January 17th, 2021
“The Heart Kyol Che is an opportunity for students who cannot sit the traditional Kyol Che, or who can sit only part of it, to participate by doing extra practice at home and doing together practice as they are able. This will run concurrently with the traditional Kyol Che. By doing this Heart Kyol Che together, we will strengthen our own practice, and provide support to our fellow students who are able to sit the traditional Kyol Che. We in turn can draw inspiration and energy from their commitment.”
from Peter Neuwald, abbot of the Great Lake Zen Center, Kwan Um School of Zen
Kyol Che is a winter meditation retreat that is practiced in South Korea.. The participants are often Buddhist monks and nuns, although nowadays Kyol Che is mostly practiced by lay people. The phrase “Kyol Che” roughly means “tight practice”, which implies a enhanced type of meditation routine. Since monastic communities tend to be geared around prayer and meditation anyway, this retreat is just an intensification of their normal regimen. However, the retreat is more difficult for lay persons, seeing as the demands on their lives are different from those of monks or nuns.
That I know for sure. I just woke up fifteen minutes ago to help feed our grandson, Asher. I’m sure that some Buddhist monks and nuns get up at 2:30 AM, but I doubt that they are awakened to the sound of a crying infant.
On Saturday morning, the Great Lake Zen Center hosted a mini-retreat on Zoom. I attended for a while. The retreat went for three hours or so. There was chanting, sitting meditation, and walking meditation on the schedule. The session attracted all the usual suspects. Meditation is often considered “together action”, and there is a real, although mostly spiritual, sense of unity when we all sit in the same room silently. However, due to the pandemic, we aren’t sitting together, and that feeling of unity suffers.
The half-day retreat also offered kong-an (koan) interviews with Zen Master Dae Kwang. A kong-an is a question that does not necessarily have a rational answer. An example of this would be: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The purpose of the kong-an is to force a Zen practitioner to break through discursive thought to find an intuitive answer. Or perhaps the kong-an is a way for the student to become more aware of his or her attachments. The interviews with ZMDK are ways for the Zen student to find out if they are on the right track with solving the riddle of the kong-an.
I sat through the morning bell chant during the session. That is how Zen practice starts. Most of the time, the chanting helps me to relax and focus my mind. That didn’t happen on Saturday. The other members of our household were busy caring for Asher, and a six-week-old baby produces certain amount of unavoidable noise and chaos. I found it impossible to meditate with the maelstrom of activity swirling within a few feet of where I was sitting. I gave up practicing after the bell chant, and joined the fray.
I also saw no point in participating in the kong-an interview with Zen Master Dae Kwang. I know that years ago he gave me a kong-an to ponder. I have completely forgotten it. If I had joined him for an interview, he might have given me a new kong-an, and I am certain that I would forget that one too. I really like talking with ZMDK, but I’m not going to solve a classic kong-an. It’s just not going to happen, so why should I waste his time?
Yesterday morning, the young woman who we love brought Asher to me in the kitchen. She needed to take a shower and clean up their bedroom, so the girl asked me to watch over the lad. I did so.
I held Asher to my right shoulder. He snuffled and burbled softly as he slept. Asher rested his tiny cheek on my shoulder, occasionally spitting up on my sweater. His right hand tugged reflexively on a long, white strand of my beard. I walked with him.
I thought of another Buddhist friend, Senji. He’s a Japanese monk, and he follows a different tradition. In his order, they chant and drum. They almost exclusively use the phrase “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”. This phrase is a from the Lotus Sutra, a famous Buddhist text. The founder of Senji’s order managed to distill thousands of verses from the Lotus Sutra into seven syllables. I have to admire that.
I asked Senji once, “So, really, what does ‘Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’ mean?”
Senji gave me a broad smile and said, “It means: ‘You are love. You are beauty. You are Buddha’.”
I doubt that is a direct translation, but I’ll go with it.
As I walked slowly with Asher, I whispered into his ear,
“Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo. Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo…”
Over and over again.
I have meditate when and where I can. I won’t be sitting on a cushion. However, I can walk or sit with Asher. I can meditate on him, and follow his breathing. I can feed him or change him. Asher is my Heart Kyol Che.