Practice Period in Mexico

by Norman Fischer | May 04, 2005 at 7:37 PM

May 4, 2005 Mar de Jade, Chacala, Nayarit, Mexico (from Zen Abbot's Journal 49)

First day of sesshin following nine days of "community practice" during which we had a relaxed schedule with daily work, classes, and lots of interaction at meals and during breaks. Lots more Mexicans here for sesshin, many newcomers to the practice, and both zendos are full. Maybe fifty or so people by now. My series of talks on Dogen's "Bendowa" is now over and I'll begin tonight talking about more basic down to earth stuff: suffering and the end of suffering, path. For the first time here during sesshin the morning talk will be given by others, not by me. Myphon Hunt, Sue Moon, Mick Sopko, and Arlene Leuck will each give a talk. 

In Sue's class on Christian mysticism last week — that Father Pablo attended, where he was daily humbly eloquent on the subject of Christian mysticism — Carlos told the story of how he had "hit bottom." Carlos is a Mexico City guy, retired engineer and AA member, a Zen student of long standing. This story took place years ago, when he had come to a place of no exit. Feeling trapped and stymied on all sides, he didn't know what to do. A friend suggested that he go to a church, pray, and see what happened. Or even if he couldn't pray just to sit there in the church. But Carlos was an atheist. He had been a Communist and student activist, had even gone so far as to participate in the famous torching of the Municipal Building in Pueblo during the riots of the 1960's. He'd spent his life arguing for God's nonexistence. So going to a church for help was not something he felt he could do. Still, he was at the end of the line, so he went to the nearest church. But it was closed. So he went to another- and another- and another. All closed. Finally he sat down on a bench outside one of the churches and wept. He asked within himself for help. And then all of a sudden he was overcome with a feeling of having been answered. His whole body opened up, like a door flung open, admitting light and air. The flowers in the garden around him seemed to spring to life, their colors were more vivid; the trees were greener, the sky bluer. "This happened sixteen years ago," he said, "and even now when I tell it — and I have told it many times — my arms are covered with goose bumps and my heart pounds as if it were happening now, all over again."

Hearing this story Laura told of her experience with her teacher, the great Chan Master Sheng Yen, some years ago. It was a time when she was wound up with her many political struggles against the local government on behalf of the people of Chacala and Mar de Jade. It was exhausting and frustrating. As she sat in Sheng Yen's retreat she kept reviewing over and over in her mind these events and her feelings about them and her anger mounted, anger against the world's injustice, which she'd spent her life fighting. When it was time to go to interview she strode into the room and said, "I don't want peace — I want justice!" "Difficult choice," Sheng Yen replied, and Laura was thunderstruck with this, because it had never occurred to her before that she had been, all this time, making a choice, and that she didn't necessarily have to make this choice. Like Carlos she went outside and saw the flowers as more beautiful than they had ever been. "I had not even seen a flower in years!" She was light in body and mind, felt absolutely liberated, free finally of all her thoughts and oppressive frustrated feelings. She's continued to work for justice, but now much less desperately, recognizing that it is a choice she makes, one that is not incompatible with finding peace through her practice.

Both these stories came in response to something in the Christian text about having no choice. Carlos was responding to the sense of freedom that arises when you come to the place of "no choice." Laura to the turning that can happen when you see that you have been making a choice when you didn't know you were,

Josephina, a bouncy Mexican lady in the retreat, so enthusiastic about the practice, and so soulful in her happiness and sorrow, looks a lot like Suzuki-roshi: almost the same face. 

Ocean crashing all the time, sometimes very loudly. The beach is mostly not crowded but was a little crowded over the weekend. I like to walk up and down it for exercise, watching all the Mexican people enjoying a day at the beach. Playing soccer or riding the waves. The palapas full of business, mariachis huddled around one particular table playing wonderful music. Guy with a big bass fiddle. Snare drums. I took some photographs: coco palms impossibly green against impossibly blue sky.

Barbara L. is here again. I remember from a couple retreats ago her here with her husband Ken, a very thin man, who had throat cancer. It was in December. You saw the disfigurement from the several operations, his face had been rebuilt many times, but still there was a joyful smile on it, he seemed happy and light about his fate. Now Barbara tells me he died in March, but that the whole experience wasn't a tragedy or a struggle, it was all right, full, happy. She has been high ever since, she said, and her friends, trying to console her, are shocked at her attitude, assume she is in denial. Now she's back in Mexico where she and Ken had been living for years, feels content and ready to be alone. They'd talked about everything in advance, where she'd live, how she'd reorganize the house, what she'd do, how it would be without him, so she feels settled, and that Ken's still part of her life. "Though I wish I could reach over and pinch him sometimes," she said with good humor in her Philadelphia accent. She said she and Ken went for a walk the day he died. He had lost his voice little by little with the cancer, till at the end he could barely speak, only with a raspy gurgle, like Marlon Brando in the Godfather, she said. But his last five words were spoken clear and loud, in his old voice. They were: "I'm fine. Here I go," I repeated these words at the memorial service we had for him and many people were in tears,

Tried the practice that I do in large retreats in Canada, when there is not enough time to see everyone individually in dokusan, of seeing new people in small groups. It works fine in Canada where people ask brief theoretical questions, that is, where there's a personal element to the question, as there always is, the personal element is submerged into a more general "Dharma" question. In this way people craft their questions to preserve their privacy and so that the question will be more or less relevant to the others in the group. In Mexico though there are no theoretical questions. People plunge right into the messy specificity of their situations, often having to do with family issues, and I become embarrassed on behalf of the speakers as well as the listeners, who are forced to sit there and hear long stories about other people's lives (twice as long, with translation). But it turns out this is my problem not theirs. The long stories seem not to bother the listeners at all, they seem to enjoy them, and the speakers have no compunction about waxing on and on about their husbands, wives, daughters, sons, work, etc. in front of a crowd. Possibly this explains some television shows, where this sort of thing happens in public. In any case though I will probably not do this again here. One at a time is fine. For myself I don't mind the stories, am moved by people's human struggles, and respond with practical advice when possible and sympathy when not. Sometimes I feel like a Chasidic rebbe in Lithuania a century ago.


Norman Fischer