The Zen retreat was at a small Tibetan Buddhist center at the foot of Black Tusk, in the forest near Squamish. I got a ride up to the retreat with Kaye, an RN specializing in mental health care. She counselled me to take Ibuprofen at regular intervals, and if my face puffed up,Â to get myself to the hospital pronto. She also divulged my job assignment for the sesshin: I was to be Ino. The Ino’s job is practice coordinator, aka, mother hen. My job was to care for everyone else’s pain.
If someone felt woozy and left the room I followed them out. If there was an empty cushion in the zendo, it was my assignment to track down its missing occupant. I made sure the sick ones had food and the sore ones got chairs. I woke up the nappers so they wouldn’t miss tea. I chased down almond milk and calamine lotion and extra blankets. I fussed and soothed and cared. I noticed that while I had the comfort of knowing that my particular pain was temporary, others’ was chronic. Vivid to me was the fact that this pain, that I was feeling, was painâ€”but it wasn’t mine. I was not it, and it did not belong to me.
And so hour after hour, sit after sit, I hung out with the howling Molar, trying my darnedest to observe it with kindness and curiosity. One day at lunch I chomped down on a bit of red pepper and my head rang out, like a brass gong hit by a hammer. Everything disappeared but the pain. I recovered, just in time to clack the wooden sticks to signal the next round of oryoki. On with the show.
Teacher Kate dropped a dharma talk about mountains and waters. She said that mountains walk, and people sit; mountains are created within us; the elements trade places; earth water fire and air, volcanoes and glaciers and bugs and grass â€¦ we are the mountain and the mountain is us, nothing existing alone. Meanwhile, Molar screamed bloody murder. My body feverish, limbs heavy and throbbing. Fire inside, fluids thickening, minerals mixing, breathing in, breathing out. Everything rushing to aid poor little Molar and its suffering root. My body the mountain, knows how to heal. In five elements I place trust: in earth, in water, in fire, in Ibuprofen, and in air.
On the third day the fever passed and my energy started to return.
Called to dokusan, I unzipped the mosquito door of Teacher Michael’s interview tent and stepped in. I prostrated to the buddha, took my seat on the cushion, and told Michael about the angry molar. His face creased sympathetically. Then, he cheerfully reminded me with typical Zen assurance, that this toothache is merely great practice for what is yet to come.
Molar and I bowed and stepped out of the tent, and took our mug of milky tea down to the lake. A glossy brown bear strode out of the woods and rambled down the beach. It stopped, raised its head, sniffed toward us. Then it turned, shrugged, and melted back into the mountain.
<photo: view from the lookout at Sea to Sky Retreat Center>