Enlightenishment: The monastery
With all the talk of whether or not it was morally reprehensible to collect unemployment, I decided against a spa retreat with a macrobiotic chef and chose instead to spend a little of my newfound free time sleeping on the floor of a Buddhist monastery. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was within my budget and I needed to get away—from my housemates and what used to be my life. I called to register for the first retreat available, something called sesshin.
“Have you been here before?” the man asked. “We usually recommend students come to an introductory weekend before immersing themselves in sesshin. But if you’d like, I can put you through for an interview.”
Sesshin must be some kind of hard-core meditation if there was an interview involved. I wanted him to get on with it and sign me up, but the interview requirement meant I could legitimately check the ‘had an interview’ box when I submitted my unemployment report on my job hunt, so I agreed.
Monastery man put me on hold and the phone went silent. I mean, really silent. There was no music. No humming. No background noise. Is this my interview? I wondered. I didn’t fidget, start a load of laundry, or make myself a sandwich. I stayed on the phone and was also silent, just in case. Monks make it sound like living in silence is the hard part, when it’s really getting everyone to shut up that’s hard. By the time someone picked up I was sure I’d already passed the test.
The monk who conducted the interview asked me questions about my practice and why I wanted to come. I only knew what I’d figured out from their website, but I told him all about how I had a morning practice, getting up an hour ahead of the rest of the house so I could have some quiet without people asking me why I was on the floor and if they could borrow a t-shirt.
“How do you manage when you don’t want to do it?” he asked.
“I’m not really a morning person, so I count on my brain to be a little slow on the uptake,” I said. “I get up, do what I do, and by the time I realize what’s going on I’m already sitting and it’s too late to decide not to do it.”
Being quiet while I was on hold must have worked because he signed off on me coming. I’m not sure he asked enough questions to get a real sense of how much I didn’t know. I was okay with not talking, but maybe I hadn’t been paying attention when he said we’d be sitting in meditation seven to ten hours a day, which I learned in the confirmation they sent. How do you sit for ten hours a day and not move? Fortunately, I didn’t have time to think about it. They invited me to join them the following Tuesday.
The drive was gorgeous. Tala, who delivered me personally so I wouldn’t change my mind, commented on the views ahead as civilization disappeared behind us. As we got farther out on Orchard Road, we saw fewer and fewer houses, until we were driving through what looked like a forested park. And then we rounded a corner and there were the gates of the monastery. Orchard Mountain Monastery isn’t on much of a mountain, but there is an orchard. I’d seen pictures of the monastery and had always been curious about it, but there was no reason for normal people to go there.
A gravel driveway wound past rows of apple trees. I imagined what the trees must have looked like a month or so earlier, covered in blossoms—the monks must have lost their minds. They probably spent days on end making tiny paintings of individual blossoms.
Granted, despite talking a good game, I had no idea if I could do it. As a beginner, I was arriving at the monastery during a retreat already in progress so I didn’t have to do the whole thing, but I’d still aimed high in terms of how much I could handle. Maybe the introductory long weekend would have been a better choice. That’s what you get when you’re in a panic to be Zen—an extra ten or twenty hours of sitting in lotus.
The driveway crested a hill, and there it was—a sprawling, three story brick building with tons of windows, designed as a Women’s College, inhabited by monks. It had a bell tower on one end and three floors of bay windows on the other, connected by a colonnade where you could imagine monks walking, heads bowed.
Part of me was really excited to spend time inside. I’d never been past the gate, and now I was stalled in the driveway—a huge accomplishment, really.
“You sure you don’t want to come?” I asked Tala.
“Absolutely, positively not,” she said, all but throwing my duffel bag out of the car.
At the front door I noticed little wrought iron details tucked into corners—tiny birds adorning the hinges, a cricket sculpted into a window latch—like hidden gifts.
Inside, I was greeted in hushed tones by a man in loose black pants and a plain grey t-shirt. He looked up my registration, told me where my room was, and when I didn’t stop staring at him, offered to show me where I was going.
