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Monday, April 13, 2009

Nashville Zen Center Spring Retreat '09

If I ever needed a reminder that zazen is a physical practice, I have it this morning. Every muscle in my body is sore - sore in that way that makes it hard to move when you first get up and send you right back to bed til you convince yourself otherwise. I mean, I've been on a physical fitness binge (for me) since about mid-February, working out (step aerobics and yoga) since the third week of February, and I was probably more sore this morning that at any point in that period.

The occasion was the Nashville Zen Center Spring Retreat at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center, just out of town here toward Ashland City, out in the country where the cell phones work slowly, if at all. I had looked forward to and dreaded this one. It was the bookend to a transition period in the Zen practice of both myself and the NZC, the "[" to a "[" that began with the legendary (in my own mind) Empty Well retreat in March of '06 that also happened to feature Brad Warner. I knew that the outreach I'd made to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center the month following, had made all the difference in my own Zen practice, and I wanted to see if the NZC had been revived as well. It has. The transition period is over, and I'm excited to see where it goes from here. Since it's Zen, there's nowhere else for it to go, of course. But still...

And to tell the truth, it hasn't been a period of transition for the NZC -- it's a rebirth. We started with seven people who spent the night at Penuel Ridge on Thursday to set up, hit a dozen on Friday and it just got bigger and better from there. Most of the people who came, stayed. The people who made up the old NZC just didn't get the concept of a retreat, and used to drop in for a few hours, say, on Saturday when the wife didn't have them busy clearing the garage, and that was it. But I'm really proud of our new people. And I'm proud of us for rebuilding the NZC the way we did it. We made it real, with no compromises. If you want to start a "Zen" group these days, it's easy to do, especially in a town like Nashville with very little background of authenticity in Buddhism. I mean, there are Vipassana and Tibetan groups which have real teachers, with all that that entails, but if there's been a real Zen practice, it had to have been before my time here. It's easy to fool the hungry, and people have done that, exploiting the "Barnes and Noble Buddhists" (thanks for that phrase to one of our new members) by offering them more Talky Buddhist Shit. If you've got the money, you can jet off to France and join up with the Thich Nhat Hanh Army of Pablum, or you can just get your ordination out of a cereal box; it doesn't matter.

For our newcomers, we offered the unrelenting: seven to eight hours a day of zazen. We had two very different teachers: Taiun Michael Elliston, Atlanta Soto Zen Center Abbott,  who built a real Zen school in Atlanta over thirty years ago, and who is the head of the Silent Thunder Order, the disciples of Soyu Matusuoka; and Brad Warner, author of three books starting with Hardcore Zen through his latest, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, head of the Dogen Sangha, the disciples of Gudo Nishijima.  We had originally planned the retreat with Elliston Sensei, who had to pull out due to an unrealized prior commitment, and was able to make it up only for Saturday night and Sunday, for our Jukkai ceremony.  Meanwhile, Brad was coming through the area, sort of, and happened to email me after the retreat dates were already set, being available just at the right time.  Of course I said, hell yeah, and the Monsters of Zen retreat was on.

I was a little scared of this one. I couldn't handle another failed retreat at Penuel Ridge, especially with Brad present again.  And the idea of having the two men whom I consider my teachers both present, if the new NZC had failed to appear in droves like the old one did, would've been just too much.  But I had nothing to fear.  By sticking to the real practice -- by leaving the armchair Zen of the old NZC and refusing to be seduced by the New Age crap and the "all is one" Unitarianism of the blenders -- we attracted the real people, the genuine article.  And in attending their first Zen retreat, our new people made it work.  Our first-time Tenzo pulled off the whole operation (which means running the meals and the housing) better than a lot of veterans I've seen.  And Zen happened.

I was able to make a few modifications I thought would help.  A little Yoga stretch every day.  A good hiking Rinzai-style kin-hin on Saturday afternoon when the rain stopped (possible the best remnant of the NZC old school).  But for the most part we didn't pull any punches on the zazen, which is why I'm so damned sore this morning.  And our new members are too: Congratulations, you've found the real practice.

There's more to talk about.  The semi-impromptu Q & A session Saturday night with both teachers was about the best I've ever seen anywhere, especially for the nubies.  And I was reassured: doing right, is right, even when it's hard, even when at first people don't understand.

The pic at the top is not from this retreat; it's from the ASZC March '08 zazenkai, with these same two teachers.  I'm waiting for someone to send me pics from this one; I just couldn't wait to get this up.  Congratulations, guys.  I won, you won.  More soon to come.

And come see Brad at Davis-Kidd in Green Hills tonight at 7.  I understand there will be a guitar involved.


Anonymous said...

Wow, i had no idea Brad was doing a book signing. Thanks for posting. Congrats on the retreat. Sounds like it went well. Almost makes me jealous.

Michelle said...

Bob, so sorry I missed it. I was thinking of you all this weekend. The weather is finally turning here in Moscow.

I am so glad it was successful!