Reb’s Retreat

I promised to report back from my recent retreat so here goes.

The retreat was Reb Anderson’s annual week long Zen retreat at Gaia House in south Devon. I was there last year, and previously went on other retreats of his elsewhere. This year, unlike last, I arrived early to make sure of getting a gardening job. Isn’t that pathetic! I am used to retreats (e.g. at John’s in Wales) where no choice is given in anything, which is a relief from normal life, but if there’s going to be choice then I’m going to choose, and I was glad I did; getting outside and doing physical work for an hour a day makes the sitting much easier. In his talk the first evening Reb asked “Who is proud?” I slowly put up my hand, as did a few others. “No, he said “I want a more whole-hearted, or whole-bodied, response” So I jumped to my feet. Pride is not something I have thought about much or thought I had any problem with but somehow something clicked, and for the rest of the retreat I saw my own pride everywhere. The topic for the retreat was “Dharma Flower turning Dharma Flower”, a saying from Dogen’s commentary on the Lotus Sutra. In his daily lectures Reb shared with us his love of the Lotus Sutra. “You must love it” he insisted “You don’t need to like it, you may dislike it, but you can still love it”. When he added that the same is true for the Bible and the Koran there were a few sharp intakes of breath (mine as loud as any) but I think he would say the same about everything – indeed he did say that last year – you can love all beings while liking some and disliking others. After all, we are doing this practice for the sake of all beings – not just sentient beings, people and animals and so on, but all thoughts, images, objects – everything that we turn into a thing. So we heard stories and parables and were introduced to all sorts of difficult ideas about vehicles, flowers that are the whole universe and just sitting that is Buddhas meeting Buddhas face to face. Perhaps most memorable was the parable of the burning house from Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra. A man owns a huge, expensive but decaying mansion and inside are all his many children, playing with their precious toys. When the mansion catches fire there is only one tiny gate out. The man knows that he could lift all his many children and carry them but they would never all fit through the tiny gate together. So instead he lures them out with promises of even better toys – carriages pulled by deer, goats and oxen. Or in Reb’s version they are lured with fantastic computers that never crash. This burning house is our lives of delusion. We are all living in the burning house but too preoccupied with our email, jobs, troubles, toys, relationships and other things to notice that it is on fire.

I have been acutely aware of living in the burning house ever since …

More to come ….

2 Responses to “Reb’s Retreat”

  1. stellar75 Says:

    Hi Susan,

    I had a couple of questions regarding the idea of a non-Buddhist Zen practice; they’re sort of peripheral to the general thrust of the blog, but I haven’t come across too much in any of the interviews or articles of yours that I’ve read and in reading this post about the retreat, I thought this might be a good time to put them out there.

    I was curious about your opinions regarding other elements that are often attached to a day-to-day practice (i.e. some of the simpler stuff like bowing, chanting, altars, incense, etc etc). From what I gather your practice is centered around the core of sitting, walking, working and koans–and I was wondering if you personally see any value in, or include in your own practice, any other elements. The only reference I found was in a particular entry which referenced “stupid chanting,” so perhaps I have some vague idea of this already, but given your long-term experience I’m interested to know if you think there are any other things that are usually associated with Buddhist liturgy that might have a place in a secularized practice, *or* if they’re just examples of meme-infected holdovers from a more petitionary aspect of the training. Just curious.

    I’m not sure if asking about someone’s practice is like asking who they’ve voted for or how much they make in a year, but no harm in asking I guess. 🙂

    I really enjoyed “Consciousness”–I’m waiting for TZQ to arrive in the mail and so I’m looking forward to jumping into the conversation whole hog soon. It’s a great idea.


  2. tenzenbookblog Says:

    Oh – such a big and difficult question. I won’t tell you who I vote for or how much I earn (not much like most authors!) but I can tell you that this is a recurring theme among the many people I know who, like me, want to devote themselves to a serious practice but have real problems with liturgy, deities, vows, and so on.
    Bowing is no problem. I bow to the whole universe in respect and gratitude. I do so every morning before and after meditation and sometimes at other times too Other things are more tricky. I’m so busy with a book deadline that I haven’t got on with the rest of what I wanted to post about the retreat – it includes at least a partial answer to your question. I’ll try to post it tomorrow.

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