I decided to go to this particular sesshin when I learned that my teacher's wife died from lung cancer in mid-September. I knew her, she served as Tenzo (head cook, traditionally a very highly regarded position in zen) during previous sesshins I had attended. I didn't know her well, but I liked her.
This was far from the only reason I came to sesshin, but it was what pulled the trigger for me to go to this one specifically. There was a memorial service at the zendo in mid-October that I could not attend owing to an on-going tragedy in my own life. This sesshin just happened to commence on the day after the very first day I could get away from work without turning my own life even more upside-down (which was something that wouldn't have helped anyone).
I knew my teacher was surrounded by people who would care for him, that wasn't why I decided to come to sesshin. Even though I am a hospice nurse, I wasn't acting on the notion that I needed to go be his bereavement counselor, or that there weren't many, many people as skilled as I who were also as devoted as I to his well-being that were available to him. My motivations were far more subtle than that.
I simply wanted to offer my compassionate presence to my sangha as soon as it was possible for me to do so. Simply, put, I just wanted to show up for my group. The only thing I could offer (that others couldn't) was me. Other people could show up and be a shoulder to lean on, an ear to bend, arms to hug, etc. I'm sure there was plenty of that. Only I could show up and be Richard DeWald. It was all I had to give, so I wanted to give it.
Don't misunderstand me, I did not anticipate that my teacher would be grief-stricken almost 90 days after his wife's passing, and he wasn't visibly so at all. That's actually not that unusual, grief is not a constant, ongoing process, it comes and goes. Beyond that, he knows his mind, if anyone was going to be able to gracefully navigate the loss of a spouse, he would be able to do it.
You see, this is all not about him, not about the individually-identifiable separately-appearing entity that we know as my zen teacher. Step back a bit. This sangha is also an entity, and it had suffered a loss, and that grief was going to show up. Grief needs compassionate presence. People will run around thinking that it is some individual that is the sole locus of such a thing, but that's not the way Reality works. Grief will manifest. I had no idea how it would manifest, but I knew it would arise, and sesshin would be one such vehicle for it's manifestation.
I wanted to be there, not to *do* something about it, but just to be present. This is hard to explain beyond that.
I have never seen and heard so much crying at a sesshin in my life. Actually, I had never heard crying at all during a sesshin before, but I personally witnessed five people (out of twenty participants) crying during this sesshin, including myself. Since I only know why I was crying, let's start with that discussion.
My tears were about my fears that I wouldn't be able to make it. During the sesshin I experienced something completely new to me--the fear that I didn't have what it takes to be a zen practitioner, to sit a 5-day sesshin. Maybe I didn't have what it takes to be a zen student, at least not the kind of zen student I want to be. In the middle of day three my back was hurting so badly that my thoughts were completely dominated alternatively by a desire to quit and by the notion that I could not go on with this, not for two more days. I just couldn't, no matter how badly I wanted it. The ability was simply not within me.
I really thought I was a failure. I really thought I didn't have it in me, and that made me profoundly sorrowful.
I realized there actually are very few things in life I want as much as I want to study zen. "Studying zen" is not about reading books or taking tests, it is about showing up for your life as it really is. I was having trouble with the pain, everything in me seemed to be pushing me, shoving me, towards giving up. I was being mentally pummelled by the notion that I needed to give up, go over to my room, and lay down in bed and prepare to slink out as the Great Zen Failure of 2010 at Dharma Field.
My notion of who I was as a zen student was dying. I thought I could just walk through sesshin, maybe facing a little tough stretch here and there, but my ability to complete my plans would never be called into question. I was too strong for that, I was too committed for that. I had come too far, for too long, done too much, to face a crisis of confidence. That was for other people.
Suddenly, this notion who I am as a zen student was dead and lifeless at my feet. I could doubt myself. What until now seemed to be an endless reserve of confidence about this practice was no more. I could no longer confidently go forward knowing I would continue to notch my way along to what I believed would be my future. I might wash out. I believed that the power to practice zen was one of the few precious things in life that was always going to be with me. I might lose other things, people can take my belongings, they can even take my life, but they could not take away my desire to wake up to my life. It was eternal. This confidence in my simple ability to practice zen was something solid, fixed and permanent about who I am that no one or no thing could pry from my grasp.
Gone. All of that was gone. Words cannot express how sad that made me. I had lost something very dear to me, and I didn't even know I could lose it until it was gone.
