NOTE: This July, Shugen Arnold Sensei made his annual trip to New Zealand to lead retreats and public programs with our substantial sangha there. He first visited NZ almost 30 years ago with Daido Loori Roshi and he and other teachers in the Order have been visiting ever since. In this blog post, sangha member Navina Clemerson shares her reflections on the sesshin that took place . To read an account of the public talk given by Shugen Sensei in Nelson, click here to read another post by Myokei Adams and Gensei Moore.
In July this year, we were more than forty: all of us with our bedding, the food and the flowers, zafus and zabutons, altars, han, bells, serving bowls, jugs and condiment trays for oryoki – everyone and everything transported by sangha members from Nelson, 90 km away, to Lake Rotoiti, where we take over an education centre belonging to the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Located on an isolated hilltop overlooking the lake, it is surrounded by native trees, bushes and birds. Next year will be our thirtieth sesshin at this lodge; the Nelson sangha manages the entire affair for the rest of us with an ease born of long practice.
A sign by the access road warns that a silent retreat is in progress and for the most part keeps people away. From the women’s dorms on the first floor you can look up at the nearby hills which crouch like great slumbering beasts, their higher reaches sprinkled with snow. Though winter was particularly wet this year, the sun shone from a clear blue sky during much of the sesshin week, and we walked kinhin outside in the bush almost every afternoon, down the meandering path in the direction of the lake or along the hillcrest.
The main altar is placed against large windows at the far end of the zendo. After morning service or oryoki, one can sometimes see beyond the green tree-tops a soft mist slowly rising from the lake. A shimmer of water appears. We sit with the calls of the bell-birds, the occasional sound of rain on the roof, Sensei’s bell calling to dokusan, the drumming of feet running up the stairs. I feel cosseted and cared for, luxuriously free to devote myself to sitting.
One evening towards the end of this sesshin, after the last bell of the day had rung, two or three of us were sitting silently and separately over cups of tea in the dining room. To one side, a monitor was teaching the basics of oryoki to someone who had arrived that afternoon. They sat side by side, close to each other, the instructor explaining his actions in a quiet voice. His manner was light-hearted as well as reverent, as he laid out the cloth, the bowls and the utensils, mimed the serving, the signaling, the bowing, the eating, the washing, the stowing away, the lotus flower; I watched the newcomer’s bright eyes follow every movement while the sequence was enacted for him a second time and a third, an effortless harmony in the giving and receiving.
Before going to bed, I stepped outside into the crisp night air to see the marvel of the Milky Way stretched across the Southern sky like a miracle. Coming to sesshin with Shugen Sensei is the highlight of my year, however difficult an experience it may sometimes be. It is an adventure, like trekking in the wilderness, the effort and occasional hardship sometimes rewarded with wonder: who knows what understanding may occur this time?
Sitting here, encountering the dharma: a great joy and a privilege.
Navina Clemerson, MRO, lives in Wellington, New Zealand.
Photos by Tom Kusho Phillpotts, MRO.