RETREAT RECORD

5 - 8 OCTOBER 2007, TY’R GAWEN, WALES


 
Friday Evening
 
The hospitable wooden table in Jane’s warm, flagstone-floored farmhouse kitchen: Ken, Jane, Jean, Helen, Stuart, George, Megan, Kim. Most old hands, some the first time. We arrive in dribs and drabs, some by car, some by train, some by train that has become a minibus on breaking down.

drifting westward thistledown on a country train

(Stuart)

At the table, over a glass of wine and hot soup, gathering together material for the weekend’s program. Stuart asks the question: What is an authentic life and how do we live it?’
 
Ken quotes from Dogen: ‘Every creature covers the ground it stands on, no more nor no less. It never falls short of its completeness' and speaks of the Two Arrows sutra and the 'long, unwinnable lawsuit that we wage against mortality'. More quotations bubble up into our group consciousness, laying the ground for the weekend. We get Robert McFarlane’s account of mediaeval monks' margin notes:
 
"'Pleasant to me
is the glittering of the sun
  upon these margins'
 
Some of the poems [by the monks of Enlli and places like it] read like jotted lists, or field-notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the dark wild torrent'...
...For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship."
(Robert Macfarlane. The Wild Places)
 
...and Rumi:
Observe the wonders as
they occur around you.
Don't claim them,
feel the artistry moving through,
and be silent"
(Jelaladdin Rumi, tr. Coleman Barks and John Moyne)
 
There is a thread from the heart to the lips
where the secret of life is woven.
Words tear the thread
but in silence the secret speaks.
(Rumi, tr. Azima Melita Kolin and Maryam Mafi)
 
...and W B Yeats:
"Be secret and exult /because of all things known,/ that is the most difficult." (W.B. Yeats)
 
"It is the wordless occupation that sets the mind to work". (WBY or possibly Delius)
 
Saturday Morning
 
At dawn, a bright crescent moon and Venus, a hand’s breadth apart in a clear dark sky. Then, a little later, the morning sun, rising, floods the long view from the garden to the sea with light.


brittle sunlight
I open the door
to the chill of autumn

(Ken)

After breakfast Stuart gives a paper on Japanese death poems. We discuss.

talking of death
he digs deep
into his marmalade

(Ken)

Ken quotes: ‘When you feel that you are immortal it is easier to look forward to death’ and Stuart gives us Susan Murphy’s ‘Life is short, but it is wide!’

lifting her up the bed I lay down her body

(Helen)

sign on the morgue door/"knock and wait"

(Jean)

A session on what Ken calls 'liberative haiku' brings us to look at a collection of poems that people have brought and have written up on a sheet of paper on the wall. We talk about 'explicit' (didactic) and 'implicit' (koan-like) qualities, and we vote on the haiku. The winner, by a clear margin, is Paul Reps':

drinking a bowl of green tea I stopped the war

Several haiku came second, including Issa's

the full moon;
my ramshackle hut
is as you see it

Nagata Koi’s

How lonely it is
cultivating stone leeks
in this world of dreams

and Basho’s

It belongs
neither to the morning nor to evening
the flower of the melon

Saturday Afternoon
 
After lunch, Jean leaves to run a half-marathon along the valley of the Dyfi...

leaves falling
feet running
still water

(Jean)

Meg chose to stay in the immediate vicinity and explored the garden in some depth:

in the statue's lap
the mother
a child again

and with the cloud rolling in earlier than on the coast:

prayer flags
hang limp in the mist
silent blessings

...while some of us head off by car via 'Happy Valley' for Aberystwyth and a boat trip that George has organized. No sign of the 'rib' that has been booked. We gaze out to sea for a while from the front, watching a lone surfer ride a tiny wave, and the fishing boats putter back as the afternoon lengthens. Finally we discover 'our' boat moored to a worn piling at the jetty, no open rib but a fine sturdy vessel with a wheelhouse, a flushing toilet (so we’re told), two plastic armchairs on the wide deck for us to sit in, and a bunch of old sofa cushions on the deck hatch.

We set out through the harbour entrance and head south along the coast. Long strata of slate curl down into the water, an abandoned farmhouse eyes us, blind-windowed, from the eroded cliff, the stump of a storm-felled standing rock, the recently collapsed roof of a sea cave - all these our skipper points out, patiently, with evident pleasure in his long association with this piece of coast, by cliff and by water

pleasure boat skipper
tells us what used to be
there - or there

(Kim)

Reaching the Nature Reserve we head in to within yards of the cliffs. Here, seals eye us from the water, their whiskered faces and bright eyes reflected in the surface of the sea. On a flat rock, a company of cormorants stand, slightly apart from each other and guarded by black-backed gulls, all gazing out to sea.

a crowd of cormorants
each one
          stand-offish

(Ken)

We head back as the sun eases down towards the horizon, the windows of Aberystwyth’s seafront buildings glinting in the distance. A pair of cormorants fly past, heading for the cliffs we have left

sun low on the sea
a long swell —
heading homewards

(Kim)

mooring our boat
the notch in the piling
his fingers always find

(Kim)

In the car now we race the sunset towards Aberdovey, but seeing the sun start to sink, blood red, into the sea we stop at a lay-by, pile out, and stand and watch.

after a red sunset
the green flash
I didn’t believe

(Helen)

Sunday Morning


single evening primrose
quiet and still
at dawn

(Megan)

into my morning tea a brown leaf off the beech tree

(Helen)

tea and toast
dreaming a new day
into life

(Ken)

After breakfast Ken takes us out into the garden for some energy-ball practice, watched by the ducks and the red-haired scarecrow who sits on a garden bench, hat askew, and a wild grin on her face.

on the seat
a lady scarecrow
always a stranger

(Ken)

Finishing the practice by flying up high into the clear morning air, hanging from our imaginary balloons and gazing down on the patchwork landscape, we take ourselves off to sit, sedately, and gaze again the landscape in meditation.
 
