― Thich Nhat Hạnh
|Photo by Migdalia Vazquez|
Yesterday, during my morning's walking meditation through the neighborhood, I came upon a flock of monarch butterflies in a neighbor's garden. Assembled for their remarkable journey to Mexico (or Florida,) they stopped me in my tracks.
Walking meditation became "standing and marveling" meditation.
Joined by an assortment of other butterflies, moths, and bees, they danced in the brilliant sunshine through the myriad colors of the garden as the trees continued their own colorful transformation into an autumn blaze here in New England.
As September's song proceeds toward October, and the days dwindle down to a precious few ( I am 73 years old after all,) my thoughts have sometimes turned to those times in my life that the Grand Mystery of Life and Death emerged amidst the fall colors to evoke a deep sense of the profound poignancy of our shared human condition.
My first experience of that occurred in the fall of my senior year in high school. That day, for the first time, I knew. I saw the Reality of it. I felt it in my bones: None of us is going to get out of here alive! Someday, I will age if I'm fortunate. Then, just as certainly as the leaves surrounding me wlll fall to earth, I will die.
Yet, my heart was full. With the leaves alive in fall colors in the dazzling sun and crisp cool air of this September afternoon, I was awestruck by the surreal beauty of the day, of life itself. I was grateful to be alive.
Years later I first entered residency at Zen Mountain Monastery in the fall, aware of the Grand Mystery, knowing that intensifying my commitment to Practice was, once again, essential. As it turned out, the Fall Ango was beginning and the entire community began a period of intensifying Practice. (Like being in the Monastery on the strict monastic schedule wasn't intense enough. LOL)
Commitment and Intense Practice
In Buddhism, like many of the world's religions (Ramadan in Islam. The High Holy Days in Judaism. Lent in Christianity, etc.), there are extended periods of time each year that people move beyond "business as usual" to make a special commitment to their Spiritual Practice.
In Buddhism, the tradition of the Rain's Retreat (Vassa or Ango) goes back to the time of the Buddha. Traditionally beginning the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month (June/July), it lasted about three months, the period of time that the monsoon season in India made travel difficult. During that time the monks, who generally were homeless wanderers, would gather in one place to hear the Buddha's teachings and engage in intensive meditation practice.
To this day, this period of intensive practice is widespread in Theravadan Buddhism, and is observed in various forms in Tibetan Buddhism and in Zen as well. Here in the US, where hot summer weather is more problematic than monsoons, it often seems to have evolved into periods of intensive practice that occur in the Fall and/or the Spring.
At Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, the Rain's Retreat has become the 3 Month Course, a meditation intensive that begins in September each year. One year, I joined that retreat for the entire month of October.
At Insight Meditation Society, this commitment meant existing in silence for 30 days, and meditating in one form or the other from 5:30 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. each day. Except for listening to an evening dharma talk, sometimes receiving a few words of instruction during a period of work practice, and engaging in a brief interview with a teacher every few days, the entire world was wordless. Even engaging in reading was highly discouraged. An inveterate bookworm, this made me squirm, but I put my books away. It proved to be a powerful support for dissipating the momentum of habitual thought.
My mind got really quiet. Really...really....quiet.
Being speechless for weeks and weeks left me speechless. In the Silence, a deep sense of awe emerged. To a mind freed from the fetters of thought, it became self-evident that the wind whispering through the trees said all there was to say about the nature of Reality.
To Every Thing There is a Season
Although at this stage of the journey I don't sense a need to head for the hills for an extended period of time, I think the neighborhood trees, winter whispering in their ear, had something to say to me as I returned hOMe yesterday morning.
"'Tis the season. "
I feel the emergence of a commitment to intensify my current Practice again. A certain change is emerging -- and the energy is there.
I'm not sure exactly what this will look like yet. But, these days, "not knowing" is particularly sweet.
It makes me shut up -- and pay even closer attention to the Silence!