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In the Mountains

August 18, 2013

by Stephen Damon

While going through some files on my desk I came across something I had written during a weekend retreat.  Reading it, memories of many retreats arose one after another, reminding me of that other life I’ve chosen to lead.  It’s a life that often remains hidden, just beyond the comings and goings of my daily life.  I’d like to share these impressions with you in hope that they might remind you too of another life that often remains hidden.

It’s Sunday, the last day of our weekend retreat in the mountains above Los Gatos. I’m sitting in my robes in front of a wood burning stove in the community room, during a break after breakfast. It’s very quiet up here in the mountains. Every sound that emerges from the silence is vibrant and distinctive. It’s a silent retreat, but sometimes people do have to whisper to one another. Now I can hear the tenzo (the cook), whispering to someone in the kitchen about the afternoon lunch. The sounds of their voices are very soothing and relaxing.

The weekend sesshin has been challenging, physically and psychologically—more so than I had expected. In a sense, I feel that my entire life, including thirty-five years of practice, has been challenged and tested by the demands of the rigorous schedule of non-stop sitting and walking meditation. Participating in all the activities has been a payment of sorts. And it hasn’t been cheap. To quote Bob Dylan, “I’ve paid the price…but at least I’m out of debt.” This debt is all my ancient, twisted karma.

All my ancient twisted karma,
from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
born through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.

I have had lots of impressions during the weekend, one of which I’d like to share with you. After the first sitting of the day, I went outside to do kinhin, walking meditation, on one of the gravel paths outside the zendo. It was very cold and I noticed the first frost of the season, glistening like diamonds on the gravel and the weeds along the path. It was a little after 6 and first light was showing itself through the trees surrounding me. As I settled into my kinhin practice, I noticed the sound of the gravel underneath my feet. I walked slower and slower, paying careful attention to each of the bits of gravel. I felt as if I had never heard anything quite so clearly and fully before—perhaps because I had never been quite so “clear” and “full” ever before.

A bird squawked somewhere in the distance. Before long, he was joined by another and another and another. Soon the woods were filled with loud, joyous sounds, the way they are each morning at sunrise. But the sounds didn’t seem to be coming from the trees. No, they seemed to be coming from inside me. In fact, all I could say was there was sound—not over there, or here—just sound. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that there was no “over there” or “here” or “anywhere.”

I wasn’t just hearing the sounds of the morning in the way that I hear everything else in my life. I was actively listening to them. I was open and had let the sounds and colors of the morning come inside me, without any interference of thought or emotion, without any interference from me. There was no “me” to intrude itself on the world. This was true interconnectedness. I wasn’t a Zen priest on a weekend retreat listening to birds and the sound of my feet on gravel. I was the morning!



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