The discussion for the morning is on Stuart's question: 'What is an authentic life, and how do we lead it?' We pass a 'speaking stone' around, each taking their turn.

holding the talking stone
words of wisdom
unbound

(Jean)

Stuart starts us off. 'An inauthentic life is a puny life... not a definition but an approaching towards it. Definition would kill it...to define is inauthentic...
 
Authenticity is a matter of saying "Yes" to life, saying "Yes" to death. An unconditional affirmation whose embrace encompasses the bright and the dark.
 
For a Buddhist, the gateway of authenticity emerges from a full acceptance of the three Dharma Seals: dukkha, the inherent disatisfaction at the heart of conditioned existence; anicca, impermanence, everything is in constant flux; anatta, there is no irreducible, independent self.
 
In contrast to the beseiged philosophy of *carpe diem* ("Seize the day!"), authenticity is light, unmediated and playful.'
 
“It’s our perception.’ Jean tells the story of the horse – ‘Maybe yes, maybe no’
 
‘Authentic moments can maybe coalesce into an authentic life’.
 
‘The implication is that someone has to authenticate one’s life’, countered by ‘No certification except for that which arises within oneself.’
 
‘Authentic means accepting conditions within oneself. This is a condition of life-enhancing effects. We need less attachment to outcomes.’
 
(Megan): I was reminded of the idea expressed by Jack Kornfield in 'A Path with Heart' that on his death bed, reviewing his life, what would matter to him would be not how many books he's written etc. but ..... 'Did I love well?'. And my sense was that perhaps this is where authenticity lies - in the quality of our loving.
 
(Ken): What is helpful to the problem is not the answer but to look at where the question has come from, allowing the mind to fall still so that we can see with greater clarity to where creatures breed in the deep. In meditation when we look down into the deep, we see ourselves. The reflection arises, ‘there’s something wrong here’, a sense of lack, something unsatisfactory. Through the fact of seeing this I suggest we begin to see what might in fact be ‘an authentic life’ (with help from the sutras), and rummaging awhile we might realize that our life is in fact authentic.

‘To study Buddhism is to study the self
To study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to be enlightened by everything
(Dogen)

‘Authentic means there is a sense of rightness, of stillness, a knowing that was the right thing to do.’
 
(Stuart) A possible definition of one who lives an authentic life is ‘one who fully occupies his own space. Maybe inauthenticity is where we don’t. That we don’t comes from a delusion that we are bounded, and maybe we are not as bounded as we think we are. Recognize that you are always yourself. To be authentic is to recognize inauthenticity.’
 
George calls us into lunch.

after the discussion of authenticity
steam
from the soup pot

(Stuart)

Sunday afternoon
 
We mount an expedition, all boots and sticks and weatherproofs, to walk up Allt Lwyd, the hill behind Ty’r Gawen, to find the Bronze Age cairns that stand there, mute remains that, like the sheep that also dot the hillside, gaze enigmatically back at us when we eventually stand in front of them. The day is cloudy as we ramble up the long hill but when we get to the first cairn and look north-east over the climbing summits, we see the sun has picked out the slopes of Pen y Garn.

hill lit by sunlight
grey stones

(Jean)

Behind us the great sweep of Cardigan Bay holds the sea and, beyond, the mountains of North Wales, layered subtly against the sky.

pale sky
the grey mountains
lying on water

(George)

We look at the cairn on the summit, sitting for a while within its hollow core. Some of us try our hand at dowsing for whatever mysterious energies seem to swirl around the cairns. And we stomp off across the tussocky grass in search of what the guidebook says is...

.. the most interesting cairn...the southern one. To reach it, cross the wire fence with care. The cairn is really a group of monuments which partially overlap each other. The earliest is a large (20m) diameter ring cairn – a narrow stone banks without uprights, surrounding a stoneless, dished centre. On the south it is overlaid by a large damaged cairn with a lobe, or perhaps a separatye cairn, attached to the north-east. A few metres to the south....etc.’
 
... and some of us puzzle for the longest time over a huge jumble of stones on the hillside that, when we read the guidebook again more carefully, turn out to be... a jumble of stones, and not the cairn we thought we had been looking at. Not disappointed, we head home down the winding track and, lower down, across fields of grass towards the farmhouse.

grasses weaving
breathing space
between the stems

(Jane)

field of grasses
moving singly
as the wind touches us

(Megan)

In the evening, over a glass of wine, we adjudicate the haiku that have by now filled several large sheets of paper pinned to the kitchen wall. Many of the resulting choices are embedded in this account; some remain to speak alone. On Monday morning, the last early morning 'sit' in silence, this time in the Rainbow Room, and we take our leave.
 
Haiku


the spare toothbrush
you always used to keep
in case he stayed

(Megan)

a light tap
an acorn falls
time passes

(Ken)

across the yard the snap of washing in a three-peg wind

(Stuart)

windless night
standing still
in deep country

(Ken)

distant trees
summer glades
baring old bones

(Jane)

on the old path
you never took before
showing me the way

(Jane)

waiting patiently
toothbrush in hand
the tide turns

(Jean)

the ducks are quiet
motionless
the dark shape circling

(Jane)

“It all depends...”
the jackdaw
cocks his head

(Ken)

wondrous Milky Way
after so long
coming home

(Megan)


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