Two days after the farm closes, on October 9, I leave for India.
* * *
On August 30, 2017, I was at my desk when I got an email from my Zen teacher, Shugen Roshi. He wrote,
“I hope you’re all doing well and have had a nice summer. We have a student in New Zealand, John Tosan McKinnon, who has been leading small groups on pilgrimages to significant Buddhist sites in India and Nepal for many years.”
I read on. Shugen and Tosan were planning a trip for October of 2018. Shugen was inviting members of the sangha, the community of practitioners, to participate. My heart leapt—India! Over the years, I have planned several trips to India and Nepal, but for one reason and another, none ever materialized. I looked at the dates—October 9 to 29, 2018. I looked at the calendar for 2018, the day after Columbus Day, the day we close the farm. I could do it. I looked over at Blase who was at his desk, also answering emails.
I said, “You won’t believe it, there is a trip to India through Zen Mountain Monastery.”
He heard my excitement.
“Would I also go?” he asked.
I could feel his awkwardness, though he has always been supportive of my Zen practice.
“No, it is only for sangha members.”
Then I asked directly, “Would you support me to go to India on this trip?”
“If it is really important to you,” he said.
Ever since I lived in Japan, I dreamt of walking one of the Buddhist pilgrimage trails. In Japan, the most famous one goes 750 miles around the island of Shikoku. Pilgrims stop at each of the eighty-eight temples to say prayers; to walk the whole circuit takes at least two months. Today, people use buses, bicycles, taxis, and often choose to visit a select number of temples or spread their visit over several years. While researching the Shikoku pilgrimage, I stumbled upon the book The Ox Herding Series, the Buddhist Stages on the Path to Enlightenment, a slender volume of ink drawings, poems, and commentary. The Ox Herding series originated in China in the 12th century, the creation of a Zen master to help his students understand the spiritual journey they were undertaking.
Using the metaphor of the ox, a most valuable possession in ancient China, the journey begins when a young man, whip and tether in hand, heads off into the mountains to find his lost ox. He can’t come home without it. It’s his family’s livelihood: the ox plows the fields, and its manure heats his home. After much searching, the young man sees ox tracks and knows he’s heading in the right direction. He continues on through the steep and winding mountain paths, and he is rewarded with the sight of it. But this moment of recognition is short-lived, for the ox quickly disappears. The young man doesn’t give up, and with single-minded perseverance he finally catches the ox with his rope. Then the struggle really begins. Pushing and pulling, he must tame the ox until they can walk together with ease. Only then are they on the way home.
I looked up the author of the ox-herding book and discovered he was John Daido Loori, Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. The monastery website featured a one-week retreat, Wilderness, Art, and Zen, a camping trip on Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks. Here was a retreat devoted to three things I loved. It certainly sounded simpler than the logistics necessary for even an abbreviated Shikoku pilgrimage. I called Zen Mountain Monastery.
“I’m calling to sign up for the Wilderness Retreat.”
“Have you been to the monastery before?” a female voice asked.
“No, I just found the retreat listed on your website.”
“Hmm, then you haven’t attended our Introduction to Zen Training workshop?”
“Sorry,” the efficient voice replied. “You have to first attend that weekend workshop before you can go on the Wilderness Retreat. The next one is filled, but you can sign up for the July weekend.”
“I can’t do the July weekend,” I said.
“Well,” she continued, “we offer the wilderness retreat every year.”
“Isn’t there some way I can go without doing the introductory retreat?”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Are you sure?”
Finally, the voice said, “There’s nothing I can do, but you can talk with a teacher. Call back in ten days and ask for Shugen.”
I hung up the phone and wrote Shugen a letter and included a booklet of my sculpture, A Circus Comes to Fruitlands. The sculptures represented circus acts, a Juggler, a Clown, a Tightrope Walker, all made from old agricultural tools. I wanted to do everything I could to convince him to let me go on this trip. Ten days passed and I called Zen Mountain Monastery.
