spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
PictureGold Buddha /VasenkaPhotography
Awards for the “Best” of anything are not pro forma at the Zen Beginner’s Mind Temple (Hosshin-ji), also known as City Center. Had there been an award for Beginningest Mind given the Saturday that was my first all-day sit, it would have been mine.

Actually, the award was mine even before I left the house—from the moment I reached into my closet and grabbed a white, hooded windbreaker. Had I thought before I grabbed white, I would have remembered never having seen colors other than black, brown, navy blue or forest green – always some variation of a somber hue. In past visits to the Zen Center, I, too, kept a low color profile.

Outside my building at 5:10 a.m., I met my Zen practice teacher, Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt, to walk to the Zen Center together, and she didn’t take notice. She could have been thinking: This may be Alison’s first “one-day sit” but it is not her first time meditating at Beginner’s Mind Temple. Surely she won’t wear white inside. More likely, Liên was eager to be on time to change into her own black robes.

By skipping the preceding night’s introduction to a one-day meditation session for beginners at City Center, I wasn’t informed about clothing, routines or even how to read the day’s schedule. While the references to time wouldn’t require clarification, those Sanskrit or Pali words that explain what to do and where to go would just be Sanskrit or Pali to me.

Knowing what to do when might have kept me from trailing after the kitchen staff heading upstairs from the hall outside the zendo where I sat. Late registrants sit in this entry hall. Meditating with my eyes open for the first time, I saw them leave. Not knowing who they were, what they knew that I didn’t, why they got up or where they were going, I followed. In the kitchen I stood barefooted in my white windbreaker. Eventually, one smiling staffer asked me what I was doing in the kitchen. At that moment I uttered what probably clinched the Beginningest Mind award for me. “I don’t know,” I said, sounding neither wistful nor shameful, but simply truthful. They asked me where I was supposed to be. Again, “I don’t know.” 

Not knowing on this day of silence became an adventure in living with beginner’s mind, a low-level pervasive uncertainty. Many times before the day was over, I would rue my decision to skip the beginner’s orientation. Finally, to avoid uncertainty escalating into distress I importuned the man in the bookstore. Surely, he was not observing silence, and he might be willing to translate the day’s schedule for me. This he did, but not before reminding me that talking was not permitted and though he was talking, I must not. Thus when we came to the posted schedule, I pointed and he whispered.

Later in the afternoon, I was helpless to silence my bubbling laughter while scrubbing mirrors, sinks, and tubs in the second-floor women’s restroom—the work detail to which I was assigned. I delighted in the irony of it as I mopped the floor and pulled matted hair from the sponge mop. The young resident in charge was willing to hear the why of my laughing. Yesterday, two women cleaned my own small condo because I don’t like housework. Of course they were paid. And wasn’t it funny in a wonderful way that here I was the next day cleaning up after others as part of a day of meditation for which I had paid. “Every activity is part of the practice,” she whispered in response.

And only once during the day did my Zen practice teacher, Liên, feel compelled to whisper instructions to be sure I didn’t muck up an activity of great formality on my way to winning the Beginningest Mind award. She told me to stay behind one of her experienced friends and do whatever she did.

Unfortunately, before going upstairs to procession into the Buddha Hall behind my guide among all the black robed sitters, I grabbed my white windbreaker, rolled it as small as I could and stuffed it under my left arm. There it stayed through the ceremony presided over by Central Abbot Myogen Steve Stücky. Each time I prostrated myself among the others, I flopped sideways, gripping its whiteness to my side. Twice I felt my feet touch the head of the woman behind me as I wriggled awkwardly to standing, the jacket clutched beneath my arm. Even when it was my turn to ask the Central Abbot a heartfelt question about my meditation practice, I stood before him with the crumpled white windbreaker under my arm to ask him, “Where is wrong?”

 Every misstep, timing error, or misunderstanding has not been recounted here. And in spite of these and other miscalculations, I felt great gladness. I had maintained my equanimity, sat still on my chair facing the white wall each meditation period and understood most of an esoteric dharma talk. Moreover, I felt genuine kindness toward my blundering. All in all, it was a very good day; not only was I a frontrunner for the Beginningest Mind trophy, but also a contender for the “Mighty Kindness to the Self” award.

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