When my mom and I get into the car after a retreat at the Zen Center of Ottawa and begin the long drive back to Boston, there is an obligatory period of relative silence. It feels indecent to emerge from days of formal practice, in which we’ve sat feet away from each other for hours on end but said nothing, and suddenly start blathering. We might offer a few words of salutation, and then the logistics of navigating to the highway take over. But once we are on 417 the floodgates open.
With our senses sharpened by zazen, the talk usually turns to mindfulness, and the gift that is the opportunity to sit in a monastery setting, where room and board are provided and distractions eliminated. And so it was after our most recent retreat. As the city receded behind us and 417 opened up ahead, the sky appearing more luminous, somehow, than it had on the drive up, we waxed dharmic on the moments of recognition the retreat had offered. We went on like this for close to an hour before my mom wondered why the passing scenery looked so strange. Must be all that mindfulness, we figured, and the unusual sharpness of our sensations. Then, the highway became one lane where usually it is two, a trick even heightened visual acuity cannot accomplish. I looked for a sign to confirm that we were indeed on the right highway. Eventually we saw it: 417 West.
Right highway. Wrong direction. The whole time we’d been celebrating the power of paying attention, we’d been traveling in the exact opposite direction from our home, setting us back a couple of hours on what is already a seven-hour drive. We turned around at the first opportunity, a new silence descending, not of contemplation but of dismay. We realized how silly this would sound—two Buddhists leaving a monastery and reveling in retreat afterglow, all the while mindlessly driving in the wrong direction—and considered the bad PR we were inadvertently giving Zen. Then the absurdity of it all set in and we began to laugh, my cheeks lifting with a rubbery ease that often accompanies my first bout of laughter post-retreat. After a brief discussion we decided to keep this little diversion to ourselves. Until now.
My mom has been making the drive from Boston to Ottawa several times a year for over 30 years. She once calculated that she has logged enough miles to circle the globe. She discovered Zen practice when I was a kid. I used to take chess lessons in Harvard Square from a grandmaster who kept a Super Soaker on hand to squirt pigeons on the branches above and prevent them from defecating on the board. During my lessons she would browse the Spirituality section of a local bookstore, and there she encountered a text by Venerable Anzan Hoshin roshi, the abbot at the Zen Center of Ottawa. Moved by his words, she connected with him by mail, and, encouraged by his response, began to practice at home, eventually heading north for her first retreat. The rest, as they say, is history. Sure, there are closer Zen centers to Boston, but when it comes to awakening, distance is less of a concern than clarity.
As a kid I couldn’t understand why my mom had to leave for days on end to stare at a wall. But she came home with chocolate purchased at the Duty-Free shop, and her absences began to seem about as natural as my dad’s business trips. Adults, I grasped, had the occasional need to be elsewhere, for reasons that were, at best, boring. But as I began to face the angst and uncertainty that can arise during one’s teenage years, I too sought answers. In our culturally Jewish but rational-minded household, zazen seemed as plausible an approach as any. And, as an athlete and skeptic, I appreciated that Zen required me to do something (despite that something being, in effect, nothing), and that any answers would have to be unearthed through my own efforts. I began to practice, seeking in the silence a method for navigating the confounding world beyond the cushion. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, however, that I joined her on the narrow road to the deep north.
As a 19-year-old with a couple days of austerity ahead of me, I did the only sensible thing I could think of at the time, and tried to pack an entire weekend’s worth of drinking into a Thursday night. It was sangria night, featuring $10 jugs of the one and only Carlo Rossi, and when my mom picked me up the next day, Carlo still had a powerful hold on me. Being in a moving vehicle did not help. As I-87 bisected snow covered fields, waves of nausea overtook me, and I had to ask my mom to pull over. As she watched from the driver’s seat, I leaned out the passenger door, staining the pristine white snow a garish purple.
Twenty-four hours later, after spending the night at the monastery and sitting all day, I sat in the passenger seat and cried. Alarmed, my mom asked what was wrong. It was difficult to explain that the reason I was crying was because, for the first time in a long time, the answer was, “Nothing.”
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, composed in the 17th century, the poet Basho recounted the reverence he felt standing in front of an old monument:
I felt as if I were in the presence of the ancients themselves, and, forgetting all the troubles I had suffered on the road, rejoiced in the utter happiness of this joyful moment, not without tears in my eyes. —trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa
Perhaps this sort of reverence following a long journey explains my tears upon leaving the Zen Center of Ottawa that first time. As we left the monastery, I felt grateful to be in the presence of the ancients, or at least to be exposed to this ancient dharma that was now available to me, and so I was not without tears in my eyes. What Basho described, and what I experienced, is pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is marked by a journey toward the sacred—the rising action—and a return home—falling action. Though the route may be the same, the experience of coming and going has a different flavor. The rising action is filled with anticipation and trepidation, with the knowledge that one is about to engage in an immensely trying experience. Despite all the remarks we receive when embarking on retreat about how relaxing the trip will be, Zen retreats are intensive periods of formal practice. We wake at 4:30 a.m. We sit zazen for nine hours each day, perform caretaking work, and sleep on thin mats on hard floors. By the end, one is typically worn out, sore, and paradoxically bright-eyed and alert. The ride home then, is one buoyed by the feeling of accomplishment and the sight of the sky yawning in all directions.
