Last weekend I attended a three day monastic retreat at a soto zen monastery in northumbria. I have been meditating, but I realise now not very effectively, in an effort to deepen my practise but mainly to deal with the world around me. Work has been very stressful this past year, no writing to speak of, no growth, no change, at least that's how it seems even if it's not altogether true.
I wasn't prepared for how hard it is. I was so consumed by looking forward to it I didn't consider much of what it was and if i had perhaps i wouldn't have gone. Being soto everything is regulated, although it is considerably easier than that found in japanese monasteries. I arrived late Friday afternoon to a quiet, subdued atmosphere that was intimidating. Medicine meal in the evening of soup, and then a double meditation session before an hour of contemplation and lights out at ten. The location is beautiful, surrounded by trees the air is alive with the songs of birds, like stones thrown into the pool of mind. But the meditation didn't seem to be working. Lately I've become used to a kind of joy while meditating but that didn't seem to happen. Perhaps the, to me, stressful environment, the different type of meditation (doing shikantaza instead of breath counting/focus) the confusion at each stage over what needs to happen next (when in doubt - gassho!)
It's also strange, I guess, to encounter zen as religion - not merely philosophy which is how it's become for me, over the years, to see it. There were times saturday when I wondered whether it might be best to just leave, a talk with one of the monks and the encouragement to listen for the silence in all sound helped, increasing pain in my legs and back didn't.
On Sunday the morning was made a little lighter as after meditation, morning service, cleaning and breakfast we had the festival of Manjusri and then a dharma talk expanding on who and what Manjusri is. I also switched to alternating my meditation sessions so I used a chair some of the time and not just a cushion to make it easier on my poor knees. The pain in both legs and back (pain in back and shoulders I quickly realised was due to existing, long term, tensions brought out in the meditation- not all gone yet but) lessened and the sessions seemed to become shorter for a time as home time came closer, and the exercise of digging ditches released a few endorphins. I feel like the progress I made was microscopic but larger then mnt sumeru. Reading some suzuki on hui neng i glimpse some of the intuitive understanding of what he is talking about. Reading a bit of hakuin the rascal makes me laugh out loud. No satori, no great realisation or understanding. How do I include this in my life?
"Blyth says at one point, "The object of (Chinese) Zen is to transcend life and death, and, really to live.To die, to rot and to live until we do- how to perform this in the best possible way is the great problem of life." This echoes your question. His advice on how to live a zen life, which is about the best I know, is contained in the following.
"Zen means doing anything perfectly, making mistakes perfectly, being defeated perfectly, hesitating perfectly, having stomach-ache perfectly, doing anything, perfectly or imperfectly, PERFECTLY. What is the meaning of this PERFECTLY? How does it differ from perfectly? PERFECTLY is in the will; perfectly is in the activity. Perfectly means that the activity is harmonious in all its parts, and fully achieves its proposed end. PERFECTLY means that at each moment of the activity there is no egoism in it, or rather, that our ego works together with the attraction and repulsion of the Egoism of the nature within and without us. Our pain is not only our own pain; it is the pain of the universe. The "joy" of the universe is also our joy, Our failure or misjudgement is that of nature, which never hopes or despairs, but keeps on trying."
This leads to the idea that active acceptance is the Way. Acceptance of toothache, acceptance of the loss of your child's innocence, acceptance of all manner of misfortune and calamity, acceptance of our feeble, ineffectual attempts to grasp the Way, actively. Not my will, but thy will be done. No ego, no self, then we can do everything PERFECTLY."