Born as the Earth: Spring Ango Intensive 2016

· Earth Initiative, Retreats, Sangha News, Zen Training

post by Chris Tyler, MRO

From April 7th through the 10th, more than 60 sangha members gathered to sit, study, practice, and support each other in exploring the theme of this spring ango intensive, Being Born as the Earth. True to Shugen Sensei’s words from the opening sesshin, “the Earth is our chief disciple.”

Throughout the three-day weekend, participants looked at the earth and our relationship to it through many lenses. Gathering in the performance hall of the Sangha House, Shugen Sensei screened several short films made by the Pachamama Alliance and other groups that touch on the same themes we are examining in the MRO this spring: What is the state of the Earth at this point? What is our relationship to it as human beings, given that we are now the primary agents of change on the planet in many ways? And, where do we want to go from here?

After the film in each session, Shugen Sensei engaged the group with reflections and questions, often referring to Dogen’s fascicle Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors to deepen the dialogue and exploration. The lively discussions among participants brought up many facets of the climate crisis and our role in it—social justice, environmental justice, hope and fear, racism, empowerment, and others.

In addition to the large gatherings, we broke out into smaller groups to talk about our felt responses to the climate crisis. How do we feel about it? What, if anything, keeps us from working on the problems we perceive as urgent? What are the gifts that are uniquely ours to bring to the struggle? The smaller groups were a chance to share in a more intimate setting and allow everyone the opportunity to contribute their voice.

In accord with this ango’s theme, the intensive also took participants out beyond the walls of the main building and Sangha house, where we touched in with the great Earth itself in our art practice. Shugen Sensei and Hojin Osho enjoined us to really get off the path so as to meet the world in all of its unexpected beauty. Shugen reminded us that “Everything changes when you step off the path,” and so we fanned out over the foot of Tremper Mountain. People were climbing trees, clambering up the streambed to Basho Pond, and sitting deep in the forest’s cycle of life and death.

On two separate art assignments, we contemplated the things that we take for granted about the Earth, and then the qualities in us that we can offer to the world. After these contemplations, we created our art pieces and brought them back for display in the main house.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s retreat sessions in the Sangha House, Shugen Sensei played a recording of the Third Movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132. Beethoven wrote this piece after recovering from a serious illness which he’d feared would be fatal, and titled the Movement “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity.” It was yet another opportunity to make contact with the wonder of what we’d been studying over the course of the retreat.

To cap off the weekend, retreatants were joined by local sangha members for Sunday service and then the traditional ango hike up Tremper Mountain. The weather was quite fine, and touches of snow and plenty of water on the mountain made for a beautiful trip up and back. We did a small service at the top, dedicated to these mountains and rivers that sustain us, and came down for delectable snacks back at the monastery.

Judging from the words of many participants, this intensive was quite a moving experience for those who attended. Looking at the state of the earth and the climate crisis takes courage, and allowing ourselves to really feel a deep connection to our planet in this time of such challenge and loss takes even more. To gather as a group and witness both the Earth and ourselves is a beautiful thing, and the intensive offered a supportive container to do just that.

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