by Cameron Kito Broadhurst, MRO
Every year, our flock of New Zealand Zen practitioners leaves their home and local sangha practice to travel to Nelson for our national Zen workshops, social events and winter sesshin. At the same time, Shugen Sensei steps into the stomach of the iron bird and flies across the vast Pacific to the smaller but beautiful land of Aotearoa (Maori term for New Zealand), where his visit and the Zen training that surrounds it is much anticipated by us all.
Leaving summer in New York, Shugen Sensei’s visited this year during one of our colder winters. In Nelson, a town of around 50,000, we began on a Friday evening with a public talk on the nature of Buddhist practice, “Turning the Light Around.” This talk, and the workshop/zazenkai the next day on practicing the Three Treasures, were held in the old historic venue of Fairfield House and were well attended by sangha and interested newcomers
Our winter training period is also an opportunity for the regional sanghas to coalesce as one body and socialize together and with Shugen Sensei. One of these traditions is our Sangha Dinner prior to the sesshin. Zen practitioners and their families turned out at the house of Peter Isshu Lawless, another historic Nelson residence, for a meal featuring a fine array of Indian-themed cooking. Sesshin began the following day, on Sunday evening.
One of the remarkable aspects of Zen practice in New Zealand, particularly sesshin practice, is how much of our own labors go into creating a temporary Zen training. Over the years and decades, this has become a honed and highly organized practice based in the Nelson and Christchurch sanghas. The most essential aspects are the kitchen and food organization and the zendo setup.
During the year, Nelson’s collected zendo equipment is in use or in storage at the Southern Skies Zendo, on the property of Suido and Kaido Nash. For our winter training period, the entirety of this, together with considerable kitchen equipment and food supplies, must be tightly packed into large and specially modified vans and utes belonging to the sangha, and driven up to our winter training place, Rotoiti Lodge, in the Nelson Lakes area—a glorious mountainous region about an hour and a half southwest of Nelson.
Arriving at our familiar location, the business of sesshin miraculously unfolds—a unique mix of nervous calm and the urgent flurry of activity necessary to establish the zendo, altars and kitchen, as well as for everyone to set themselves up in the lodge dorms. All this happens in a wilderness park surrounded by a white-rimmed bowl of spectacular mountains, the St. Arnaud range—this year capped by stunning snowfall and changes in light, weather and clouds. Indeed, this practice of unfolding our temporary zendo and training matrix for the week is like unwrapping a collective bowl of oryoki—a rich tradition whereby we nourish ourselves on spiritual food as the week of sesshin unfolds.
Within these “bowls” of training are all the familiar forms of a Zen sesshin taking place under the mountains and in the lodge we have been coming to for 24 years. Inside, we work in the kitchen and clean the property; outside, we maintain gardens and outdoor activity areas within the lodge’s alpine forest. (The lodge itself is a public outdoor and natural studies site used by schools and other groups). Every year we return to this place and re-establish our bond with it as we receive and return what has become a kind of spiritual home for us—a Buddha Bowl within our country.
Sitting deep in winter zazen, chanting, going to dokusan, working, eating, sleeping and being held in world of nature—we come to know and revere the insides and outsides of our training together. This year, thirty-three of us attended all or part of sesshin. While our numbers were not large (several sangha members were unable to attend), we were held together by the depth and experience of our sangha in this training. We also saw two new students sit tangaryo and become formal students in the MRO: Jayashrii McFadgen and Colin Dowsett.
And, despite fears of the cold (this winter has seen some record lows in the country), we enjoyed reasonable temperatures. Taisui Markwell made diligent efforts maintaining the lodge fire/heating system throughout the week.
At the end of the meal, it is naturally time to pack up our bowls. After breaking the silence, we share lunch, express gratitude to Shugen Sensei and each other, and then organize. This year, we did remarkably well, with crews assigned to different areas working quickly to break it all down into the 72 crates and boxes it came from. Then, knowing how it has come to us, and with the whole week gone in a blur, our truly impermanent zendo and training ground is completely dismantled. We all separate and return back to our different and unique lives to make manifest our deep practice of wisdom and compassion the best that we can. Thus we bow to Buddha.