“I’d like to go on the Wilderness Retreat,” I said.
“You can’t go on the Wilderness Retreat without attending the Introduction to Zen Training,” he replied.
“Isn’t there some way?”
“Are you sure?”
I said, “I trained in the Noh Theater in Japan for two years. I know a little about Zen.”
“Zen isn’t the issue.”
I was trying to figure out what was his red flag. I thought maybe he was afraid I would want to go home halfway through the trip.
“I love the wilderness,” I said. “I’ve climbed all of the four-thousand-footers in the White Mountains, I’ve summited Mt. Rainier, climbed in the Tetons, and backpacked through Peru.”
There was a pause. Then he quietly said, “All right.”
“Thank you!” I said.
He added, referring to my sculpture, “By the way, I like your stuff.”
I went on the retreat, eventually attended the Introduction to Zen Training, and have been practicing at Zen Mountain Monastery since 2004.
This pilgrimage to India will take us back to the roots, to where Buddhism originated. We will follow the Buddha’s life from birth, home-leaving, his wandering as an ascetic, to his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and visit places where he taught for the next forty years. As a young man, Siddhartha led an protected princely life. But once he encountered the reality of human suffering, once he saw the pain of people with severe illness, the infirmities of old age, and facing with fear their approaching death, his own life became meaningless. He no longer found any satisfaction living in the palace, even with all the wealth and power of his position, even with a lovely wife and young son.
I imagine it was difficult for Siddhartha to leave his family; I know how difficult it is for me to leave for only three weeks! But he was determined to understand why we are put here on this earth. What is the cause of so much suffering? And can we ever be free from it?
Every pilgrim makes a journey for their own reasons. Some to seek an answer to a question, others want to express their gratitude for the teachings or atone for wrongdoings, still others to honor a loved one. Shugen Roshi urged us to reflect on what this trip means to us personally as we prepare to connect with the Buddha, the teachings, as well as the ancestors. He has suggested readings and teachings to help us set our aspirations for the trip.
Preparing for this trip has made me reflect back almost forty years when I first went to Japan to study Noh Theater and lived in a temple in Kyoto. In my one-tatami mat room, I listened to the monks’ deep chanting each morning and evening. I think what propelled me to go on that first ‘wilderness’ trip and gain access to the Buddha’s teachings. As I look back over the last twenty years I recognize the steep trails, the vistas that opened, and the rocky descents of my journey. I can remember meeting my first husband in Japan, my move to Old Frog Pond Farm after our divorce, the decision to bring back the old apple orchard, a new relationship with Blase, a long year of breast cancer treatments, and our marriage three years ago when my son, Nick, spoke so sweetly about Blase’s care during that challenging time. Through all of this, there has always been Art—creating the solid trail I walk on, and my Zen teachers and sangha helping me keep mind and heart centered on what really matters.
I’m excited to be traveling with Shugen Roshi, Hojin Sensei, whom I met on that first wilderness trip, and thirteen other sangha members, eight from New Zealand. I’m grateful to Blase for taking care of the farm. Sharing this event in my life with you feels like another part of the preparation. Many of you have followed my questions about how Blase and I will continue to cultivate the farm in ways that serve and grow our community, encourage the arts, while also being good stewards of the land. I will undoubtedly carry these questions with me, but unconsciously—for I will purposely let them go. John Daido Loori Roshi, author of the Ox Herding book, said we must empty the backpack we carry. We must empty our minds of all of our conditioned ideas. Otherwise, there is no room for anything new. He was referring to coming into Zen training, but really it applies to beginning everything—a painting, a pilgrimage as well as each new day.
I am grateful for so many people in my life that have helped me to be right here where I am and look forward to sharing more with you when I return. We are all connected, all living on this one fragile planet earth. Walk softly.
Follow the truth of the way.
Reflect upon it.
Make it your own.
It will always sustain you.
from the Dhammapada tr. by Thomas Byrom