Recently, I attended my first Zen Wilderness Retreat. It was another Dynamic Dharma Doc and Bandido, Harley camping trip. Dharma Doc was into the nature and Zen. Bandido was, as usual, into the Harley ride and adventure. (I will be writing a post on this Dynamic Duo shortly.)
Held on the beautiful Tuckasegee River, near the town of Tuckasegee, NC. Jamie Ayers, an ordained Zen lay priest from the Windhorse Zen Center, organized, led, and hosted it. She did a fantastic job! Even put up with Bandido’s grumblings. The retreat was on her husband’s, Doug, old family farm. While a rustic cabin with bunk beds and a bathroom was available, I rode up on my Harley and camped out. The weekend held moments of great stillness and beauty for me, as well as moments of high adrenalin anxiety, and one very special message from a hummingbird. As usual, my stories and adventures have their ups and downs.
I headed out, or rather tried to head out, around 10:00 on Friday morning, only to find out my trailer lights were not working. Gees, they had been fine a few days earlier. Here it was, the hottest day we’d had all summer, and I was having to set out in the sun, trouble shooting what was wrong. A few days earlier, I had accidentally dragged the trailer’s light hookup line from the bike on the asphalt some distance before I had noticed it. Apparently, I had forgotten to reel the line back into my bike’s saddle bag after my last use of the trailer. When I had discovered it and reeled it back into the saddlebag, I had inspected it. The plug end was missing a little of its insulating rubber, but looked okay.
As I sat in the hot sunshine, profusely sweating now, I took a closer look. Hmmm. The insulation was more worn than I had thought; the metal plug part was also damaged and bent. I pulled out my trusty multipurpose tool and rebent it, and plugged it back in. Nope, that didn’t help. I drove up to the local auto parts store and bought a replacement. Sitting on the hot asphalt pavement in the parking lot now, again in the sunshine and heat, and sweating, I replaced the bent end. temporarily twisting and taping the wire ends together. Not profession, but functional, as I was now running late. Plugging them back in, still no lights! Damn! What the hell?
I’ll just drive it without trailer lights. I’ll troubleshoot it more when I get there. By this time, I was running an hour behind schedule. As long as I was in the state of SC, I was legal without the lights. However, I was going up into North Carolina. Shit! The trailer blocks the vehicles behind me from seeing my bike’s rear lights—stop lights, running lights, turn signals, etc. Which was not safe. I tried to text Jamie to tell her I was running late, but I remembered that she had said that there was no cell signal up there. Sighing, I hopped on my bike and headed out. It was an hour-and-half ride, according to the Apple Maps app.
Sure enough, the Maps app was pretty much on the money as far as time. It took me nearly exactly an hour and a half. Once i started heading up into the NC mountains, there was no cell signal, meaning, no GPS, meaning no Maps app. Luckily, on Jamie’s advice, I had downloaded and printed a copy of the directions. I managed to find the unmarked turnoff to the farm and turned onto it. Now the real fun, and terror, began: a rutted gravel road crossing a small stream.
Harleys, as in Harley-Davidson motorcycles, are road bikes, not dirt bikes. They are designed to be ridden on hard surfaces, such as asphalt and concrete, not dirt or gravel, and certainly not across streams, even small streams. Nonetheless, there was no place I could turn around. Harleys don’t have reverse gears. It was straight ahead. No other options. Another big sigh as I gave it a little throttle and slowly made my way down the gravel, one-lane, narrow road toward the small stream. Jamie and I had talked about the road, stream, and pasture where we would be camping. The gravel road to the stream wasn’t bad.
Now I sat, Harley idling, looking down at the small stream ahead of me. It looked doable–only 2-3 inches deep and covered with river rock. It was not like I could turn the big, heavy Harley around. There was no place to pull over and park it. So, here I went. Gave it a small smidgen of throttle and headed down—and across the stream! No time to stop and relax, though. Not even time for a sigh of relief. I had to have enough momentum to start up the other bank. Carefully giving it a little more gas, I pulled up the other side. The last thing you want to do in a situation like this is spin your back tire because you gave the bike too much gas. You spin it, down you go. It’s hard enough getting a 700 lbs machine unrighted on a level surface, much less on an incline and gravel. Harley’s have a LOT of power and a sensitive throttle. It takes a bit of skill to give it the right amount of throttle in tricky situations like this.
Hallelujah, I got up the bank still standing upright! Only to find a deeper, rutted gravel road on the other side. Carefully, I picked my way the rest of the way up the incline. Inclines are easier to negotiate than decline. I noted to myself, coming back down the incline was going to be scarier, but at least I knew I could get the Harley and trailer across the small stream. Up ahean, I could see the farmhouse ver to my right, but overshot the turnoff. Damn!
