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Beyond the Body: A Retreat with Roshi Hogen Bays

06 Mar 2019 5:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The practices offered during the retreat and the confidence and authenticity of the Roshi sparked in me a sense of life flowing as both form and formlessness."

                             ~ Charlie Stewart, FCM Tampa Sangha Member


“Mindfulness of the body in the body” is the First Establishment of Mindfulness offered by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta.

Mindfulness of the body is an entry level practice for beginning practitioners and a foundation practice for experienced practitioners for opening and sustaining each session of formal practice. In this retreat, the Roshi demonstrated to the participants, through very skillful guided meditations, how mindfulness of the body in the body can be a portal for mindful living, understanding Dharma teachings, and cultivating wisdom. 


The Roshi began by guiding us to awareness of our two hands as objects of meditation with the key instruction being to feel our two hands simultaneously from the “inside” while setting aside ideas about the construction of our two hands that have been formulated by observation from the “outside.” 


Taking us step by step into experiencing our hands, he led us into noticing the difference between the experience of our two hands and the anatomical view of our two hands. The “inside” experience is one of formlessness, while the anatomical view that has grown out of looking at our hands from the outside is that our two hands are made of concrete elements, such as fingers, hair, and bones.


Completing an exercise and listening to participants’ experiences of each meditation step, the Roshi would decide what to explore next. Taking us deeper into the experience of the body, based on the same foundation of deep awareness of our two hands, he led participants in practicing acceptance and gratitude for our bodies. He encouraged the participants to develop and hold the attitude toward the body as that of “our beloved.” He pointed out that because the body holds the imprints and summation of all our past experiences, embracing the body in this way heals all wounds from the past.


Always starting with the simultaneous awareness of the two hands, the Roshi continued to take us through the hands, the face, the eyes, and the world around us to experience the formlessness of each phenomenon. This he said is the formlessness (emptiness) that is the subject of the chant in the Heart Sutra. Form is emptiness (formlessness) and emptiness (formlessness) is form. Neither one is negated or eliminated by meditation, but meditation reveals and allows us to experience the formlessness and change our relationship of attachment and grasping with regard to the form.


Some participants shared experiences of feelings or views of the world that were reminiscent of experiences they had earlier in life, especially as children or young adults. The Roshi pointed out that since we are uncovering the clear reality of what we are and have been all along, such experiences from the past can be kinesthetic anchor points for what we are uncovering in the present and gives us confidence to look deeper.


The Roshi cautioned that the profound openings and insights that came from our experiences in this retreat would fade and be forgotten unless we intentionally cultivated and applied our insights in life off the cushion. He shared that in square dancing with his wife they had learned more than 200 different movements that could be performed in different combinations. These movements, which are the basis for a smooth and enjoyable performance, must be taken to dance floor and practiced continuously to retain them and to be proficient. So the participants of this workshop must continue to practice touching the formless to know it clearly and to reflect on how its presence changes our understanding and approach to the formed, i.e., the conditions of our body and the views, stories, and attitudes of our mind.


As I reflect on the personal impact of this retreat, I can feel something was stirred in my consciousness, the formulation of insight, but at this time it is not complete. As I write this, I see that insights come from the formless and their arising is known by a feeling. Conceptualization comes later. From past experience, I know that if I cling to the conceptualization of an insight, I stop the unfolding and get stuck. Holding an insight loosely and examining it by looking into the feeling, allows the insight to deepen and evolve.


The practices offered during the retreat and the confidence and authenticity of the Roshi sparked in me a sense of life flowing as both form and formlessness. Also the boundaries and barriers we experience in ourselves and in the world are constructed (imagined) and can be deconstructed.


For me, the Roshi’s teachings, guided meditations, and practices brought the ideas of Dharma into actual experience, such as the form and emptiness of the Heart Sutra. I can also sense more of an experiential understanding of the practices and the Dharma I studied with Fred in the recent wisdom intensive. (It must be noted that participants of all levels of meditation experience were getting insights about their lives and practice.)


The retreat confirmed for me the closeness and straightforward presence of truth that all of us can readily experience when we open and dissolve the boundaries of what we think is true. Compassion and connection are also experienced through the opening of these boundaries. 


As the Roshi foretold, these exercises brought memories of past experiences when I was especially concentrated and open and could sense a deep connection with my surroundings and the people present. At these moments, I felt in perfect harmony with all that was happening, knew exactly what action was appropriate, and felt free to act. These moments were no accident, but at the same time they were not created by thinking about them or planning for them.


Finally, I will take away a renewed intention for continuous practice. Only continuous practice of these meditations, reflection on the insights, and action based on the insights will bring true healing and transformation. It all starts with “mindfulness of the body in the body.”


I bow with respect and gratitude to Roshi Hogen Bays.


EDITOR’S NOTE:  Roshi Hogen Bays offered a retreat on March 1 and 2, 2019, for “open minded practitioners who are interested in exploring their identification with the body” and “stepping into the Great Mystery.” A group of 70 practitioners ranging in experience from beginners to those with many years of experience undertook the journey. The Roshi was a Dharma brother of our teacher Fred as they began their Dharma study together under Roshi Philip Kapleau at the Rochester Zen Center in 1968. Both left the Rochester Zen Center in 1975 to continue with Dharma study and practice on separate paths. In recent years Fred re-established contact with the Roshi and invited him to visit FCM and offer teachings. Roshi Hogen Bays is the co-abbot with his wife, Roshi Chozen Bays, of Great Vow Zen monastery near Portland, Oregon, and has been a leader in the Zen Community of Oregon since 1985.

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