Winter Dathun Notes
by Bill Scheffel
Four weeks of whiteness: a December full moon, multiple snow falls, the magpie's breast. White noise: all the thoughts that feel so loud but have always been silent. Songs that ran through my mind, including Starman by David Bowie who died last night, bringing a darkness to the light, a sorrow and loss. This Monday is a vortex of Bowie's death, the dathun party hangover I had yesterday, the fading memories of the dathun - all the new friends I made there. Friendships largely made in silence, made in brief conversations and intimate talking circles. Friendships disbursing into the four directions. Who can say how we will resume them?
Those of us who participated are grateful to Chogyam Trungpa for creating the dathun (which means "month-session") forty-three years ago. Before he was famous, David Bowie met Chogyam Trungpa and asked his advice: Should I become a Buddhist monk or continue as a musician? Trungpa said the latter path would bring more benefit to the world. I'm seeking clarity for my own direction, asking advice from my guru who died twenty-nine years ago. I'm also praying that those who shared the dathun with me find their clarity of direction. Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere, angel. Come get up my baby Look at that sky, life's begun. Nights are warm and the days are young. Come get up my baby - from Golden Years
It is difficult to measure the bonding that occurs in a month of group meditation, everyone choicelessly alone yet supported by each other. All of us saw the Magpie's breast and long tail-feathers. All of us saw the wind blown snow cover the footpaths. We all saw the moon wax into a perfect circle. We are all part of that perfect circle, every second. Even though facing that circle is also a supreme challenge. "Turn and face the strain," as Bowie wrote.
. . .
Twenty-eight days of meditation. No fame. A strict schedule. Taking meals in the oryoki tradition, a silent form of eating using spoon, chopsticks and four nested bowls, with cloths used to wash the bowls after you eat from them. Oryoki is a monastic form of dining from the Zen tradition, admired by Chogyam Trungpa and now a long-standing part of the dathun way. The demanding rules of oryoki are at first intimidating and tedious, but ultimately rewarding in the way that any way of life that could go on forever is. You might not talk, but laughter is prevalent. Oatmeal, scrambled eggs, chopped fruit. Basmati rice, sautéed chicken, broccoli. Utility and simplicity bring appreciation and eventually nostalgia and loss in a world where food is seldom if ever enjoyed in silence.
. . .
Coyote howls penetrated the meditation hall at 5:15 PM and a sliver of moon lit the sky twelve hours later. I got myself out of bed early so I could write a few emails and take my thoughts apart with coffee and, sometimes a bit of the I Ching. My room was a welcome grotto I often left reluctantly, a memory echo of hotel rooms in Battambang and Rome. I put aside writing for most of the month, but nourished myself on M Train, Patti Smith’s memoir, written at her favorite table in her favorite New York City cafe. Ice. Waning moon. The bitter sensation of coffee on my tongue. It is said people who drink four or more cups of coffee are overall healthier and I followed their example in the meditation retreat. The aspen trees are bare trunks of evanescent silver bark the Ute made a type of aspirin from. Wine, Brahms and poetry mentally invaded the solitude, a stillness which is always on attention.
. . .
One of the friends I made at dathun was Dave from Oakland. He sent me an email today: Woke up in my room in Oakland this morning. Upon first eye contact with His Holiness, I experienced a feeling of gratitude for knowing you that I wanted to share with you. The "His Holiness" Dave spoke of was the sixteenth Karmapa, and he sent me a photograph of the photograph - one I'd never seen before - the Karmapa looking a bit like a young Marlon Brando. The dathun contains people with various lineage connections, all in flux since lineage transmissions are a form of infection, being transmitted not just from the lineage holders themselves but also by students who knew them, or even might not have known them but received their wisdom. Dave's email cheered my heart even as it underlined the poignancy of not being able to see Dave each day, as we did during dathun. As I write this l'm multitasking, listening to David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes through my earbuds, also poignant. I am of the lineages of The 16th Karmapa, Marlon Brando and David Bowie, all influences coiled into my heart and able to bring me to tears.
. . .
We Are Not Orphans
At the meditation retreat
we navigate the situational community
and the isolation of silence,
both welcome and remotely chilling.
Talk is more demanding still,
not having words at hand
we often feel mute and alone.
A magpie forages the snow drift
and the moon grows larger.
The solstice will be here soon.
We eat in silence
take our food from simple bowls,
offering to the lands of drought, war
and hunger before we eat.
The lineages of Dogen and Marpa
Upon the fiery edge of the universe,
where evolution is our parent
we are awake -
. . .
What I can’t change changes me.
My dog Virgil died eleven years ago. He grew up with my son Devin and used to bark at rocks, herding them like sheep. There was an apple tree in the back yard and we grew up with it too, the apples scattering across the deck in October. As Basho said, the years wander on and the sun and moon are eternal travelers. Is my life strewn with decisions I’ve come to regret or is this the organic progression of my body as it journeys with Orion and the Pleiades? At the meditation retreat I sometimes ignore the waxing moon as it lights my path through the snow drifts and later at night hurtle myself into the oblivion of sleep and dreams. Is this progress on the path? Snow, magpies and the morning star express the suchness lineage celebrates. I’m sometimes engaged with the other participants, sometimes withdrawn, brooding over ashes. Rome is trying to restore the antiquity of its inner city, those columns and basilicas I wandered amidst ten years ago, intoxicated with the ancient music of Demeter. The days grow lighter and the coming new year will be called 2016 C.E. May what I can’t change continue to change me.
