With her stern, delicately feminine features, her freshly shaven head, and her immaculate dove-gray robe, Gesshin Prabhasa Dharma Roshi cut a striking figure. I had met her at several of the Women and Buddhism conferences hosted by Naropa Institute and various Zen centers in the early 1980s. She had trained in Japan and later with Sasaki Roshi in Los Angeles in Rinzai Zen—arguably the most rigorous Zen path. She was an artist as well, skilled in brush painting and haiku.
Raised in Germany, Gesshin had found her way to my own German-born teacher Ruth Denison. She came yearly to Ruth’s center in the Mojave Desert to lead sesshins.
When I had interviewed Gesshin for Turning the Wheel, my book first published in 1988 that served as an overview of women’s participation in American Buddhism, I had been strongly drawn to her. Now it seemed logical to go for teachings with her in the formal setting of a Rinzai sesshin. So I drove down from my home in Oakland to Joshua Tree to arrive at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center where the sesshin was set to begin that evening.
I was a Theravada practitioner, although I had experienced a few Zen sesshins, appreciating the formality and challenge of that path. But those had been Soto Zen sesshins, and I had not quite grasped the difference between the Soto and Rinzai approaches. Being used to sitting vipassana retreats in the Dhamma Dena zendo with Ruth Denison, I just assumed the same ground rules would apply.
My first inkling that I might have entered unfamiliar territory came when I saw that everyone was dressed in black. Hmmm. I hurried back to the little trailer I had been assigned to and sorted through the clothes in my suitcase. Red, maroon, blue, brown—no black, until I realized that my purple jacket had a black lining and was in fact reversible. I turned my jacket inside out and put on dark sweatpants, and that became my single outfit for the week.
Next I realized that all of the 15 or so students were German or Dutch and had traveled all the way here from Europe to sit with Gesshin. Why were there no other American students?
And then there was the zendo itself, also different. Ruth always taught from a low seat at the front of the room, essentially at the same level as the students. But here a high seat had been prepared at the front with a little podium before it.
All very interesting.
The week began inauspiciously. During our first hour, my nose started to run. Around me, the black-clothed meditators sat like rocks, impeccably erect and utterly immobile. As we were arranged in a circle facing inward, I knew any movement of mine would be visible. Still, I could not sit forever with mucus creeping down my upper lip. Carefully, in tiny movements, I extracted my hanky from my sweatpants pocket, and as quietly as possible, wiped and blew my nose.
Immediately, from the front of the room, a voice erupted, ordering in a thick German accent: NO NOSE BLOWING!
I cringed, stuffing my hanky back in my pocket.
Later that evening, tired from my long drive, I made the mistake of yawning—and the voice again ripped the silence: NO YAWNING!
The speaker was one of a pair of Gesshin’s senior students who were running the retreat. A thoroughly intimidating German man and woman, they were intent upon maintaining discipline in every moment. Gesshin herself did not appear that first evening.
By the second day, as I willed myself to absolute immobility and silence, I could see the week stretching before me, my body stiffening with each sit, my mind descending now and then to unkind thoughts about the Germans’ childhood training in obedience (I had read Alice Miller) and darker musings.
Did I really want to be here? I have a car, I reminded myself. I could get in it and drive away. I’m a grownup, after all. I’m a free agent.
But I did not leave. Was it Gesshin’s glamour that kept me? Was it the commitment made, and my sense of myself as one who follows through? Or my competitive urge and comparative mind, refusing to allow myself to fail while others succeeded?
Whatever the reason, each morning I got up with new energy, put on my improvised black outfit, and walked across the stretch of sandy desert to the zendo. Once inside and seated, I vowed to do better today.
So we sat on our zafus, got up and walked in kinhin [walking meditation], sat back down on our zafus, got up, sat down.
At mid-morning the two senior students left the zendo—the signal that Gesshin would soon arrive. We heard the boom of the gong out across the desert and we knew she would be walking in procession toward us. The first morning I had turned so I could see out the window. Coming from the dormitory was a figure in a gray robe and embroidered rakusu [formal bib], flanked by the two attendants. One of them carried a large gong and rang it at regular intervals.
The other carried a gray bag holding, I would discover, Gesshin’s notes for her talk.
The three moved in stately procession like figures in an ancient Japanese wall hanging.
Finally we heard the screen door open, and Gesshin entered. With measured step, she made her way to the high seat and, aided by her attendant, climbed up to sit behind the podium. The attendant handed her the bag and returned to her place in the circle.
My god, what an entrance! Here was no Ruth Denison, flapping across the desert in a long flowing lavender skirt and floppy sunhat, her worn Birkenstocks slapping her heels, usually closely trailed by a wiggling dachshund. This was haute Zen.
I waited to hear the wisdom that must surely issue from the being at the front of the room.
She was in no hurry. As Zen masters do, Gesshin arranged her robe, tucking it around her knees, and straightened her gorgeously gold-and-silver-embroidered rakusu. She opened the gray bag and, eyelids lowered, face perfectly composed, removed a few small papers from it and arranged them on the podium, then placed the bag next to her. She looked up at us for a long moment (What is she seeing? I wondered, and suppressed the urge to smile in greeting.)
Speaking softly, Gesshin Prabhasa Dharma Roshi narrated an ancient story of a master and student. Each word seemed carefully chosen. When the story was finished, she asked a question, and then, after a short silence (clearly we were not meant to respond), she answered the question with a brief commentary on the story. All of this took 10 minutes at most.
