Monthly Archives: July 2015

Make the Mountains Dance: A Zen Koan Meditation Retreat

with Jesse Cardin, September 17 – 20, 2015 in Crozet, Virginia


When I think about going on retreat, I get very excited. I am visited by memories of long, still days in the meditation hall, silent meals together with friends, working with teachers, and the way that everything seems to shine after a day or two. I also remember the sense of connection that I feel to everyone I’m on retreat with, even though we may speak to each other very little or not at all. It is a beautiful thing to be a part of, something I wish everyone could experience even once. This retreat has grown out of my desire to share this experience with others.

At this retreat, there will be meditation, teaching, and the opportunity for individual practice conversations with a teacher. There will also be time to spend just looking at the trees and taking walks through the countryside. We will be visited by koans and dreams and unexpected friends, and we will make new discoveries—or perhaps new discoveries will make us. It should be interesting.

Amigo no pantsThis residential retreat has been designed to be accessible to people at all levels of experience. Actually, koans are designed to be accessible to people at all levels of experience, so I suppose I can give them the credit. Koans aren’t interested in how long you’ve been meditating, whether or not you’re a good person, or if you cheated on your diet today. They have their own agenda and they will be friends with anyone (yes, even you).

It is not always easy to set aside the other areas of our lives to attend a residential retreat, or even one day of retreat. We may be apprehensive about what may or may not happen while we are away, that we might miss something. But the stillness and silence of retreat has a way of softening the boundaries between our inner life and outer life. In retreat we can’t help but transform, and the whole world transforms with us. We come home seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears and our life responds to that.

The Details

PZI profile picA Brief Overview: We are affiliated with Pacific Zen Institute. Although this retreat incorporates many aspects of formal Zen practice, it is by no means a typical Zen retreat. In keeping with the spirit of Pacific Zen Institute’s mission to create a truly western Zen culture, the focus will be on the transformative process of koan practice itself rather than strict adherence to traditional Asian Buddhist forms.

The retreat will be held in a DSCN1169large cabin generously provided by the Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Crozet, Virginia. It will run from Thursday, September 17th to Sunday, September 20th. Participants are welcome to attend full-time or part-time as they wish, to stay overnight or just attend during the day(s). We will begin at 7:00pm on Thursday with meditation and a short welcome ceremony. Participants will need to provide their own dinner the first night.

The Daily Grind: The wake-up bell will be rung at 5:00am each morning and meditation will begin at 5:30am. There will be coffee. Each block of meditation will consist of 25-minute periods of silent seated meditation punctuated by brief periods of walking meditation. We will have our regular morning meditation schedule on Sunday, followed by a closing ceremony at noon. (See the Retreat Schedule for more details.)

Note: If you are attending part-time, please take care to arrive and depart during breaks in the schedule so as not to disrupt meditation.

Food: Please provide your own dinner for Thursday evening. A vegetarian breakfast and dinner will be provided on Friday and Saturday, and breakfast on Sunday. Lunch will not be provided, so please bring your own for however many days you plan to attend (there is a refrigerator and kitchen on-site, but please be aware that everyone will be sharing the space). Light snacks like fruit and nuts, and coffee and tea will also be available throughout the retreat.

DSCN1204Accommodations: Space is limited. Our cabin features 3 bedrooms and a loft, which altogether contain 6 single beds and 2 double beds available for those wishing to stay any or all nights. There are 2 full bathrooms (one on each floor). Please bring your own bed linens, blankets and towels as the monastery does not provide any (pillows are provided). Please let us know if you are a couple and would like to share one of the full beds. Sorry, there are no private rooms.

Cost: The intention is to keep this retreat as inexpensive as possible while still covering operating costs. Feel free to donate extra if you wish! No one will be turned away for lack of funds. (To request a scholarship: before registering, please use the comments form at the bottom of this page to note many days you would like to attend and how much you are able to pay.) Please see the following fee schedule:

One day: $30.00
Two days: $60.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $90.00

Work Practice: The famous Chinese Zen master Baizhang once said, “A day without work is a day without eating.” Well, that’s one way to look at it. There are a few simple jobs that need doing to keep the retreat running and you will be assigned one of them, but also, work practice is an excellent way to carry our koan off the cushion and into our daily activities.

What to bring:

– Please wear comfortable clothing and bring shoes to walk in. The cabin we are staying in does have heat and air conditioning, but you may want to wear layers just in case.

– Please feel free to bring any meditation gear you would like to use (cushions, chairs, benches, etc.). The cabin has some chairs which you are welcome to use, but we are unable to provide meditation cushions.

– Bring something personal to contribute to the altar. It can be anything–something sacred to you, something that makes you smile, something you find particularly repulsive, whatever.

– A journal (or something to write with and on).

Silence: One of the jewels of retreat is DSCN1262silence. However, another one of the jewels of the Pacific Zen School is conversation and community. Please be considerate of others; if you find yourself involved in a conversation, please carry it away from the meditation hall and common areas so that others may enjoy the silence. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you need to, but you might also notice that you don’t need to. Learning how to make mistakes is another jewel of retreat. Thanks!