The dorm room I was assigned had four sets of bunk beds, one of which was unoccupied. The real perk of going for the whole retreat is you can get there early enough to get your pick of beds. The guy who had escorted me was waiting patiently in the hall, so I figured I was supposed to settle in later. Dumping my stuff on the naked mattress, I followed him around on a tour of the building—the dining hall, the meditation hall, and a small, mostly empty room where newcomers were gathering.
In the room on the floor were two rows of black pillows: fat, round meditation cushions, on top of flat, square ones. At the far end of the room was an altar with a few flowering sprigs, a candle, and a statue of what must have been the Buddha when he was younger and more fit. We each picked a cushion and sat facing each other, waiting for whatever came next. Like the phone interview, I imagined we were all being observed to see how we handled the nothing. Anyone unable to stay still and quiet in this in-between space would be escorted out, while the rest of us would be unleashed on the meditating community. Apparently, we passed.
A monk came in and told us what to expect in the hall. We would each have an assigned spot to sit, and could follow along with the people on either side of us if we didn’t know what to do. He said to take bathroom breaks quickly during the walking meditation.
My mind was racing—as minds do—and the silence of the building made it extra loud in my head. Before I knew it, I walked to my assigned cushion on the floor of the dimly lit hall, flanked by quiet people. A few were in street clothes, but most were in long, plain robes—off-white, gray, or black. I wondered if you got to pick which color robe you got, or if it was given to you at a certain level of achievement, like a karate belt or Girl Scout sash. The people on either side of me wore black robes.
In our orientation the monk had told us to observe thoughts as they came into our heads, but not engage with them, like, “oh that’s a thought about the jerk that got me fired,” and let it go, instead of having a prolonged, after-the-fact imagined conversation with him. He also said to count our breath if we were having trouble keeping our minds still: One (inhale), two (exhale), three (inhale), and so forth. He said to go all the way to ten and start over. When I did this sitting on my cushion in the meditation hall I got to forty before realizing I had passed ten. I also realized the snoring sound was coming from me.
After meditating for an hour, which felt like an eternity, they let us have dinner. It was laid out on two long buffet tables, starting with a pot of soup, and ending with giant loaves of fresh bread, with salad, pasta, and vegetable sides packed in between. Everything was vegetarian and homemade, and I wanted it all.
I wasn’t alone. I singled out the people who had obviously been through this line before, and copied what they did, ending up with a bowl of soup nestled into a plate filled with a little of everything and topped with a slab of bread with butter and jam.
I took my plate and looked for a place to sit. There were several wooden tables with benches, all of which had probably been made by monks who didn’t end up answering the phone as their job. I scanned the dining room for the table filled with those of us who didn’t belong, but I couldn’t tell the difference from one table to another. Monks and visitors chose their seats by walking up to one and sitting down, not by taking careful inventory of who was where. No one seemed to care who they sat with, and no one at the table I chose seemed to mind that I picked their table. They didn’t even look up. I climbed over the bench and sat between two silent people, already well into their dinners. I realized then that I’d forgotten a fork, but getting out from between two strangers on a bench is an awkward procedure so I set to work eating my spinach salad with a soup spoon.
Since we were able to ask questions in the orientation and meditation tutorial before entering silence, supper was the first time I didn’t talk to anyone when I normally would have felt obligated to chat. The silence extended to all communication, including body language, facial expressions, and manic attempts to mouth words one wished to convey. If you tried to communicate to someone to please pass the salt, there was simply no one home to get the message. Everyone was in their own bubble of silence—even the new arrivals, all trying desperately to assimilate.
It felt strange and oddly liberating to do nothing but eat and listen to the clatter of dishes. Which didn’t mean I didn’t have to pay attention. With no one telling you what to do in a totally foreign environment, you have to pay attention or you don’t get any food. Which was delicious. So pay attention.
After supper I followed the others back into the meditation hall and we sat on our assigned cushions for an hour and a half before it was time for lights out.
There was no time between meditating, eating, and meditating again, so I had to make my bed and unpack my things in the dark. I groped around for the pile of neatly folded sheets I remembered having seen at the foot of the bed and wrangled them onto the mattress. I found my toothbrush and brushed my teeth, finding my way back to what fortunately turned out to be my own bunk. Since I hadn’t figured out where to put it, I snuggled in next to my duffle bag and settled down to sleep.