Now, I had to walk the trailer and Harley backwards about ten feet. With no reverse gear on Harley motorcycles and backing a trailer to boot, backing it is dicey and requires being very careful. Luckily, as it was downhill, so was able to push it backwards. Up ahead at the farmhouse, I could see Jamie waving.
Pulling the Harley forward the rest of the way through the turn, I headed toward her and the old farmhouse. The pasture was flat and mowed. No problem driving on it. I drove the bike up to where Jamie and Steve sat at a picnic table, leaving plenty of room for turning around to go to a camping spot. I breathed a big sigh of relief as I killed the engine. Flipped down the kickstand and got off, I could feel my heart rate and adrenaline coming down as I walked over to them.
I was doing some cast iron, Dutch oven, campfire cooking the next night: cherry cobbler. To keep from having to lug the heavy Dutch oven and supplies back out to the cabin, I unloaded them. Plus, I had some stuff I wanted to put in the refrigerator there at the cabin. I had made two quiches for breakfasts: a cheese and a spinach-mushroom. It was a vegetarian weekend, so no meat, but with real cheese and eggs—and real butter for the cobbler.
After joining Jamie and Steve for some lunch, I got back on the Harley, turned it around, and rode it over to a campsite. I put up my tent and set up my campsite.’Festivities’ started at 3:00pm with chanting and zazen (sitting meditation) and would go until 9:00pm. Also at 3:00, we moved into what is called Noble Silence: a time of not talking; or, since we were on a wilderness retreat as opposed to a more formal Zendo (meditation hall), minimal talking.
Our “Zendo” for the retreat was on the back porch of the cabin, facing the Tuckasegee River. However, we could sit anywhere we wanted to meditate. We just needed to be able to hear the meditation bell. We were out there in Nature: the bugs, bees, and critters. The forest was resonating with bird calls, and the nearby
Tuckasegee River sang to us. It was great!
I was an old man out there with a bunch of ‘youngsters,’ 20- and 30-year-olds. That really became evident at our first kinhin (walking meditation) that is done in between sitting meditations. In the Rinzai Zen tradition, kinhin is done at a fast walking pace. FYI, in the Soto Zen tradition, it is a slow walk.
Dharma Doc has a tendency to tough it out and would keep walking. discomfort and all. He’s more of the ‘Tom Sawyer, or the duo. Bandido, though, says, “Bullshit!” He more your ‘Huckleberry Finn’ of the two. He would go back and sit in his chair, maybe after doing a little walking and some stretches.
This was another difference between me and the youngsters. I was doing my sittings in a chair. The youngsters were all sitting on Zen sitting cushions or benches. I quit using my cushions years ago as my back and knees wouldn’t tolerate it. This getting old has a number of disadvantages.
With my hip arthritis, I don’t walk nearly as fast as they do. I can, but it aggravates the arthritis. This really hit me in the face the following day when I attempted to go on a ~2.5 mi hike with them to a waterfall. (I’ll come back to this.) When 9:00pm came. the end of our formal settings for day and the Noble Silence, the youngsters stayed up to do some more sittings (zazen) around the fire and talk. I went to my camp, crawled into my sleeping bag, and went to sleep. It had been a long, tiring day for this old man. In my tiredness, and the cool night temperatures, I slept really well. I went to sleep listening to the night critter sounds (tree frogs and cicadas(?) mainly). Later, I awakened to thundering and lightning somewhere in the distance. It was a good night.
The next day, we started our day at 6:15am, my usual getting up time. Thank goodness, Jamie had coffee ready, and it was not some dilute weak shit either. Had a little ‘hair’ on it. Sittings started at 6:45. We did a 30 min round of zazen, 5 or so minutes of kinhin, then a second round of zazen, finishing at 7;45 for breakfast. Breakfasts consisted of my two quiches, cereal, and multigrain bread that you could toast—and real butter, if you desired. Then back to rounds of zazen/kinhin until around 11:00am, when we were scheduled for a hike to the nearby waterfall, about 2.5 miles uphill, where we would another zazen sitting and then go for a swim if so desired in the 55 degree water.
i got about a quarter of the way and knew I was in trouble. My arthritis was kicking in and I was not surely as sure-footed as I used to be. I thought, should have brought my walking stick for the hike. Well, next time. Plus, I was having trouble keeping up with the youngsters. They were pulling far ahead of me. Back home, I do a lot of walking, but mainly bicycling. The bicycling doesn’t bother my arthritis and a lot of time walking a mile or so doesn’t bother my arthritis. Not today though.
