Years ago when Chris and I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I often did retreats at the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, Rhode Island. The Cambridge Zen Center is the heart of Cambridge’s Central Square, so going to Cumberland (a “thickly settled” suburb by New Hampshire standards) was like taking a country getaway.
The monastery itself is a Korean-style temple built on a hill behind the Providence Zen Center. Behind the monastery, a small woods sits tucked amidst neighboring houses: new ranches and colonials built alongside a handful of older farmhouses. Down the street is a horse farm, across the street a veterinarian maintains a small-animal practice, and not five minutes away is the usual assortment of garishly commercial drug-stores, fast food restaurants, and strip malls.
When I first started going on retreat in Cumberland, I would spend my breaks reading. Retreats in my Zen school are highly structured: everyone participates in a monastic schedule of bowing, chanting, sitting, walking, and working. After each meal, however, there is a short break when you are free to do what you’d like. Although there are prohibitions against “pleasure” reading or journaling, activities which presumably encourage excessive thinking, we were otherwise free to use our breaks as we wished: napping, doing yoga, sketching, walking.
Although reading wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t explicitly prohibited. Sprinkled through the monastery was a collection of our Zen Master’s books, “permitted” reading. One day early into my practice I picked up one of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s books and read the following interchange:
- Long ago a Zen Master said, ‘When you hear a wooden chicken crow, you will understand your mind.’ What does this mean?
The student said, “A stone girl dances to the music of a flute with no holes.”
I remember stopping when I read these lines. What could they mean? At the time I was a serious-minded Christian who had little patience for Zen silliness. If this book and Zen Master insisted on not making sense, I wasn’t going to waste any more time engaging in foolish wordplay. I’d walk instead.
The woods behind the monastery became my refuge. Sore and achy from too many hours spent cross-legged, I’d walk the woods with long, smooth strides. Several foot-beaten trails wended their way among isolated rocks, glacial erratics; the monastery itself is built on stone, its pilings driven directly into granite. Each night I’d retire to my basement bedroom with its window overlooking a small pond, trees, and those very pilings rooted in rock, my dreams nested in the earth’s stony breast.
I remember on one particular retreat I sat next to one of our Zen Masters; our row of cushions faced a long picture window overlooking that same pond. We weren’t supposed to look out the window during meditation; we were supposed to keep our eyes trained loosely on the floor directly in front of our meditation mat. It didn’t matter, though, for I didn’t need to look out the window: I’d already memorized the view I’d seen so many times before on other retreats or during walking mediation when we’d pace the wood deck outside.
No, I didn’t need to look out that window as I sat because I could intensely feel what was transpiring around me. Silence hones the senses, so after hours of sitting still you become aware of nuances you typically ignore. Have been taught in my early days of Zen practice to “sit like an unmoving mountain,” I was acutely aware of my body’s internal rumblings or the occasional soughing and settling of the bodies sitting near me. The Zen Master I sat next to is a mountain of a man, very strong and solid, but I learned that even he sometimes sways with sleepiness or subtly corrects his sagging posture, almost but not entirely silent.
It was on this retreat that I heard it. It was in the late afternoon; we had just returned from a stint of walking meditation outside in those woods where so often I’d find solitary refuge. We had one more sitting session before breaking for dinner; the day was sloping downward into its accustomed afternoon ritual.
That was when I heard it. The room was quiet; people on either side of me were meditating with inaudible breaths. It sounded like a slow, distant train coming nearer, a muted hum with a low, bellowing resonance that inundated like a deep ringing bell. It sounded like a lowing ox or a rumbling storm; it sounded like a tornado or an approaching truck. Whatever the sound, it came not from outside, not from the picture window with its view of pond and surrounding woods, not from the moss-covered rocks that stood on either side of the monatery.
No, that low rumbling came from deep below the monastery; I could hear, feel, and visualize it vibrating from the center of the earth as it got closer, closer, closer, resonating right into my cushion, ass, then right up my meditating spine as the words appeared without emotion in my mind:
“The stone girl is dancing!”
The sound resonated for five seconds, perhaps. To this day I’m not sure if I felt that earthquake as much as I heard it approaching quite clearly from the center of the earth. There was no damage; many people in the monastery and at the bustling Zen Center down the hill neither heard nor felt it. Newspapers reported a slight but measurable tremor in the greater Providence area sometime after 3:30 pm that day; I just happened to be awake and watching at that precise moment. Mother Earth, my favorite stone girl, sometimes tires of her long sitting. Like any monk or Master, she too settles, soughs, and sighs in her seat.