Now her gaze upon us seemed benevolent, her eyes wide open, her mouth curved in a slight smile.
Gesshin arranged the papers in a tidy stack, lifted the bag and put the papers in it. Her attendants came to help her down from the high seat. She walked to the rear of the hall, the door was opened, and the procession back across the desert began.
BUWONNNNG rang out in diminishing volume. Until the silence enclosed us once again.
I was dazzled. Surreptitiously I peeked at my sesshin-mates: had they gleaned profound meaning from the story and Gesshin’s remarks? For myself, the verbal content had remained intriguingly opaque. Which seemed okay, given the aesthetic gifts of the event itself, which were enough for me.
The days passed, and my knees and back settled into a silent scream. Still I persevered. At moments of weakness I reminded myself: You have a car! Get in it! Drive away! But I would not abandon my intention to practice. I would endure.
Finally the last evening came, and joy popped up in me like a little spring bouquet. I had only to make it through the evening and the morning, and I would be free.
But on this blessed final evening, my torturers upped the ante.
Ms. No-Yawning informed us that we were going to meditate through the night. I was astonished. Ruth Denison had sometimes invited us to join her in sitting all night, but we were free to choose, and only those who wanted to stayed, the rest slipping off to bed. What I was hearing now was not an invitation—it was a command.
“We will sit all night, and sometime during the night you will be taken to have a private interview with Roshi.”
There it was. No discussion, no decision to be made, no free will. Here I sat on my zafu in my wrinkled smelly-by-now black clothes, in my poor wracked body, stuck until the dawn would raise itself above the distant mountains.
As the hours crawled by, now and then the attendant would come to tap someone on the shoulder and lead them out of the zendo. In 10 or 15 minutes they would return and sit down again. One a.m. Several others had been led out. My body pain settled into something thick and undifferentiated. My mind sagged.
Two a.m. Two more were taken out, in sequence, and came back. I had given up wondering when I would be summoned. Maybe they had forgotten me, or decided the Master’s wisdom would be wasted on such an undisciplined vipassana student as myself.
Three in the morning. I so much wanted to lie down. I made an inventory of what I would barter for the freedom to stretch out on the floor—my old Volvo: here take it!; my beloved camera: it’s yours!; my cat appropriately named Dukkha (suffering)—oh god, to what have I sunk? Would I really give away my animal? I was disgusted with myself. I let it go, sinking away into “sloth and torpor,” as we call it in vipassana.
Touch of fingers on my shoulder. It is time! I struggle to stand up, manage to accomplish sufficient verticality, follow my black-robed lieutenant out into the cool night air. He leads me over the sand to Samadhi House, the dormitory.
Before we enter, he leans in to say to me, “I will leave you outside the door to the interview room. When the bell rings, you wait until someone comes out. Then you go in, make a full prostration in front of Roshi, and sit for the interview. When she rings the bell, the interview is over and you leave.”
He fixes me with an intense look. “Understand?”
I nod obediently.
As he leads me inside, toward a particular door, I feel the full extent of my exhaustion. The cumulative weight of this week gathers around me like a lead-filled cloak.
I am left outside the door.
A person exits, head down.
So it really is my turn. I rotate the knob and slowly push the door open to look inside. Gesshin sits across from me, elegantly composed in her beautiful gray robe, her face expressionless. No greeting. No welcome. For a moment I receive the memory of our several warm conversations at the conferences, how casually, like friends, we had shared stories. The memories break apart before this statue-like presence of Gesshin the Zen Master before me. I am in a vastly different reality.
And faced with yet another challenge.
Stretching from Gesshin to the door where I stand is a long mat on the floor. This, I realize, is where I am to do the full prostration. Yes—all the way down, full body prostrate on the mat. Yes. Will I be able to do this? I glance at Gesshin’s face for help but her eyes are perfectly expressionless.
Okay, here I go: bow, hands out, knees down, going forward, the great cloak of tiredness that covers me makes it all improbable. But I persevere. Yes, here I go, farther down, almost there.
When suddenly I lose my balance and fall to the side off the mat, with a great clunk onto the bare floor. Jolt of hipbones, ribs, arms.
I lie here, realizing what I have just done. I have failed so utterly. What will happen now? Should I try to pull myself over onto the mat? How will I meet Roshi’s gaze?
When I hear an unfamiliar sound.
Gesshin is roaring with laughter.
Curled like a fetus on my side, I dare to peer up at her, and see her face crinkled in delight.
Hmmm. Is this good or bad?
When her mirth has calmed, she sits for a few moments smiling at me.
Then she raises the ringer and hits the bell next to her.
I push myself onto my hands and knees and struggle up to standing. Turning, I blunder from the room, passing the next victim, and hurry across the dark entranceway to the outside door.
Stepping out into the splendid star-slathered desert night, I stop to look up. The air comes brisk and dry into my nostrils. Suddenly everything takes on a crystal clarity, and a surge of energy rises in me, propelling me across the dry earth toward the zendo. Years later, when I told this story to one of Gesshin’s Dutch Zen students, she howled, sputtering: “You earned an A-plus! That was just the right thing to do. No preparation, no pretending. You offered exactly who you were in the moment.”
[[This story was first published in 2016]