April 2015

Butterfly Wings

“To be one with the myriad things is to realize no-barrier between self and other.”  – Zen Master Dogen

I was driving home on a very hot summer day from my first ever week-long sesshin intensive meditation retreat.  I had just graduated from college and was preparing to go to Japan for a year to teach English, and then go on to study Religion in a Master’s program in graduate school.  I wanted to attend sesshin as a way to prepare me for whatever challenges lay ahead.


The path I was driving wove in, out, up and down several large hills.  Houses along this road were far and few between, and the dark green foliage of the trees ruled the landscape.  The sky was clear blue with a few clouds here and there.  It was humid, though and I was happy to have my windows rolled up and the air conditioning running. 

At Mount Equity Zendo, where I had just come from, there was no air-conditioning.  Fans were used to cool things.  Dai-En Roshi encouraged us to sit in the heat saying that in the training she did in Japan there were no fans, let alone air-conditioning.  She relayed how she had to wear three layers of clothing as a priest, and sit sesshin in the heat.  Before mid-day she would need to change the under layers because they had soaked through.  If she did not have the opportunity to change then she could feel the salt from her own sweat gathering up on her clothes as she sat still in meditation.

Though I would spend considerable time outside coaching swim team that summer, and summers before, I always could go home at night and relax in an air-conditioned room.  I decided to embark upon a meditation retreat that would last 7 days in the middle of summer with no air-conditioning.  The first three days were miserable.  I was dripping with sweat while sitting on the cushion.  My knees ached and it felt like someone put a knife in the middle of my back and left it there.  It was all I could do to simply sit, simply be there.

About the third day into this retreat I really wanted to take a shower.  We were told not to take a shower until the end of the retreat.  We could use the bathroom and a small towel with water to take a “crow splash”, but nothing more.  On that day, Dai-En Roshi said she would be going on an errand and need to leave for a couple of hours.  I thought, “This is my chance!  While she’s gone I’ll take a quick shower!  No one will notice!”

I waited for the break at tea time.  While others were having tea I quietly walked up the steps to the second floor and into the bathroom above the zendo, removed my sweaty clothes, quickly turned on the water and washed off.  It felt so good!  I put on some dry clothes and mindfully walked back down the stairs.  Dai-En Roshi was standing and looking at me at the bottom.  She knew what I had done, but said nothing.  Though I had all my clothes on at that moment, I felt totally naked and vulnerable.  No words needed to be said.

The next sitting was to begin in a few minutes.  I entered the zendo and took my seat.  Dai-En Roshi gave a few encouraging words that concluded with, “…and you may take a shower during the 5 O’Clock break if you need.”  I didn’t know how to take this remark.   I felt more ashamed of myself.  Everyone knew I had broken the rules, but Dai-En Roshi, seeing my distress from the heat, offered words that meant to draw me back to the group so that I didn’t feel separated from others because of my shower.

The joy that had come from taking the shower quickly went.  Whatever shame I felt was washed away by a new layer of perspiration.  I actually felt somewhat relieved to be sweaty and smelly again.  By the fourth day of the sesshin, the very middle, my whole body was aching.  My back was crying to move.  My thighs felt like they were going through the growing pains that woke me in the middle of the night when I was eight years old.  The sweat was dripping down my face.

Then something very strange happened, something that I never experienced before, and never experienced again since that day.  Some part of me began to just relax into the experience and quit fighting all the pain.  Simultaneously it felt as though someone were standing directly above me pouring water down the front of my chest.  I wanted to look up to see who was doing it but dared not.  The water felt warm and delightful and was spreading throughout my chest and through the rest of my body.  It felt like I had finally let go of something that I didn’t realize I was holding on to.  All the pain I was feeling just melted.  After having this experience the sitting was much easier (not without discomfort) for the remainder of the sesshin.

Back in my car driving home from sesshin, going in and out of the rolling hills, I felt gratitude for having accomplished a week of intensive sitting.  I felt much lighter and clearer in my whole body and mind.  My senses were very open and receptive to the world around me.  I saw a large butterfly coming down from one of the hills.  It was flying right toward my car.  I felt a ping of anxiety.  What if I hit it?  I wanted to swerve out of the way to avoid it, but I was going too fast and would have caused an accident.  The butterfly was gently flapping its wings and totally unaware of its impending death.  Meeting with the windshield and directly in line with my body, the energy of the butterfly continued past the glass and into my heart.  I could feel the flapping of the butterfly’s wings inside of me, get faster, and then putter out leaving me with chills up and down my body.

What happened?  How did this happen?  I’d killed plenty of butterflies, insects, and bugs before on my windshield and never had I felt them come into my chest cavity and flap around.  My only explanation at that moment was that this is a product of sesshin, of all of the sitting I was doing that week.  Whatever happened to me during the fourth day of sitting, when I felt all the warm water in my chest, was continuing.  My chest did not simply open up internally, but also externally to the outer world.  There was no barrier between myself and that butterfly, though it met a windshield and my chest.  As Dogen wrote, “To be one with the myriad things is to realize no barrier between self and other.”

This was the fruit of all that painful sitting. 

Or was it? 

What about the prior four years of academic training in Religion that I had?  What if my brother never suggested I study the Bible?  What if my parents hadn’t raised me the way they did?  What if I had not been a competitive swimmer for 14 years?  What if my great grandmother had not been a devout Catholic praying rosaries unceasingly?  What about all of my ancestors back, back, back to the beginning?  And what about all the other humans, plants and animals that nurtured their lives and mine?  What about the Earth herself, the planets, the stars spinning around?  When I really think about it, the “special” event of that moment could not have happened without the assistance of myriads of beings all the way back to the Big Bang. 

The moment, now, is also like this.

While the experience of the butterfly wings was truly nothing special, it gave me inspiration to continue to extend my circle of compassion beyond myself, family, and friends.  If there is no barrier between a butterfly and me, even through a glass window, how much more so with people of other cultures, skin colors, and languages?  Who am I and who is reading this?  Where do you and I begin and end?


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