Tag Archives: retreat

A story about koans and Love and creativity

Koans pick the locks on the narratives that define our lives. When those narratives become exposed and transparent we have the freedom to move through them and outside them, to rewrite entire portions of our story. We recalibrate our sense of what we are capable of caged lionsas individuals and what is possible in this universe by taking risks, and when we stop limiting ourselves according to what we believe is possible it’s as though the universe has suddenly opened the corral and given us freedom to pursue what we love. We may not have even known or acknowledged what we love until this moment because it laid outside the realm of possibility, so we might stand at the open paddock gate for a long time, wondering where to go.

But maybe one day we have some wild idea about a project or a passion or a fear and instead of muting it immediately with the muzzle of possibility, we think, “Holy moly, do I dare break my own rules and follow that dream?” Do we take that chance and step off the ranch? If we say yes, it is at that moment that the wealth of creative energy in the universe comes to bear in us. When we make the decision to set out on the course that Love has charted, without knowing where it will lead us, suddenly it seems we become beneficiary to a vast and mysterious storehouse of resources that we never knew existed. Purpose gives us wings, problems become puzzles, and everything becomes useful.

trophiesAlthough it can be deeply rewarding to give life to something and bring it to completion, we might find that the completion of our task actually brings on a kind of disappointment, even a sense of grief despite what we may consider a great accomplishment. While we were engaged in our holy mission to find the grail we enjoyed the blessings of Heaven and weathered the curses of Hell, but we have brought the golden cup back to the paddock and now it sits coldly on a shelf somewhere, perhaps adored by others but not as much by us as when we were searching for it. It turns out that all along there were two grails, the one we sought and the one we found, and now that we possess the grail we have found, we have lost the grail we sought. Such can be the irony of getting what one wants.

And so we can say that perhaps our finest reward was not in the completion of our work, but in the struggle and search, the dirt-stained clothes and sweaty arms, and the feeling of Landscapestrain and release as we enjoyed the grace that comes with doing Love’s work. Perhaps the most valuable thing was not the grail itself, but the connection we enjoyed with the things of this life which colluded to bring us to it. And so we set out again on that dusty road of Love, the wind at our back and another grail in heart. And may we be so blessed as to never find what we are looking for.


A Place Without Cold or Heat: A 3-Day Zen Koan Meditation Retreat

September 25 – 28, 2014 in Crozet, Virginia

Note: We have one full-time overnight bed left, but plenty of day spots!
COuntry Road BannerA student asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?”
The student asked, “What’s the place without cold or heat?”
Dongshan said, “When it’s cold, the cold kills you. When it’s hot, the heat kills you.”

I love pretty much everything about meditation retreats—the woody smell of incense, the sight of cushions and chairs neatly lined against the walls, the gossamer sound of breaths arriving from all sides of the meditation hall. I love the stillness and the silence; I love the deep sense of connection I discover there, not only with myself and my fellow retreat-goers but with the grass and the birds and the food I am eating.

I also love koans (most of the time). They are fine companions on sunny days as well as when things turn dark, because they lead me out of the realm of the expected. That’s good for me because a lot of the time I think I know everything. What is a koan? Simply put, they are stories used in the Zen tradition to open the heart and awaken the mind. The Dongshan dialogue at the top of the page will be our koan for this retreat. For a further exploration of the question of koans, check this out.

Amigo no pantsThis is a residential retreat that 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. We may be apprehensive about what may or may not happen while we are away. 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 large cabin generously provided by the Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Crozet, Virginia. There are lots of trees, a large pond (with a boat!), and a porch for relaxing. There will be plenty of seated meditation, some koan-inspired activities, walks, and vegetarian food. It will be lovely!

Our Lady Pond squaredThe retreat will run from Thursday, September 25th to Sunday, September 28th. 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 ceremony. Participants will need to provide their own dinner the first night. The wake-up bell will be rung at 4:30am each morning and meditation will begin at 5:00am (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. There will also be some discussion/group work. We will have our regular morning meditation schedule on Sunday, followed by a closing ceremony at noon. Then you go home! (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. 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 smallish 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.

