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Ben Connelly: Let Yourself Be Immersed (Steeped!) in Your Experience

23 Feb 2019 7:15 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Beth Schroeder, Naples Sangha member, writes of her experience of the recent retreat and Sunday dharma talk at FCM by Ben Connelly, visiting teacher and priest at the Minneapolis Zen Center. 

Ben Connelly, a  Soto Zen priest, loves the unlikely word “cool.”

It’s a youthful, fun, easy-going word -- just like Ben. He brought this attitude to us as a guest teacher from the Minneapolis Zen Center as he taught the Dharma using the “Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage” poem as a template. He is also the author of the book, Inside The Grass Hut, which deeply explores the poem’s meaning, line by line, showing his love for the poem with careful analysis and discoveries that he shared.

We followed Ben in exploring how this little 1,300-year-old poem written by a monk living in a grass hut on a rock -- an impermanent dwelling in which “no one of importance” lived calmly and happily teaching the dharma to others -- could be so important in the 21st Century. 

“Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage” dates back to around 700 and was written by Shitou, a monk who lived and taught dharma in a remote mountainous area of China.  While other Buddhist teachers at the time lived in more comfortable large monasteries, Shitou chose to live in conformance with what he taught.  At the time, people tended to be named after where they lived, so the name Shitou literally means “one who lives on the rock.” 

Cool also is a word used to describe jazz. Ben, also a jazz musician, used music to help us understand how to listen, connect and be with what is. Music has many subtleties and layers to its meaning. Music/sound/vibration speaks to me almost as much as visual art. So it was a delight that one of the first things we did during the retreat was chant the entire text of “Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage.” We chanted it again several times during the retreat, following Ben’s resonant tones.

Read, let it sink in and then reflect, he told us. First, read the poem/song, letting the words wash over us, not striving to understand them. Next, allow the blended sound of our voices to penetrate our bodies, then read it both softly to ourselves and then allow one phrase to bubble up in our awareness. Then, we were asked to examine that phrase. 

For me, words crystalized and feelings followed, allowing an easy connection to the ancient wisdom. It all became very fluid as he directed us to notice how it felt as the sound flowed through our body, mind and consciousness. “Remember to feel,” he reminded us. “Emotions are part of the experience.” He pointedly directed us to not leave anything out. “Let yourself be immersed in it,” he said. 

Do you recognize the Four Foundations of MIndfulness?  Here they are, as explained in an article in Lion’s Roar:  

More than 2,600 years ago, the Buddha exhorted his senior bhikkhus, monks with the responsibility of passing his teachings on to others, to train their students in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  

“What four?” he was asked.

“Come, friends,” the Buddha answered. “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings… in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind… in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas… in order to know dhammas as they really are.”

The brilliant way Sensai Ben led us into deep Dharma was inspiring. He said things like “Let go and loosen the thought,” helping me to cling less to the intellectual and engage my body, mind, feelings and consciousness more fully with the wisdom of the song. We came back to this theme many times during the retreat -- when chanting, when sitting, when eating, when doing anything -- let yourself be immersed in it, have a relationship with it, let yourself be steeped in the practice (like a tea bag steeping in a cup of water).

Today we live in a culture that leads us away from significant immersion. We are privileged, lucky and wise to have found a path that leads us to connection and liberation from the damage our culture can inflict. 

Ben reminded us the very first night of the retreat to take care of our Buddhist lineage. To take care is a sacred action. By hearing these very words, and allowing them to merge with our being, we come back to this sacred path and the great line of Bodhisattvas who stepped onto it eons ago. Our actions bring the practice and lineage into this world and the evolution of how we will evolve as a species, as a world and as beings. 

It is doubtful we will retreat as Shitou did -- more likely we will stay in the midst of it all. However we look at it, we are part of it. We are in it. When we practice for ourselves, we practice for others. We inter-are. We are part of Shitou now, we are part of the chant, we bring it to where we are with it in each step.

Awesome, yeah, and daunting. We have the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) as our vehicles. With the Sangha we can travel on a true path and support each other. 

Ben brought us his warm, light, wise Dharma touch traveling from chilly Minnesota. We may only need to walk to the mailbox and say good morning to the post person to continue this great gift of Dharma he brought to us. But when we walk with the lineage in our hearts, we take the dharma transmission with us. Who knows what effect it will have, but it certainly deepened my understanding of how to practice the Dharma in my little hut off 3rd Street North in Naples.

It’s all cool, right, Ben? Hope you visit again soon.


Beth is a professional artist and art teacher whose paintings on silk scrolls grace the FCM Meditation Center in Tampa. 

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