I thought there would be down time, when we could relax and drink twig tea but the monks were remarkably disciplined for people known for their ability to let it go. They let go of a lot—what other people think, personal ornamentation, the outward appearance of wealth—but they worked and lived within this structure that felt very unlike a spa. I thought if I lived there I’d probably call in sick a lot so I could sleep in or chill in the lounge while everyone else moved methodically through the day.
Waking up at 4:30 in the morning was an abomination. The bells and gongs, while lovely as ringtones, were very loud in person. I thought it would be hard to stay awake, but it took me the full hour to recover from the shock, and then it was time for the service. The service involved standing and sitting and bowing, including several prostrations, which are kind of a workout.
There’s no work practice during the silent retreat so they fill the time with things like substituting a normal breakfast for a ridiculously complicated ritual called Oryoki. Oryoki is the mealtime equivalent of synchronized swimming and involves napkin folds and presentation so intricate it would give an entire catering staff nightmares for a week. I don’t know why they had to make things so hard and fussy. Would I really be clearer, or closer to Nirvana because I knotted the napkin a certain way at the top of my bundle of stacked bowls? There was very little hope for those of us who had never done it before, so we were at the mercy of the more practiced people around us. The woman on my right was wonderful, slowing down so I could follow along, and starting over when I got mine wrong. The guy on my left was kind of self-absorbed and did all his ceremonial falderal like it was some kind of competition yoga flow. Or maybe he was trying to distance himself from me—at evening meditation the night before I’d woken up with my head on his knee. They really should turn some lights on.
When it came time for my first caretaking practice, I was super excited to get my assignment. I had learned to do one simple task with attention and purpose. At home it was washing dishes and folding laundry, with extra karma credit for folding household laundry without being asked even if it wasn’t my turn. At the monastery there would be candleholders to polish, mats to straighten, and flowers to arrange.
We were all assigned to groups, working in different areas. Some went to the kitchen, while others headed out to the garden or into the administrative office. The leader of each group assigned specific tasks to each person.
In the interview I’d said something about wanting to expand my practice and have the opportunity to sink into it without the limitations of daily life. Surely they’d take that into consideration.
I was put in the housekeeping group, which made my heart sink. I was here to get away from daily tasks, not have them follow me around on an institutional level. And then came my assignment: men’s dorm bathroom. I went to the monastery specifically to retreat from other people and the messes they were incapable of cleaning up, and they assigned me the task of cleaning up a mess I not only didn’t make, but had no contact with, ever. Was this some kind of joke? Why couldn’t I be assigned something useful, like peeling asparagus, or something romantic, like making candles?
They were lucky it was a silent retreat. They wouldn’t have attempted that nonsense on a normal retreat. I’d tell them I wanted my money back but it dawned on me that this was why the week-long sesshin was so cheap in the first place—forced labor.
I vowed not to do a good job cleaning the bathroom. What would they do, fire me? I took the cleaning supplies my group leader handed me, returned his bow, and stomped off to the men’s floor.
The monastery was set up with dorm rooms on the second and third floors, with a few private rooms tucked in here and there. The residential hallways formed a horseshoe, with a balcony that overlooked the meditation hall. You could probably sit in the hall outside your room if you couldn’t make it downstairs, or if you wanted to meditate with the others but weren’t totally feeling it. I liked that idea.
The bathrooms were in the center of the hall and, assuming it was like the women’s floor, served about forty people. That’s a lot of soap scum. I started with shower stalls because it seemed the least disgusting, but it was still gross. I mean, you’re cleaning the walls and floor of a tiny room where naked guys splattered soiled soap suds everywhere before toweling off and walking blissfully away while Rome and all its bacteria burned behind him. I really didn’t need that image of naked monks in my head, so I labeled the thought, ‘naked monks,’ like they taught me in orientation. I let it go without getting into any repellent details. For good measure, I looked at the tiles of the shower and thought, ‘cleaning tiles.’ I put a label on everything I did, to keep the other words out: wash walls, mop floor, scour toilets. And then I observed: shiny faucets, clean mirrors. By the time I was done, I’d cleaned a room that had nothing to do with anything, and I’d accidentally done a good job.