Our Lady Porch SquaredAccommodations: Space is limited. Our cabin features 3 bedrooms and a loft, which altogether contain 6 single beds and 2 full-size 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: My original intention was for this retreat to be entirely free of charge. After further planning, my more realistic intention is to keep this retreat as inexpensive as possible while still covering operating costs. Any money remaining after operating costs are deducted will go directly to the Our Lady of the Angels monastery as a donation for generously providing us this space. 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 tell me how many days you would like to attend and how much you are able to pay). Please see the following fee schedule:

One day: $15.00
Two days: $30.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $45.00

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, but also, work practice is an excellent way to carry our meditation 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 for 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 silence. 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!

bells & whistlesBells & Whistles: The leader will be timekeeper for meditation periods, lead walking meditation, ring the wake-up bell in the morning, and ring some kind of loud noisemaker to signal a 10-minute countdown for the next meditation block. Someone on the meal preparation crew will bang some kind of noisemaker to signal that breakfast or dinner is ready to eat. It’ll be fun and probably confusing at first, but you’ll get the hang of it!

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 Thursdays through June, after which we will be meeting on Mondays again. 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?: My name is Jesse Cardin. I have been working with koans for 8 years under the guidance of John Tarrant, Roshi (Director of Pacific Zen Institute). I’m the practice leader for the Charlottesville-based koan meditation group 16 Bodhisattvas and the author of the It’s Alive! blog. I’m particularly interested in how koans use the circumstances of each individual’s life to facilitate awakening and how koans 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…Sleep!

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

5:00am – Wake up
5:30–8:00 — Meditation
8:00—9:30 – BREAKFAST / free time
9:30—12pm – 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: $15.00
Two days: $30.00
Full-time (Thurs-Sun): $45.00

Donate Button with Credit Cards


Have Some 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.


big answers to small questions

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck!”


The koan:

The coin lost in the river is found in the river.
Oooh, what have we here?
Oooh, what have we here?

I love searching through old boxes in the basement, though it’s never planned. I’m usually in a hurry, on a mission to find some important component to a musical instrument, an instruction manual, or perhaps a piece of documentation. I am hyper-focused, goal-oriented, a bit feverish. But what’s interesting is that more often than not, I find much more than I was looking for: a box of old photographs, a favorite book, a compact disc from a band I used to love. I am waylaid. Squatting uncomfortably on the basement floor, I pore through the photographs, I start reading the book, or I start off in search of a CD player. I can’t remember what I was originally looking for and what’s more, I’m no longer aware that I was ever searching for something. I am lost in discovery. Later I come back to the original task or I don’t, but either way I have found something more interesting than what I had set out to find. My meditation goes the same way.

When I sit with this koan, often the theme of “lost and found” bubbles up. Sometimes I am immediately met with something precious I feel that I have lost–an opportunity, some self-esteem, free time–and yet sometimes there’s just a more generalized feeling of lack. It may appear as a sensation of craving or grief–an absence, though I don’t know what of. I remember one day feeling quite uneasy while holding a group meditation with this koan at work. I had begun the period with a475px-Deluge sense of ease and comfort, feeling pretty good about my introductory talk and confident that people would enjoy the meditation. A few minutes in, I suddenly lost all heart. I doubted my ability to lead the meditation. Then I doubted whether I had really ever done my job with any success. Then I began to doubt meditation practice altogether. Who am I to be teaching people meditation? Does this stuff even work?  I felt fear, panic–how was I going to continue on with this exercise in the face of this tremendous deluge of doubts? I noticed my stomach muscles were so tight that I was doubling over; clenched in my fists were palms slick with sweat. I checked my watch: how much longer do I have to do this? I wanted to run from the room. I tried for a while to keep my head above the flood, but that didn’t seem to be doing anything useful. Submerging myself seemed like the thing to do. I stopped thrashing around in the currents and something shifted. I noticed that all of this–the fear, the doubts, the clenched muscles–was my river, flowing through and around me. My ideas about being good at meditation were no more true or helpful than my ideas about being bad at meditation; they were very small answers, all loose and wrinkly like an ill-fitting suit. The belief that something amiss was just a dream and what I found was me, right where I had always been: here. I had never been anywhere else. The torrent didn’t subside, at least not right away, but instead of feeling life-threatening it felt life-affirming. Here was a sense of aliveness which, unbeknownst to me, was actually what I had been looking for.

