It’s All Zazen
May 22, 2019 by kojin-heath
This article was written by Daniel Bushin Gallagher and published in our Community Journal, a quarterly publication which is distributed to members of Yokoji.
At first, when the rain began to fall, it didn’t look like much. It started on Wednesday afternoon, February 13th and continued throughout the following day, by which time the rain was falling at a rate of one inch per hour. When it finally stopped, nearly half the annual rainfall of San Francisco had fallen on Yokoji in just 36 hours. Even more rain fell at higher elevations. The National Weather Service would later call the storm “historic.” Residents of Mountain Center, Idyllwild, and Pine Cove were ordered off the roads and told to shelter in place as entire sections of Highway 74 to Hemet and Highway 243 to Banning were destroyed and washed away. At Yokoji we had little choice but to remain at the Center as our own road was so severely damaged that not even the tractor could pass.
Water flowing down the mountain tore through the center of Yokoji, removing two feet of the river bed from where it passes in front of the Buddha Hall, all the way to the Practice House. From there, the powerful flow of water ripped open the earth creating a chasm some sixteen feet deep, thirty feet wide, and hundreds of feet long. Where propane and electric lines had once been buried in the ground, they now flapped dangerously in the wind both in front of the Bath House as well as down between the Practice House and the office. Residents were moved from isolated cabins around the perimeter to more central locations, and Jokai shut off the propane until a full inspection of the lines could be done in the morning. We began filling large pots with fresh water in the likely event that our water source would be compromised. As anticipated, this soon proved to be the reality.
In his essay entitled Fukanzazengi, Master Dogen says, “Zazen has nothing whatsoever to do with sitting or lying down.” In the days and weeks that followed the rains, this phrase would return to me again and again as I worked side by side with everyone to keep Yokoji running. There was plenty of opportunity to practice zazen as large backhoes and excavators began to arrive on the property. Soon, the weight of the machinery broke a water line. Then another. And another. Together, we began to repair the broken water pipes, digging out the soil, cutting out the damaged sections, and replacing them with new ones. A bitter cold front moved in, and we had to resort to heating the earth around the pipes with torches so that the pipe cement would cure. We were out there seven days a week responding to one crisis after another. This was our everyday activity, and this was our zazen: holding a Sawzall, cutting pipes, shoveling dirt, and maneuvering a blow torch. I realized that this was our zazen, and no one was sitting or lying down.
Another rain storm arrived and then snow. Then a lot more snow fell: 18 inches. Then two pipes burst in the laundry shed from the freezing temperatures. This cut off all hot water to Yushin and Jokai’s home for days. This meant more zazen with Roshi as I worked with him to repair the burst water piping using blow torches to solder the copper pipes together, hoping we wouldn’t set the shed on fire.
Then more cold weather arrived, and more pipes burst, this time near the main water tanks. It was Sunday morning. Roshi, Jokai, Kojin, and I trudged through knee-deep snow up to the tanks to do the repairs. Within a few hours we had the break repaired, and water was now flowing to all the buildings again. Roshi seemed relieved. He smiled and said, “Now let’s go sit.” We all walked down to the Buddha Hall, got changed out of our wet clothing, put on our robes, and took our places. Kojin later remarked that when he went to the altar with Roshi to give the incense to him, he noticed that Roshi’s hands were still coated with the blue cement used to glue the PVC pipe together. From fixing frozen pipes to offering incense, this and everything else we had been doing was our zazen. Whether we were sitting on our cushions, shoveling dirt, filling sandbags, cutting pipes with an electric saw, spreading a sheet of plastic down into the chasm, mining rocks, or cooking meals, this was our zazen, and all of it we did together, side by side.
This has been, and it continues to be, a precious opportunity to experience first-hand how a sangha comes together in a time of crisis. In the midst of adversity we have also been given the opportunity to deepen our own zazen both on and off the cushion, responding and taking care of what’s needed at any given moment. What is it like when we have no propane for cooking? How is it when we have to boil our water before we drink it? How is it when transporting our groceries and supplies involves piling them into the bucket of the tractor at the bottom of the dirt road and driving them back up to the Center? It’s all zazen.
Fortunately, through all of this we have not been alone. Support has poured in through cards, messages, donations, care packages, and eventually, some sangha members were able to make it across the flooded ford, to help out, offering some much needed relief and support on the grounds. And now, many weeks after the devastating rains of February, I can truly appreciate what Master Dogen wrote about zazen not having anything to do with sitting or lying down. It’s all zazen.
— Daniel Bushin Gallagher