Last weekend, the Roshi was on the island, Shodo Harada, a Zen teacher who is Japanese, 73 years old and maybe 5’3″.

I lived and trained with him in Japan for roughly 5 years in between college and children.

Usually when he comes, he offers a weeklong retreat which I am too steeped in motherhood to attend.  He did that this time, too, but he also did something he doesn’t usually do: he stuck around for several days afterwards and any Joe Shmoe or Jane Shmane (like me) who has some history with him as a student could drop into the zendo (meditation hall), listen to him speak, sit zazen (meditation) and go to sanzen (one-on-one interview) with him.

So there I was.  I hadn’t gone to sit with him and do sanzen since I was pregnant with Rose, seven years ago.

I pull up for the evening sit, childless and husbandless, in Corey’s red ’94 Toyota pick-up truck.  It rumbles loudly up the gravel drive-way into the monastery.  I get out and quickly smooth and straighten my zazen clothes–samugi top, hakuma, rakasu–a foreign costume I feel remarkably at home in.  I walk down the long gravel path that runs from the parking area down to the zendo.

As I walk, my footsteps crunch over stones, my awareness pushes through my breath, settling onto this body hanging over my bones, feeling the sensation as each footfall meets the ground.  As I sink into being there, I have a sense of myself in bits and pieces, all that has happened to get me to this place, all that has happened since I was last here, coming to sit before a sanzen (seeing the Roshi and showing him your state of mind).  How quickly life happens, how unpredictably.

There is me: 20 years old, unexpectedly stumbling upon this monastery on the island.  Spending one day there, drinking tea, helping in the garden, eating the vegetarian lunch, sitting 15 minutes of zazen for the first time in this same zendo.

There is me: 21 years old, coming back to the monastery the next spring.  Staying for several days.  Doing the morning and evening sits.  Feeling a quaking urge to keep going with this practice, to watch body, breath, and energy, to return to my inner place of home more diligently, more fully, over and over again.  Wanting help from a teacher.

So there is me: 21, flying to Japan after college graduation to sit with the Roshi, experience sanzen for the first time, meeting Corey there, who I somewhat detest at first glance (it wasn’t until years later that I realized this was projection–the long telling of how he and I actually grew into a healthy and loving couple is another story altogether).

There is me there, in Japan, expecting to stay for three months, which then stretched into a year, which stretched into another and another and another.  To have that space to look within, to see all the layers of self-consciousness and habit muffling my own sense of inner light.  Seeing self-doubt and self-hatred where I didn’t think I had any.  The sitting practice showing me my rough edges, the ones I had been able to hide from myself until they bubbled to the surface on the zazen cushion.  To touch that core, inner light, again and again, learning how to stoke it and feel it blaze, burning the outer layers we add on to ourselves for protection.  It is a long, creative process.  And 5 years there gave me only a base, a beginning.

And now, there is me, today, 34.  Since leaving Japan I have gotten married, given birth to two children, miscarried one, moved across the country twice, and have seen friends and family change, grow older, some get sick, some die.  Me: with two children, a husband, a wonderfully blessed life.  Walking down this gravel path to the zendo.  Heart overflowing with gratitude, heart buckling under the wonder of it all, the passage of time, all that has changed, all that is unchanged.  Feeling the light burning in me, feeling the immense gratitude for being able to feel that light at all.  Grateful to the Roshi, acting as a guide.  Grateful for the unexpected opportunity to train in Japan and clarify my own self.  Grateful for my children and my husband who challenge me to keep that light burning brightly so that our life together can flow.

Here I am, going into the zendo, sitting one long period of zazen, they call it “golden hour”.  A few tears fall down my cheeks.  The heart-buckling gratitude for all that is nameable and unnameable, too.

The bells ring and I stand to go to sanzen.  There:  candlelight, the Roshi’s face flickering, my heart beating, my tears of gratitude still falling onto my rakasu, hakuma, samugi.  His words fall on me like many bright leaves, reading my mind as usual, as he does to everyone, urging me to see all the gifts the universe gives to make our lives possible.

He rings his bell and I bow out.  I crunch down the gravel path, to the red pick-up truck.  It growls loudly as the engine turns over.  Ducking out early isn’t the usual protocol, I should be returning to the zendo for another period of zazen and the ritual cup of tea and sutra chanting to finish off the night. But I must get home to my other Roshis, the two young ones, who are under 4 and 3 feet tall.   And to the taller one, my husband, my partner, who keeps me digging into the truest parts of myself and supports me to express myself from there all the time.

And when I get home to these three Roshis, there will be no bells or bowsThere will be hugs and kisses.  I’ll eat a bowl of cereal as a late dinner and snuggle under the covers with all of them.  We’ll be up later than I expect, talking, giggling, reading out loud.

The light that I went hunting for in a zendo at 20 years old, my two little ones playfully engage with it without trying.  The ability to be present, to speak and react from a spontaneous and true place, they have this mastered without effort.  And when I waver into a realm of frustration, anger, discontent, or a preoccupied, busy mind, they are quick to call me on it, to rattle me back to BEING WITH THEM.  Here.  Now.  This.  This.  This.  Every moment fresh and alive.  Every moment needing me to be real, to see and accept them exactly as they are.  Every feeling they express is uninhibited and complete.  My job is to be big enough to meet them and respond accordingly, lovingly, without the burden of my own emotional blocks and expectations, which is a lot easier said than done.  It is my practice now.  It is my life, the life I have been given.

My gratitude for this life, this gift, this very one, is huge and humbling.  I bow and kiss and hug.  I sit and laugh and I try my hardest to let it all flow through me, this light, burning up, blazing out, glowing brightly.

Photo on 2013-08-21 at 10.11

6 responses to “Gratitude”

  1. Teresa, Shojun, I love you. Your words rush like a river: true, clear, bubbling, deep, flowing to a wider open place. Loved going there w/you. Mom


    1. aw, thanks so much, mom! i love you too xoxoxo


  2. Wow,Teresa, this is an astonishingly good piece of writing. Spiritual autobiography at its best. I was really moved by the description of your encounter with Harada, especially after having just come out of the recent retreat with him myself. Your reflections on the journey that brought you to this place, and how profoundly that journey has been impacted by your experience of 5 years in a Zen monastery, was so deeply felt and beautifully expressed. Thank you!


    1. Thank you so much, Kurt. I am so glad to have friends of the path, like you, to share these reflections with. I am glad you enjoyed the piece, thank you so much for reading.


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