I just spent the past two days mingling with friends old and new at the Kwan Um School of Zen’s biannual Dharma Teacher retreat at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, Rhode Island. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to sit a lot of retreats at both PZC and the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery which sits across a pond and up a hill from the Zen Center. Because of all those hours spent meditating, walking, and breathing there, the property I sometimes jokingly refer to as the “cult compound” feels like home to me. The earth there is steeped with memories, and the buildings hold a special cumulative power.
Although this weekend’s retreat was held at the Zen Center, many of us stayed Saturday night at the monastery. Before you think that staying in a Zen monastery is an excessively austere practice, let me set you straight. Although the monastery itself doesn’t have a phone or TV, the Zen Center down the hill has a TV room where I watched the first half of Saturday night’s heart-breaking Red Sox game while sitting sandwiched on a couch between two Sox-cheering Zen Masters. Whether lay or monastic, the Zen Masters in my school are delightfully “real”: they watch TV, go to movies, and shout “bullshit” at bad umpire calls. When I told Zen Master Dae Kwang that I’d recently bought a TV, he gave me an emphatic high-five. You know you need to get out more when even 60-year-old celibate Zen monks tell you you’ve been living too austerely.
After even Zen Master Bobbie Rhodes had given up on the Sox, I made my way uphill from the Zen Center to the monastery. I’d forgotten a flashlight, so I walked the gravel driveway in the dark, my feet following a dimly lit path strewn with beech leaves. This is a path I’ve walked countless times before: among my favorite memories of Diamond Hill Zen Monastery are all those early evenings on 3-week summer retreats when I’d walk back to the monastery after taking a postprandial sauna and hot shower at the Zen Center: a brief spot of bliss for meditation-weary legs. All those times when I’d climb the hill back to the monastery, I was utterly certain that Heaven consisted of three simple things: a full belly, heat-loosened muscles, and clean, still-damp hair. Saturday night was chilly and dark, and I walked back to the monastery slowly, carefully feeling the path underfoot with every step. If I’d ever claimed to be able to walk the route from Zen Center to monastery in my sleep, Saturday night I nearly proved that to be the case.
The first time I sat a retreat at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery, I slept fitfully: although the 4:30 am wakeup bell and rigorous day-long meditation schedule left me exhausted, I was nervous about a foreign practice form and unfamiliar physical setting. Having sat many retreats at the Monastery, though, I now sleep like a rock whenever I find myself there. Although 4:30 wakeup still comes too early, I usually find myself energized by the aura of practice that imbues the monastery. Just as sitting on a mat and cushion feels like returning, staying even for one night at the monastery feels like a kind of spiritual transfusion: here, I’ve found the power source, somewhere to plug into a site that is particularly charged with strong practice energy and good vibes.
Korean Zen monasteries are traditionally built on or near mountains: it is important to find a spot that is geomantically auspicious. Although I’m not well versed in the geographic features that make for good monastery-building, Diamond Hill has always seemed well-placed to me. Although both the Providence Zen Center and the monastery tucked behind it are surrounded by suburban housing developments, when you are in either the Zen Center or monastery, you feel like you’ve been removed from the ordinary workaday world. Yes, you can watch the Red Sox in the Zen Center TV room; yes, you can check your email from the communal computer also located there. Still, the sight of a Korean-style monastery on a suburban Rhode Island hill is surprisingly deceptive: it’s easy to think that incipient buddhas and bodhisattvas have been sitting here for thousands of years, not “only” since Zen Master Seung Sahn came from Korea to America in 1972.
In a word, this site in Rhode Island is more than merely the Kwan Um School of Zen’s administrative head temple: it’s the School’s power source. Whether because of the particular way Diamond Hill’s bedrock is aligned or because of all the people who have practiced there, PZC and its monastery pump out a seemingly endless supply of high-octane practice energy. How many souls have gazed loosely on these floorboards as they followed their breath in and out; how many ears have hearkened at the sound of this bell as morning and night it shatters even the deepest realm of hell? The Dharma Teachers who gathered this weekend are merely the latest in a long line of practitioners past and present who have come to this particular corner of Rhode Island to find their true self and save all beings. Each one of them has soaked up a spot of this site’s energy, and each one of them has left a drop of their own. From the moment you arrive and lasting days after, you feel the power surge of sincere intentions and great compassionate vows.