Retreat with Maezen

I went on a retreat at the Rime Buddhist Center over the weekend. I am still feeling incredibly inspired by it. It was my first ‘sesshin’, Soto Zen retreat. It was the best retreat I’ve ever been on. The retreat was led by a visiting teacher named Karen Maezen Miller. She lives in California but comes to visit the Rime Center every few years. There were thirty of us attending.

She started with a talk about the meaning of Zen and ‘the beginner’s mind’. We had a completely silent lunch, which was an odd experience, and then we engaged in mindful activity, walking around the building wiping up dust with rags. 

Then she held private one-on-one interviews for two hours. During this time, we alternated between twenty minutes of ‘zazen’, sitting meditation, followed by ten minutes of ‘kinhin,’ walking meditation. 

Only eight of us got the chance to go meet with her one-on-one. I was the last person to go. 

I knew the customary ritual. I entered the room where she was sitting. I bowed and said, “My name is Daniel. My practice is counting the breath.”

The way she looked at me, the way she looked at everyone, she seemed to radiate compassion and wisdom. I’ve never really seen that before, but it’s how Bodhisattvas are described. It reminded me of how Ram Dass described the Guru he met in India. 

I asked her some questions about the differences between Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen. She told me that although she is known as a Soto Zen Priest, she practices both and her teacher practiced both as well. Rinzai is known for relying heavily on Koan practice and Soto is known for relying heavily on meditation. She pointed out that Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen wrote many Koans. There is plenty of overlap between the two schools of Zen. So, while I’ve been studying with a Rinzai group, I shouldn’t be worried about wishing it was Soto instead. (Or, for that matter, worried about the fact that the other group I study with is Vajrayana).

She said that now that we’ve met and had this retreat together, all of her lineage, going back to the Buddha, has now touched me. I certainly felt touched. 

But, at the same time, she said lineage doesn’t matter too much. Meditation and mindfulness are what’s important. And it doesn’t really matter whether I study under a Soto or Rinzai teacher. 

I think that as a result of this retreat, I will re-dedicate myself to becoming a Zen Monk. Although I have to admit, I wish I had black robes instead of gray ones.

I’ve studied with many Buddhist teachers from many different traditions. Maezen is by far the most inspiring. I don’t want to say anything negative about any of the other Buddhist teachers. I only want to say that she really inspired me. 

At the end we got to say some parting words to her in front of everyone.

I said, “I first read your book ‘Momma Zen’ because I wanted to learn about Buddhist parenting, because I’m a Buddhist parent myself. And I run the children’s program here at the Rime Center. I just wanted to tell you thank you for coming and you’ve been a big inspiration to me.”

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg lives in Kansas City with two kids and two cats. He runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. Daniel has a BA in English from KU and he works for the federal government. Once a Novice Monk in the Rinzai Tradition, he dropped out of monk school to become a regular person. He has taken his inspiration mainly from Zen renegades and madmen like Ikkyu and Han Shan. Daniel has taken Bodhisattva Vows in both the Nagarjuna and Asanga lineages. He is a frequent guest teacher on Daily Dharma Gathering.

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