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, to get myself to the hospital pronto. She also divulged my job assignment for the sesshin: I was to be Ino. The Ino is ‘practice coordinator’, or ‘mother hen’. My job was to care for everyone else’s pain.
Hour after hour, I hung out with the howling Molar. I tried my best to observe it with kindness and curiosity. At lunch I chomped down on a bit of red pepper. My head, a brass gong, hit by a hammer. I recovered 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 … 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.
If there was an empty cushion in the zendo, it was my assignment to track down its missing occupant. If someone felt woozy and left the room I followed them out. 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 cared. I soothed. I noticed that my particular pain was temporary, where others’ was chronic. Vivid to me was the fact that this pain, that I was feeling, was pain—but it wasn’t mine. I was not it, and it did not belong to me.
On the third day the fever passed and my energy started to return.
I unzipped the mosquito door of Teacher Michael’s dokusan tent and stepped in. I prostrated to the buddha, took my seat on the cushion, and told Michael about Molar. His face creased in sympathetic pain. Then he cheerfully assured me, in typical Zen style, that this toothache is great practice for what is yet to come.
Molar and I bowed and stepped out of the tent. We 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, and melted back into the mountain.
<photo: view from the lookout at Sea to Sky Retreat Center>