I washed the windows because I had time and windows don’t get cleaned that often. Down below, someone was sweeping pine needles off the path. I drooped a little. Did he realize he looked like a Zen postcard? Why was that not me? I labeled the thought, ‘pine needle envy,’ and returned my supplies to the closet.
Over the next few days, I got the hang of wrangling the three bowls and assorted cutlery at the formal meal, washed and dried a five-gallon bucket of lettuce from the garden during caretaking, and only fell down once after meditation when my legs lost consciousness. I came to realize that structuring the day gave monastery residents one less thing to think about, which was incredibly freeing. Everyone had a job. Everything got done. There was very little drama compared to what I was used to.
Each evening at meditation, students and visitors were invited to have a face-to-face with one of the teachers. We’d been prepared for this in orientation, but I wasn’t paying attention so I didn’t get in line when my row was invited. There was a rustle of robes as monks, students, and visitors on either side of me grabbed their cushions and scurried to the back of the hall. If they were so intent on getting there first, I was glad I’d given them my spot.
On Saturday evening while we were all sitting in meditation, the monk at the front of the room said, “Anyone who has not had face-to-face teaching is invited to go to the line.”
I stood up before realizing what I was doing, and then it was too late to sit down. I picked up my cushion and fell in step with the others, dashing to the back of the hall like a spawning salmon. I got in line with the others and sat on my cushion when they did, counting my breath, keeping an eye on the people ahead of me, and hoping for a clue. A bell rang and the first person in line disappeared around the corner, pillow in hand.
It was a long time before the bell rang again and I tried to calculate how long it would be before it was my turn, hoping we might run out of time. The next bell was shorter. The line dwindled until I was at the front. The bell rang. I stood up and took my cushion around the corner, to where I found a closed door. Should I go in? I couldn’t remember what they had told us. I knew there was a lot of bowing, but I didn’t remember door protocol. The door opened and the person who had been in line ahead of me appeared and bowed. I bowed back. He picked up his cushion, which I hadn’t noticed was sitting by the door, and walked away.
I put my cushion down where his had been and stepped into the doorway. The teacher was sitting behind a low table with a bell on it. I remembered that the bell was how the teacher let you know they were done with you. I bowed, walked up to the table, bowed again for good measure, and sat down. We bowed to each other, and I thought that might be why the table was there, so our heads didn’t collide.
“I’m not sure why I’m here,” I said. I saw her hand move almost toward the bell, and I quickly added, “but I’m glad I am.” I told her about how I was on this great path to becoming a better person by reinventing myself as a fake monk because I’d gotten fired from my real job and now everything was broken.
“Is it the situation that is causing you to suffer, or how you’re seeing it?” she said.
“Well I’m out of work and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” I said. “So yes, it’s the situation.”
“Are you suffering from being out of work or the worst-case scenarios your brain keeps springing on you?”
“Ooh, good one. It’s the scenarios.”
“What do you think you’re trying to tell yourself?”
“That I was on the wrong track.”
“What makes you think it was the wrong track?”
“Because life made it all fall apart when I was starting to get somewhere,” I said.
She smiled. I was still scared, but I liked her.
“Waves break things apart, but they also push things forward. You haven’t been broken apart. You’re sitting in front of me, intact.”
“Yes, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do when I leave here.”
“And that is a problem for you?”
“I think it’s a problem for a lot of people.”
“Because what we do is who we are and how we live.”
“What is it you’re afraid of?”
“That I don’t know who I am.”
“Sit with that fear, and you’ll find the path through it.” She let go of my hands, which I hadn’t realized she was holding, and rang the bell.
I bowed, stood, bowed again, and hoped I’d made the right number of bows because she deserved every one. I took my cushion, went back to the hall, and sat in my spot. The man next to me, on whose knee I hadn’t napped in days, reached into the sleeve of his robe and quietly produced a tissue, placing it on my mat.
Susan Blood has worked in the arts for most of her career. Her radio show—Opera Betty: opera for people who hate opera—has aired since 2010 on WOMR, and her collection of essays, How Not to Do Things was published by Surface Popper Publications in 2017. She is the grant writer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and is currently at work on a novel. Find her at trouttowers.com.