..... resting in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content ...... but at the Honolulu zendo, with meditation multiple times a day, I just couldn't keep it up, I couldn't "not think" that much for that long. I started surreptitiously watching the little geckos on the walls, wriggled around scratching my bug bites, and finally I really gave up and spent my meditation time rehearsing in my mind all the plots of all the novels I could ever remember having read. At the end of the three weeks we each had a private meeting with the roshi for advice and during mine he suggested I look seriously into therapy - ouch :)
To this day, I'm just no good at meditation or centering prayer which places emphasis on interior quietness. All this brought back by the chirping of birds!