Dokusan is the zen term for the private interviews with the senior teachers that are offered during sesshin. Sesshins are constructed so that the teachers are physically segregated from the students. They come in and leave separately from the students. They do not reside with the students, they do not take breaks with the students, there are almost no opportunities to just walk up and talk to a teacher during sesshin. Your only access to them is in Dokusan.
It is easy to see the logic in this. If this were not so, students would be huddled around them constantly, and those students willing to be rude and dismissive of other's needs would monopolize the time and space around them. It's the same reason you can't turn right on red in Manhattan. It would simply cause havoc. There's too much going on.
Dokusan is the answer to this. If you want to talk to a teacher you simply put your name on a list and wait your turn. The interviews are offered during zazen periods in a private room. At Dharma Field the actual procedure is that when you are within three people of the top of the list you sit zazen in a waiting room adjacent to the interview room, not in the zendo with the other students, and the teacher rings a high-pitched bell twice to announce that the next person on the list can come in.
At other zen centers one is often then asked to perform three full prostrated bows to the teacher (that is, ending up face down on the floor, arms outstretched at the teacher's feet). I think the notion here is that this action is symbolic of total submission of your ego to the process. Right.
At Dharma Field, a student simply opens the door, bows in gassho (hands positioned as in prayer, a bow of the head and upper body, this is an ordinary greeting in zen practice) and sits down across from the teacher. A white noise machine is just outside the door that does make it impossible for anyone outside of the room to discern any of the conversation going on in the room, but if you are sitting zazen in the waiting area you can tell when someone is laughing or crying in there. You can't tell what they are laughing and crying about, but you do know that laughing or crying is going on.
You hear both. I heard both, but I heard a lot more crying during this session. I wasn't the only one crying, that was for certain.
I also witnessed, by happenstance, another student receive some very significant family news during sesshin. I want to respect this student's privacy, so I am not even going to reveal their gender, or anything specific about the event, just suffice it to say it was one of those family events that sets phones a-ringing and e-mails a-flying. If it had been me to receive such news, I am not sure I would have remained in sesshin, particularly since my mind was really leaning towards getting the hell out of there anyway. This student remained, and they will always have my admiration for that. It wasn't selfish of them to do so, their presence wasn't needed somewhere, but no one would have begrudged this student the reason to leave. There was reason to leave.
A bit later I was sitting in such a way that I could see, even though this student was trying to face away from the group, gazing out a window, that tears were streaming down this student's face and they were trying hard to stifle the noise of sobbing. I wanted to go offer comfort, but that would have been rude. Sesshin is about mutual respect for the vow of silence. You do not ask another student to break their vow of silence in order to take care of something that can wait.
If this student needed comfort they could ask for it. That is certainly allowed, but I could not give unsolicited comfort and respect their silence, so I simply sat there, breathed peacefully for them, and witnessed their sorrow.
Later, the student I had heard crying in Dokusan was sitting next to me and I could feel their sorrow. It hurt. They weren't frankly crying, but they were clearly grief-stricken, they looked as if they were sitting at a funeral of a very dear loved one. Again, I simply sat there as witness. I simply sat quietly with them, feeling their grief as if it was my own, mixed with my own, not trying to do anything about it, just being with it.
Beyond that, there were sad, down-trodden expressions everywhere, particularly on the faces of the students who only showed up for the last three days. I had no idea why, but the first three days were by far the most difficult for me, so I imagined they were also struggling with physical discomfort, mental anguish and spiritual crises just as I had. Everyone there, at one time or another, or for some people for the entire time, looked like they were suffering some overwhelmingly profound loss.
Then it came to me. Here it is. This is the Grief for which I came to this sesshin. Whether or not it could be linked causally to the death of my teacher's wife was irrelevant. My grief, these students' grief, my teacher's grief, his colleagues' grief, it was all here. This is why I came. I was here to offer myself to this, so I did. I sat with this grief. I was here, I could stay here, and that's what I was going to do.
This is how Reality actually works. We think that one person suffers grief and this is something separate from other people who aren't suffering grief. I'm sad, you're not. If you look carefully enough to begin to see through the substantiality of individually-identifiable separately-appearing selves, you see there is no such locus. There is only sorrow. It doesn't belong to anyone.
This is Great Sorrow.
Next - Great Sincerity