I’m interested, but not sure I want to jump into a 3-day retreat with you people: Great! Come sit with us and see if you like our approach. Our group is called 16 Bodhisattvas: A Koan Small Group and we meet every other week at the JMRL library’s Central location in downtown Charlottesville, VA. We meet on Mondays from 6:00pm – 7:30pm. Bring a cushion or just yourself (chairs are provided). Check out our schedule of upcoming meeting dates.

Jesse Gassho refuge squarish cropped (2)Who’s running this thing anyhow? Jesse Cardin is a koan teacher in the Pacific Zen School, the practice leader for the Charlottesville-based koan meditation group 16 Bodhisattvas and the author of the It’s Alive! blog. He has been working with koans since 2006 under the guidance of John Tarrant, Roshi (Director of Pacific Zen Institute). He is particularly interested in how koans use the circumstances of each individual’s life to facilitate awakening, and how they can be adapted for use in mental health and substance abuse recovery.

Retreat Daily Schedule

5:00 – 7:00pm – Arrive/set up
7:00 – Meet in zendo: meditation and opening ceremony
9:00 – Close the day

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 – Meditation
8:00—10:00 – BREAKFAST / free time
10:00—Noon – Meditation/movement
12:00—2:00 – LUNCH / free time
2:00—5:00 – Meditation
5:00 – 7:00 – DINNER / free time
7:00 – 9:00 – Meditation/dharma talk
9:00 – Close day

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 – Meditation
8:00—10:00 – BREAKFAST / free time
9:30—Noon – Meditation
12:00 – Closing ceremony
12:00 – 2:00pm – Load out


Ready to Register?

Click the Donate button below to be magically transported to our secure PayPal payment site. Enter the appropriate amount for the number of days you wish to attend and follow the instructions to check out. We will email you as soon as possible after your payment is processed to confirm your registration details. (Don’t have a PayPal account? That’s cool, just click on the link on the lower-left corner of the payment screen, under “Don’t have a PayPal account?”)

One day: $30.00
Two days: $60.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $90.00

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Any Questions?

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or concerns via the comments web form below and I will respond as promptly as possible.



Falling together

paradise lost set upon by creaturesA very dear friend of mine named Joel is going through a rough time right now. His mind spins yarns of impossible worry so mercilessly that it sometimes drives him home in tears in the middle of the day, unable to work. This is not something new, but it has been particularly bad for him lately. His mind is working overtime just to maintain, doing whatever he can to make the next moment bearable. He feels really stuck and doesn’t know how to get free.

The other day, over dinner, some friends and I were discussing Joel’s woes. I seemed to know everything about his difficulties and had very reasonable solutions for all of them. As we talked, I noticed myself growing more and more agitated at what I thought was Joel’s inability to take effective action on his own behalf. The more I solved Joel’s problems for him, the more worked up I became. By the end of dinner, I was sick and tired of talking about Joel. I felt worn out and a little ashamed about how callous and arrogant I had been.

Earlier that evening, my koan group began working with this koan, which appeared of its own accord:

Layman Pang was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge, he stumbled and fell. When his daughter, Lingzhao, saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself down.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw Daddy fall to the ground, so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao.
“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

One of the wonderful things about koans is that they don’t need me to turn a crank or flip switches in a certain order—they operate on their own. I had no intention of spending time with this koan outside of group, but later that evening something interesting happened. I imagined Joel lying on the grounR Lee Ermey Drill Sergeant 2d, struggling and failing to get up.  I was bent over him, pawing at him and shouting like the ornery drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, “You gotta move your legs like this, son! You gotta get your legs under you and pick yourself up and fix it! No, no, like this!” I suddenly realized how unhelpful my whole approach had been. I felt myself diving toward the ground to be next to Joel, the years of my own worry and hopelessness washing over me, as fresh and welcoming as ever. The drill sergeant, now supple and weepy, was bathed in a sweet, golden syrup.

(Luckily no one was looking.)

Needless to say, my interactions with Joel have been different since then. I no longer experience his suffering as a problem, and as a result I am no longer personally invested in what I think he ought to do.   skating failI feel a kind of spaciousness when I talk with him—I am interested in what he is saying and it touches me. I do not feel a compulsion to do or say anything in particular, helpful or otherwise, and I do not experience his suffering as a burden.

I’ve been noticing other things, too.  Someone I usually try to avoid is having a really good day, and feel so happy for her that I notice my heart swelling and my eyes tearing up.  A friend is so anxious and agitated after spending time in the hospital for heart trouble that he cannot sleep for days, so I offer to just sit up with him.  My fiancee is preparing to leave on a trip and when she mentions that she’s anxious, I notice that I’m anxious too, as though I were the one preparing to leave.

If we’re not believing our own stories about needing to fix things, we might notice that falling down–our own and others’–is not a problem.  The scraped elbow, the broken relationship, and the shattered china plate belong to all of us, are felt by all of us.  They are one segment of the crimson thread that stitches us all together.

Some things you might consider:

What is it like for you when someone close to you is hurting? What about someone you have never met? How do you respond?

How do you respond to you when you are hurting?

What if you saw a problem and intentionally didn’t fix it? What if you intentionally added to it instead?

It is said that the entire Pang family was enlightened, Lingzhao included. What was she saying about falling down and being with falling-down people? What could that mean for your life?

train crash