A chipmunk kept me company at my site throughout the week. His comings and goings were quite predictable. The moment I sat down for my meals, he would peer out from beneath a log and begin his wanderings, picking up any stray crumbs. He would scamper across my legs, oblivious of my dominating presence. There were the loons, lifting themselves out of the water, spreading their wings and baring their breast to the rising sun. There were the mushrooms materializing overnight. A bald eagle would glide near the water’s edge, his approach telegraphed seconds ahead of his actual appearance by the chattering of the red squirrels. Every morning, three otters emerged from the wetlands and swam east, into the bay, their undulations dragon-like, heads, nape of the neck, back, finally the tail waveforming in a playful rhythm. A miniature version of the Loch Ness monster. During the final evening, coming back home, they stopped by our campfire, three whiskered faces staring at a dozen visitors staring back. A faceto- face meeting of sorts.
Is it possible to always cover this place with our virtue, to remain in constant contact with our best intentions, ceaselessly applying ourselves within our awareness to non-attachment, lovingkindness and harmlessness? Can we persevere on the edge of doubt and uncertainty, yet trusting this mind and this arrangement of the moment? Can we thrive within the estuary where uncertainty is on equal footing with abiding ease based on nothing other than what is and being ready to take the next step?
At the end of the last year’s retreat, the ranger responsible for caring for the lake found us camping at Moose Bay. He informed us that the place where we have been coming for the last twenty years is actually off-limits to tenting and staying overnight. Big surprise.
For twenty years Daido Roshi managed to fly under the radar, then, the first time we are on our own, the invisibility cloak gets blown away. So, during the off-season, cooperating with the ranger, we researched several options, different areas that could possibly fit our needs. We stumbled on some amazing places—isolated islands, marshes, hidden coves. We came up with a plan, got permits. Everything was perfectly set. Until we took off from the launching beach, and within minutes were trying to make headway into the roar of a westerly wind. At one point, one of the more observant paddlers, in between the strokes exclaimed, “Don’t look at the shore!” We were sailing backwards, and fast. We had to bail out onto an island where we decided to rest overnight and get going very early in the morning to cover some miles before the wind generator turned on. The early departure became an even clearer imperative when, after pitching the tents, we noticed posted signs announcing that it was illegal to camp here. The wind kept up all night but finally eased by sunrise. We got on our way and paddled to the new designated place. And there, as we turned a rocky corner, a young kid was sitting on a boulder fishing at 6:30 am, with a puzzled look on his face that seemed to be saying, “Why am I sitting here fishing at 6:30 in the morning?” The next site was also taken, and the private island was far from private. These were supposed to be our sites. What’s more, we had reserved them. There were few options left. Head back home or head to Moose Bay. It did not take long to pack up and canoe to our old site, which was waiting, quiet and welcoming, inviting the continuity of the attention that blossoms there.
“This marvel cannot be measured with consciousness or emotions, language cannot transmit this conduct, speculation cannot reach it. . . Leaving causes and conditions, genuinely realize that from the outset your spirit is not halted. So we have been told that the mind that embraces all the ten directions does not stop anywhere.” The mind that embraces all the ten directions is the mind that can never be lost. It is alive and it will always remain alive. It will never be lost. Unless we stop. Unless we draw a line and refuse to take the next step into clarity. So, where do we stop? Do we stop?
Konrad Ryushin Marchaj Sensei is abbot and director of operations of Zen Mountain Monastery. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 2009.
Cultivating the Empty Field is Dan Leighton’s translation of twelfth century Ch’an master Hongzhi’s Extensive Record. Hongzhi was the first to articulate the practice of silent illumination, or shikantaza.
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