One of the topics of conversation on our retreat rides is often what it might be like to live in Ottawa, or to have the Zen Center in Boston. On the one hand, having that kind of access to the teachings and teachers, and the ability to join the daily or weekly sittings, would be a boon to our practice. Yet the distance also primes us for the profound, making the journey a part of the practice, and the experience one that requires a worthy undertaking. Living adjacent to the monastery would be like taking a helicopter to the top of Everest. Plus, Everest would always be looming, and how could one go about the mundanity of daily life in the shadow of that towering vista? Of course, it was the Zen teacher Dogen who wrote, “Those who regard the mundane as a hindrance to practice only understand that in the mundane there is nothing sacred. They do not yet understand that in sacredness, nothing is mundane.” Collapsing this distance is both a physical and a metaphorical challenge. We traverse the physical by putting pedal to the metal, and so I guess we do not yet understand. We collapse the metaphorical by putting ass to sitting cushion, so I guess sometimes we do.
One of our pastimes, born perhaps, of our desire to focus on the journey and not the destination, is planning the route North. When my mom first began to travel to Ottawa, she navigated using a map, finding the straight lines to Montreal, and then west to Ottawa. But the border crossing en route to Montreal tends to back up, and so she began heading West, through Mohawk Country in upstate New York. The overall driving time was longer, but less of it was spent sitting at the border, inching along. Further iterations on this route introduced the ferry across Lake Champlain, a perfect opportunity to eat a bagel while staring out at the choppy blue water.
When I began to make trips to the Zen Center on my own, I used the awesome new technology of MapQuest to print out directions. My first drives were fraught not only with retreat trepidation, but with the terror of missing a turn and not being able to reorient myself, with only French road signs to aid me. It seemed miraculous that I could arrive at this specific point by following this detailed, turn-by-turn, multiple-page printout. But missing a turn would be to drive right off the page and remove myself entirely from the miracle. The advent of navigation apps has mitigated the need for any route planning, of course. Now we can just plug in the address and point the car North, a different kind of miracle that has removed much of the miraculousness of arrival.
I always know I’m on the right track when I encounter the windmills near Clinton, New York. My mom has long had an affinity for windmills (“Big Friendly Giants,” she calls them), and that affinity, like practice itself, has transferred to me. A less welcome landmark is the strip club in a seemingly desolate section of farm country over the border. Not because of any particular Puritan streak, but because the stark reminder of sense pleasure just prior to its absence is triggering in a highly unproductive way.
Yet even in writing this I see that I have it wrong. The whole point of a retreat is sense pleasure: the pleasure of the belly rising and falling with each breath, the feet crackling the floorboards during walking meditation, the posture aligned and alert, the thumbs touching in the mudra. It is about relinquishing the addiction to extremes of pleasure that result in desolate strip clubs and appreciating the brilliance of everyday sensation. In that case, perhaps that landmark, like all landmarks really, can become an opportunity to practice. May it trigger a reminder not of strippers but of the need to strip away the mechanisms by which we reinforce craving and desire. It’s just an edifice, after all.
Being in retreat means being isolated from the world-at-large. I have emerged from retreat to learn of the Indonesian tsunami, to learn that a friend’s father had passed away, or simply that nothing significant at all had taken place, except perhaps in my own mind.
On April 19, 2013, a monk told us at the conclusion of our retreat that our home city was on lockdown due to the events that had unfolded after the Boston Marathon bombing. Just a few days earlier, rather than heading downtown on race day, where my brother-in-law was about to propose after completing the marathon, I had stayed home to pack and dwell in pre-retreat anxiety. I wasn’t sure what canceling the retreat would accomplish, so we made the decision to continue as planned, even though news was still unfolding about the bombing. At least it would give us something to do (despite that something being, in effect, nothing). The events of the next couple days rocked the city, and all the while I sat staring at a wall. When I called my wife after getting in the car, she breathlessly summarized the violence and fear that had continued throughout the week. My mom and I pointed the car South without any of the buoyancy that typically accompanies the drive home. With a manhunt occurring, we weren’t even sure if we could get home. As we approached an eerily silent city, we encountered only police vehicles and signs advertising the lockdown.
The retreat afterglow, like all states, is largely cultivated. Absent the proper context, it evaporates. There is a sense, sometimes, of leaving a retreat and feeling the walls of tendency and habit closing in again. Or the walls of duty and identity. I’m moved by the fact that I can enter a set of walls in which I can spend a few days shedding the accumulated burden of self, and occasionally discouraged by how quickly I pick up where I left off. Yet I take heart in the notion that each visit to the monastery chips away at the walls I’ve built up. I’m just an edifice, after all.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say is best expressed by the writer Brian Doyle: “I’m a muddle and a conundrum shuffling slowly along the road, gaping in wonder, trying to just see and say what is, trying to leave shreds and shards of ego along the road like wisps of litter and chaff.”
The narrow road to the deep North, upon which I’ve left so many shreds and shards of ego, has been the defining feature of my first 20 years as a Zen student. Yet the pandemic has kept us off that road for the longest stretch since either my mom or I took up sitting retreats. The last time we traveled that road together, in which we pointed the car in the opposite direction, was the first retreat I participated in since the birth of my daughter. Will she one day sit beside me on the narrow road to the deep North? I’m afraid of planting the seed of pilgrimage within her, for I know the ordeal it entails. Yet I also know it is the ordeal I am most thankful for, and perhaps the greatest gift I can give. And besides, we might be in need of a reliable navigator.