One Hundred Days of Solitude: Losing Myself and Finding Grace on a Zen Retreat
By Jane Dobisz
Publisher: Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008. ISBN: 0-86171-538-1
In One Hundred Days of Solitude, Jane Dobisz, the guiding teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center in Massachusetts, shares her reflections and insights from an extended solitary meditation retreat. In the introduction Dobisz recounts her own search for a spiritual teacher, a search which finally led her to Zen Master Seung Sahn, a Zen patriarch from Korea. In their first meeting, something about his spontaneity and infectious laugh, his teaching which “is streamlined to the point of brilliance,” told her that she had found her teacher. As she says, “Even after all these years as his student, I haven’t grasped one- tenth of all he has to impart.”
Knowing that her teacher had undergone the discipline of a one-hundred-day solitary retreat when he first became a Zen monk, Dobisz decided that she would do the same. The questions What am I? What is life? What is death? were like “tigers stalking around in my mind.” She chose a cabin in the woods of northern New England as the place she would spend her hundred days. Beginning in January, with deep snow all around, she settled into a simple cabin with no heat, electricity, or running water, three miles from the nearest road.
Dobisz writes with humour and refreshing honesty about the many antics of the mind as she struggled to fulfil the commitment she had taken on. Her mind seemed to vacillate between congratulating her on doing the spiritual practice and accusing her of being completely insane. It flooded her with doubts, fears, memories, and fantasies. Paraphrasing Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein, she compares “meditation practice with training a puppy to ‘stay’. The puppy is our thinking mind. It runs here, scampers there, wagging its tail and sniffing things, and in general acts according to its nature. Meditation is the practice of bringing the puppy back as we say, ‘Stay’.”
One chapter begins with the observation: “The Judge came by during sitting today. What am I saying? The Judge lives here with me, incessantly commenting on everything.” The “Judge” is that voice in her mind that continuously makes comparisons and judgments. “The Judge compares all things to each other even when it makes no sense…. This kind of snow is much better than that kind of snow.” One morning, Dobisz had had enough:
I’ve decided now, after listening to her all morning, to just let her do her job. I’ll do mine, which is to go straight ahead with the mantra and not pay one scrap of attention to her. I’ll let her be like the wind blowing by. Let her go ahead and scream; she’s just the call of a wild bird to me. Or an airplane flying overhead. Why should I be like a dog that runs after every bone she likes to throw?
For each chapter there is a verse or short saying from a Zen master or Buddhist scripture. Many of these are quite cryptic, and Dobisz’s reflections on them often help us to understand them. One chapter, for example, opens with a poem by her teacher:
In your mind there is a diamond sword.
If you want to understand yourself,
take it and cut off good and bad,
long and short, coming and going,
high and low, God and Buddha.
Cut off all things.
Dobisz describes an evening when the silence was broken by a sudden scratching sound. Remembering that she was alone in the woods, fear took hold, even though reason said it was just a squirrel. Only the mantra could bring her mind back to its centre. Dobisz writes that the mantra is her “diamond sword.” Even though, in her unskilled hands, “it’s more like a cheap metal knife, it will have to do for now.”
Dobisz’s daily spiritual practice included periods of sitting meditation, alternating with periods of chanting, bowing, and walking meditation. Occasionally she reflects on the meaning behind these spiritual practices. For example, Dobisz recalls her teacher being asked: Why do we bow? To whom are we bowing? The answer was that “our small self is bowing to our true self.” The “small self” is the “I, me, my” and “feels like a separate person.” The true self is eternal and one with everything. However, Dobisz does not waste much time on such speculations. Her commitment is to complete 300 bows each day, and she finds the deepest wisdom in the phrase: Just do it.
The practice of Zen (as opposed to the study of Zen)… requires a complete suspension of disbelief, which amounts to trusting that there is something much deeper than reason and logic, and that if you follow it, you might just end up where you belong. No analyzing…. Just do it.
She quotes Zen master Nam Cheon: “Mind is not Buddha. Cogitation is not the path.” Dobisz concludes: “When you are thirsty, no explanation will quench your thirst like a glass of water. Similarly, when you embark on a spiritual journey, you have to taste it for yourself or it will never become yours. If it isn’t yours, then it’s never there when you really need it.”
The food she had brought for the duration of the retreat was extremely simple: rice, beans, miso, and barley tea. Two months into the retreat, she decided to try fasting. She writes:
I’m not trying to be macho. I’m genuinely curious about the nature of desire. My whole life has been spent chasing one desire after another. Where does it come from and how does it control me? What happens if I don’t follow each desire that comes into my mind? What happens if I don’t eat for a short period?
What happens is what any idiot would have guessed would happen: I am ravenously hungry…. My mind is focused almost exclusively on food-related topics…. I write a few imaginary cookbooks and open an imaginary Zen restaurant called Café Joju.
For all the struggles she describes, all the ups and downs, one senses peace and well-being settling in. Even the daily tasks of splitting wood and hauling heavy buckets of water became deeply satisfying. In her growing appreciation of the natural world around her, she saw beauty even in the patterns and varied colours of woodchips strewn across the snow around her splitting stump.
People think that the silence is the most difficult aspect of a retreat only because they haven’t tried it. The silence is the best part. It is unimaginably rich and spacious. The sounds of the woods are varied and natural,… the cold creaking of branches, the soft slumping of snow melting off the roof, the chickadee’s song…. The wind has a thousand sounds.
She describes a “kind of pure joy” that comes from “the profound contentment of appreciating life and every small experience it brings.” She uses the word “rapture,” a word “typically reserved for the most rarefied of moments.” She asks, “Why not let that kind of joy into all the ‘little’ things, like smelling the air, hearing the insects singing on a spring evening, washing the dishes, or seeing our family at the end of a day’s work? Isn’t that what our whole life is?” Dobisz notes that one of her favourite teaching phrases of her master is “Everything just like this is Buddha.” She writes,
We think somehow it will always be ours for the taking, but we must keep in mind that every experience we have is very precious…. We must live our lives accordingly, with every fibre of respect and attention we can muster.
Dobisz never names a single objective for her intense spiritual practice. If she has one, perhaps the “traditional Chinese poem” she places on the first page of the book suggests what it is. The title is “The Human Route”:
Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed, that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud, which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud, which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing that always remains clear.
It is pure and clear,
Not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one clear and pure thing?