Journey to New York City
I traveled to New York City for the first time in 1978. I was twenty-four years old and had just sat a month-long group meditation program, called dathun, at a retreat center in rural Vermont. My memories of the dathun are few. In my spare moments I read Mario Puzo's The Godfather while lounging in my narrow dormitory bed. In meditation, I usually began falling asleep as soon as I began following my breath. I don't remember a single bite of the food there and I only remember two of the participants. One was a Vietnam vet who removed his prosthetic leg when he sat down to meditate. The vet was friends with the most beautiful woman at he retreat - the other person I remember - and I was somewhat jealous of him, though eventually I also became her friend, if unfortunately not her lover. The beautiful girl, whose name I've long forgotten, invited me to stay with her when the retreat was over and suddenly I had a free place to sleep for my long-desired journey to New York City.
Like most people, New York City had entered my imagination and psyche in numerous ways: through Minor White's photographs, though the insignia on the New York Yankees baseball caps, through fantasies of living there and most of all through the paintings that hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Between the ages of nineteen and twenty two I had began to paint. I also studied the works of 20th Century artists with equal passion. Cezanne, Picasso and Kandinski; de Koonig, Franz Kline and Frank Stella - I owned monographs on each of them. I knew which of their paintings hung in the MOMA and I longed for the day when I could see their paintings on the walls before me.
. . .
As soon as I met my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, I began to meditate instead of wield a paintbrush, I began to save my money for three-piece suits and English shoes instead of buying books from Abrams. I'd cut my hair and began to imagine a career in business instead of art. The dream-landscape of meditation-in-America, circa 1977, as propagated by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the senior students he cultivated around him, became for me, in the year leading up to dathun, an almost hallucinogenic collage of elegant dress and spiritual ambition. In spite of having read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialsim a few years before, the world of Vajradhatu was irresistibly intoxicating, exuberant, seductive. I was climbing the ladder, though in the dream I was soon destined to be given enough rope to hang myself.
I'd come from the dathun and was on my way to Seminary, the three months of intensive training with Chogyam Trungpa. At Seminary, my ambitions would be punctured mightily. In the interim lay ten days of life in New York City.
. . .
I slept on the couch in the apartment of the most beautiful girl at dathun. Her bed might have even been in the same room, though all I remember was that the apartment, of course, was small. A window looked upon a view somewhere in the vicinity of Midtown, perhaps near Chelsea, maybe West 25th Street and 7th Avenue. The radiator steamed and the window leaked cold air into the apartment. The walls of the apartment were bare. The beautiful girl's possessions were few, but somehow she had ended up with a man's navy pea coat which she loaned me so I could withstand the NYC winter and the warmth-robbing wind that cut down West 25th street with arctic force. My own coat, whatever it was, didn't give me much a a chance to enjoy myself outside, but more than this, I felt uniquely myself in the dark blue wool garment that came down close to my knees, whose collar turned up at the neck and whose density kept the wind outside and my body heat inside. For the next ten days I walked the length of Manhattan at least three times. I walked through Tribeca down to Battery Park and I walked deep up into Harlem. I walked to the Museum of Modern Art and to the Met. With virtually no money in my pocket all I could do was walk, feed myself regular slices of cheese pizza, and take in the concentrated and ever-changing urban landscape that existed in 1978. They were among the most vivid and interesting ten days of my life, and foreshadowed the joy I would later revisit in my 50s through urban, aimless wandering.
. . .
Of all the paintings in the Museum of Modern's Art collection the one I most wanted to see was Picasso's historic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. In the old MOMA, as I recall, it had a section of the museum all to itself. I stood before it with my hands in the pocket of the pea coat and the collar still turned up. I gazed at the painting that proved Gertrude Stein's point that masterpieces are confusing - and irritating - because they express something of the confusion of reality as it is actually happening, as it is actually unfolding. Most paintings and other works of art fall into the categories of known conventions and are as such are genre works, things that have been seen before. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was widely despised, considered by many as immoral, and even Picasso sometimes thought of it as a bad joke. I was not disappointed. I lingered with the painting as if I was in a chapel. I had looked at the painting in monographs and read about it extensively and now I was in its presence.
At the time of painting Mon Bordel (MY Brothel), as Picasso like to call it, Picasso was vying with Matisse for the role of leading avant guard painter. As the art critic Hilton Cramer wrote:
I'd long loved reading discussions of art such as the quote above. How satisfying it is when read-about reality meets actual reality. I was in New York City. I'd been eating the best pizza I'd ever had in my life, was walking the town in my navy blue pea coat, was living in the apartment of the most beautiful girl at dathun and now I was standing before Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. On that visit to New York City I fell in love with the place, and that feeling has never changed. At the same time I was undergoing great changes and my footing, having stepped onto a demanding spiritual path, was becoming uncertain and about to undergo some shocking jolts. Like most twenty-four year old American males, I too was vying for something, though I was no longer sure what it was.
