When I asked Hoag Holmgren, Zen Buddhist teacher and author of the new Zen primer No Better Place, what it means to truly “come home”, he sent me a copy of his new book.
I found in it’s pages pithy meditations that required slow and deliberate reading, and often re-reading, to catch the essence of the words. True to the Zen style, Hoag offers no quick answers, only space for inquiry and self-discovery.
In that context, I found this excerpt to speak very directly to our theme of “coming home”. I hope you will enjoy reading, slowly and deliberately, and perhaps re-reading this passage, letting your mind chew on the words until they sink into deeper layers of interpretation, presenting new and unexpected meanings.
“In order to come home we have to leave home. The Buddha took this literally and left his sleeping wife and infant son in order to practice. Fortunately, we don’t have to abandon our families, a fact that the Buddha himself acknowledged later in life. What’s required is much more challenging. We need to abandon the cathedral of ideology. This cathedral is where we tend to live. It’s our cherished stories, both collective and private, about who we are and what the world is. This act of abandonment is the age-old mythic journey or spiritual quest. And it’s not about rejecting, improving, or getting rid of mental activity. It is, rather, about not being imprisoned by mental activity.It begins with a personal resolve to see beyond our glittering rivulets of thought to “re-attain the lost union with the eternal” as Richard Tarnas put it. Such a leap can’t be achieved by daily affirmations or by vowing to smile more frequently. A great effort is required. In the tradition of Zen, this great effort can be undertaken and renewed in retreats called sesshin. A sesshin provides a taste of literal homeleaving in that we do, for a brief period of time, leave behind families, careers, and daily concerns in order to devote ourselves unceasingly to practice.In a typical sesshin the practitioner engages in periods of zazen from pre-dawn darkness into the darkness of early evening, with brief periods of time for meals, dokusan (individual meetings with the teacher), chores, and rest. There is no talking (other than dokusan) and no usage of personal electronic devices. All rounds of sitting are mandatory for all participants (except in cases of personal crisis) so there’s no deliberation about whether or not to sit. There is no need to know what time it is because bells wake you up each morning and bells indicate the beginning and end of all the periods of work, rest, and zazen throughout the day. There is no need to know what day it is because each day’s schedule is the same. There is no need to know anything, remember anything, be anything, or do anything other than engage the practice and follow the bell-punctuated unfolding of the hours. Yastuani Roshi believed that one strong seven-day sesshin can be equivalent to practicing on one’s own for two to five years.”