I’ve noticed that answers to the Important Questions of life tend to come in a different form than the questions themselves. I think in black and white, but the universe prefers to paint in technicolor. In a classic exchange, someone asked the teacher Zhaozhou, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Zhaozhou gave the frustrating answbaby & giant rabbiter, “The cypress tree in the garden.” He wasn’t trying to be difficult (well, maybe just a little), he just knew that Bodhidharma’s travel plans weren’t really what the student wanted to know about. Zen’s history is filled with scores of people asking questions like, “What is the Way?” or “What is Zen?” (A favorite from my own inquiry repertoire is simply, “What the hell?”). Whether he knew it or not, the student was asking about something much bigger. The universe seems to be infinitely compassionate with us in the same way that Zhaozhou was. We can begin the search from any point, for any reason, and we are guaranteed get more than we asked for. If we really throw ourselves into the search itself, we might lose our reasons for searching. If we lose our reasons for searching, we might find ourselves in a vast, interesting place not far from where we started. And then we might find something quite precious that we even hadn’t known to look for.

There’s something about phyuboat control wheelssics and the law of conservation of energy that keeps coming to me with this koan, too. The mind seems to want to explain experiences in terms of loss and gain, but there are no holes in the universe (not any that I’ve seen, anyhow). There is a completeness in each moment, whether we can see it or not, and there just might be room in there for absence as well. In fact, if we lose something it might just be a door opening.

What comes to us doesn’t have to be pretty or make sense. When we’re truly, respectably lost, we’re not supposed to know what the hell we’re doing anyway. That’s an exciting moment: when our pretenses of knowing what it’s all about fall away, we find out what’s really true in our lives. We may find an ache or an unease there that we want to banish but it is not something we suffer alone–it is the ache of those who came before us and those who are with us now, and with any luck it will not stop with us.

naked divers
Dive in!








Waking the Dead

Howling relic

My koan small group 16 Bodhisattvas is spending time with this koan right now:

Save a ghost.

Shipwreck (2)When I think of ghosts, themes that immediately come to mind are: failed relationships, perceived inadequacies, fears I try to ignore, old resentments–things that seem not fully alive but not quite laid to rest.

When I first sat with this koan a few years ago, I was very interested in getting right answers, impressing my teacher, and getting to the next koan (“How do I save a ghost? Well, let’s get on with saving them, then!”). But between the seeking and finding a response that would earn me a stamp of approval, I caught a glimpse of something deeper and more interesting.

It was very clear that although in many ways I could run from my ghosts, somehow when I stopped they were always there waiting for me: at the grocery store, after the argument, in my own home. I have a memory of jogging down the sidewalk with the sense that apparitions were trailing out behind my head like phantom streamers on a child’s bicycle.

This poem might have come as a result of spending time with this koan:

demon dreaming 2In the afternoon, I laid down
on the sidewalk under a tree.
I closed my eyes and slipped down somewhere between the waking world
and the one of dreams.
There I saw demons dancing around a fire,
black and sketchy forms like
old woodblock prints from religious texts.
They called out to me as they danced,
We will cut off your head!
We will pull out your entrails!
We will tear you limb from limb!
I watched from some distance away as they fulfilled their promises on me.
I felt comforted as I watched,
knowing that these were my demons
that they were faithful.

While I was sitting this morning before work, I noticed a smidgen of feeling peeping out from under the hem of my consciousness. By reflex I brushed it off but then, noticing the callousness of my response, almost immediately I turned around to see what it was.

I didn’t want to go to work. It was that same sad, scared feeling I would get sometimes when Mom would drop me off at school as a child. Accompanying the feeling was an image of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. A Bruce Hornsby song is playing. I don’t want to go.  There’s so much light at home, and space, and cool blankets. There’s Mom’s kindness. There’s a feeling of timelessness–the day stretches out ahead of me like the sky and there’s nothing yet filling it; there’s the reassuring promise that nothing will ever fill it.

I notice this is the same melancholy that still visits me at the ends of vacations and on Sunday evenings; it’s a small, nagging ache that I usually brush aside, just as I started to this morning. It seems to serve no purpose but then what does? Diamonds were not valuable until we decided they were and this ache, the cascade of images, the wisp of sensation of cool blankets and sunlight is mine.

All mine.

native saves baby

Maybe that’s all that’s needed.

But there’s more to walking with the dead than just putting them to rest. It’s not about exorcising unwanted spirits or purifying my soul or even healing grisly old wounds. When I dance with the dead it seems like my life takes on an extra depth–everything seems more alive and I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I hadn’t even noticed how saturated in fear I was until I stepped out of it.

So what have you got in there? When you feel something shadowy tugging at your hem, do you swat it away? Those nagging sensations, memories, thoughts that you have a solution for–what is it like when you stop having a solution for them? Before you turn around to see who is following you, what is there? Are there places, objects or people that seem to raise the dead for you?

Skull collector
What ya got in there, crazyface?