My hometown was not the one I was born in, but the one I remember, the one I grew up in. I was born in San Mateo but my parents moved to Lake Tahoe just as I turned four. My father sought a more natural life outside of suburbia, the post WWII world of Levittowns created for the likes of my family but which my parents shunned. San Mateo was a bedroom community cut north-south by Highway 101, a punishing freeway that filled San Mateo with exhaust and the ambient roar of traffic. The Pacific Ocean was a windy-drive thirteen miles west, its cold surf too far away to be felt while the San Francisco Bay to the east was too calm and industrialized to be the kind of nature my father sought. My mother sought nature, too, but it was my father's decision to move to lake Tahoe, made possible by a job he took in the gambling casinos that lay on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe. Though my mother was vivacious, sensitive and full of appreciation for life, my father was serious, quiet and depressed and, once we moved to Tahoe, worked six-days a week in a job he disliked, in an industry he had no passion or respect for. My parents left their relatives behind and we formed an intense three-sided nuclear family. I grew up in a home so private that we only had another person to dinner once - save for our relatives who visited at regular intervals. Before my parents built a house of their own we lived in a series of rentals: Kitt's Cottages, the White House, Al Tahoe. And then, finally, Bodie Drive, where my life would be rooted from age nine to eighteen. My parents so loved trees that they built their house in such a way as to avoid felling one; cut a semi-circular hole on the roof's edge to save a Ponderosa pine. That was one of my strongest but by no means only lessons in ecology and I spent much of my free time investigating nature. Since our house bordered the National Forest all I had to do to enter wilderness was to walk across the street. But even our own yard was wild nature, a pine-needled and decomposed granite state of existence that had reigned for thousands of years before the asphalt and cement mixers arrived. Black ants and bluejays. Blue-belled lizards and the occasional scorpion. These creatures were my intimates. Sometimes I slaughtered the ants and often I would capture the scorpions, keeping them bottled for a few days as pets and then releasing them. My intimacy with nature was developed through long hours of being alone in the National Forest and exemplified in my ability to capture the blue-bellies; though they moved at lightning speed I could nonetheless sneak up on and catch them (my adult self looks back in disbelief). We had our dog Rickie and I had my own pets; an aquarium of tropical fish and a wooden cage with my pet rat Ace who slept inside it. I had many friends on my block and in school. But before I knew it the Vietnam War was raging, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot (on my birthday) and I'd heard the song Purple Haze at a middle-school dance party. Bucolic days of catching lizards while my father played Brahms and my mother baked lasagna were coming to an end. My parents had left me pretty much alone to grow up, though my mother tutored me in May Cardin's phonetics and my father prepared times tables for me to enhance my math grades. My parents were introverts and, until my adolescence we all seemingly got along well, my mother and I habitually avoiding upsetting my father and thereby directly encountering his icy depression and ability to shun us. By age fourteen I was barely passing algebra and taking LSD on weekends. Consciousness was expanding rapidly and before I knew it my rat was dead and I was carrying Albert Camus' The Stranger in the back pocket of my bluejeans.
Blue. The lake and sky. A dome of dazzling stars and a pure body of water so immense it deserves only poetry. Lake Tahoe, its name comes from the Washoe Indian language and may mean "big water" or "big blue." Such a magnificent body of fresh water that moving there meant merging with a myth or archetype, a present-meaning infinitely greater that the gambling casinos, ski resorts and subdivision built on its shore. Bill Harrah built his many-storied casino just blocks from the pristine sand of Lake Tahoe's shorefront and took a good deal of the fortune he made to buy a collection of vintage automobiles. The slot machines and blackjack tables were always housed in rooms without windows, neon lit purgatories that offered puny jackpots and illusionary fortunes while the lake lay illumined by sun, moon or stars twenty-four hours a day. On the other hand, the ski resort was nakedly elemental and skiing there became a pleasure as sublime as seeing the lake itself. As for water sports, I wasn't very good at them; I could barely swim, occasionally snorkeled and water-skied only once. I wasn't drawn to boats or didn't have access to them and didn't really fish much past a certain age, though I did catch a twelve pound Mackinaw trout once - a well-worn photograph captures my glee. I am pulled into the mythic aura of Lake Tahoe, looking for meaning beyond the sensations the lake's water left on my skin, the countless suntans I received there. The lake asked something of me, I'm sure of it... because of my devotion to it, because I loved it more and more just for what it was as I grew older. Loving Lake Tahoe meant encountering bodies of water many decades later and finding my consciousness upended by pure presence, the dralas of the Arno, the Mekong and the Bosporus. Water, so essential to our life, is in essence, compassion. In 1972 I left Lake Tahoe and though I returned often to visit my parents, they, too, soon moved away and my life beside its shore came to an end. For decades I've been carried elsewhere. The external narrative of a life near Lake Tahoe ended over forty years ago, but there is another narrative, the soul-journey of my life, my inner relationship with water and when I think of that narrative a quality arises: suspense.