Jamie was bringing up the rear to make sure no one got left behind and in case there was an emergency. She had hiked the trail many times. When she came along, I told her I was heading back to camp. I came back, did a round of zazen on my own, then went out and checked the wiring on the Harley and trailer to see if I could find what was keeping the lights from working. I had to remove the Harley’s seat to check many of them. Nope, all the connections seemed good and the fuse didn’t look like it had burned. Puzzled, I put the seat back on and resigned myself to driving back home without trailer lights. Once I got home, I could get out my volt/ohm meter and check the voltages and currents in the circuits.
As it turned out, the fuse was blown. I had to put it under a magnifying glass to spot the burn-through point; tiny, but there it was. I had picked the break up because my volt/ohm meter showed no current was getting across the fuse. I pulled the wires to the trailer, and sure enough, one of the wires was missing insulation along a two-inch strip. Apparently, it had happened when I dragged the line on the asphalt. I made a note to myself to always check the trailer lights before a trip in time to fix them.
I also experimented with shooting some videos. Here is the one with me at my campsite while they were gone on their hike. https://youtu.be/jvcESfXwTZA
The youngsters got back from their hike/swim about 2:30. At 3:00-5:00 we did rounds of zazen/kinhin. At five, I started the coals for cooking the cherry cobbler I was cooking. I had pre-cooked the filling before coming, and mixed the dry ingredients, then brought a cup of milk to mix into them. I cheated and melted the butter on the kitchen stove in the Dutch oven liner pan I was using, poured the batter, now mixed with milk over the melted butter, and spooned in the cherry filling on top. Then, set the pan into the heated Dutch oven that had been placed on the hot coals, put the lid on, and placed coals on top of the lid. Forty minutes later, we had delicious cherry cobbler. Jamie had picked up a gallon of vanilla ice cream to go with it. I am happy to say I only had a small piece of quiche left over from the weekend and no cherry cobbler. Rounds of sittings started again at 7:00-9:00. I was bag at my camp in my tent and in my sleeping bag again, not too long after 9:00. I’m an early riser—and early sleeper.
Sunday morning came with sittings, breakfast, and more sittings until 11:00am. Bandido is good for a day of these things. After that, he starts acting up. Gets a little pissy, short-tempered, and is not to let others know it. His favorite word is, “Fuck!” Dharma Doc, on the other hand. can do several days of retreats without much ado. Not sesshins though.
Sesshins are intense, formal Zen meditation retreats. Classically, lasting seven days. What we were doing this weekend was a “sesshin-lite.” Much less formal. We had to improvise quite a bit over the weekend to accommodate Mother Nature and our environment. I can no longer take the longer hours of sittings, the rigorous rules, and regulations. (Bandido really doesn’t do rules well—and then not for long!) With my hearing, it is a continues and very draining strain to hear the announcements and bells. My back, even in a chair, starts hurting after a few hours, I don’t care for the vegan diet. Vegetarian, I can take, at least for a few days. Vegan, about two days. The problem is, the road to Zen enlightenment is via sesshins. My attitude is, if it happens, it happens. At my age, I am not going to bust my ass trying to get there. Besides, my first two enlightenment experiences were on the back of a Harley (see WindWalker), something I enjoy doing. After years of Zen sittings, sesshins, retreats, etc. I’ve only had one enlightenment experience.
Our last rounds of sittings came for the retreat. Bandido was really getting antzy. Dharma Doc was having trouble getting him to sit still. Bandido was chewing on the chants and Four Vows, part of the routine riturals Zen uses. He was having major disagreements with the Four Noble Truths even at this point. Instead of sitting mindfully and in stillness, which is Dharma Docs forte, Bandido was chewing, grumbling, just waning the fucking thing to be over. Besides, he was worried about getting the Harley down that gravel road, across the stream, and back to the highway. That is when the weekend’s retreat’s peak experience happened, and it was in the form of a little humming bird. She must of heard Bandido grumbling…
In the last few minutes of the last sitting, she showed up, came over from the bush she had been feeding on, and hovered not 18 inches from Bandido’s face. Just hovered there, looking at him, staring him down. He had seen her the day before and watched her feeding on the small yellow flowers on the bush, and had been wondering if she was going to come around today. After several seconds, she flitted off; only to come back again a few seconds later, hover again, as if asking, “Did you get the message, amigo?” Then she flit off. The bell rang, marking the end of the sitting and retreat. Bandido just sat there, stunned. Dharma Doc chuckled.
Hummingbird medicine is about opening your heart, reminding us to be awake to the flowers and nectar, the sweetness and beauty, in our lives in each moment. Able to agily dart hither and yon, she also reminds us to hover and be still. “Humph!” went Bandio. He knew what her message was, but he was ready to ride.