On the morning of my first silent retreat, I sat down to breakfast, my joints already screaming in pain, nauseated at the thought of eating a meal oryoki. Over the coming seven days of Buddhist practice, we would spend hours in meditation facing the wall and take our meals in the communal and formal style—facing one another sitting in the same lotus, or cross-legged, posture. With three small lacquered bowls, slender chopsticks, and precise instructions for every movement, oryoki is another form of meditation, and can be nerve-wracking for beginners. I had only heard of the practice spoken about in dread. We are going to eat oryoki breakfast and lunch for the next seven days, people groaned. Now, on this first full day of the retreat, I immediately learned what they meant.
The night before I had learned, in a half-hour tutorial (an absurdly short time for this complex ceremony), to arrange the white cloths—one a placemat, another a napkin one puts across the lap—the first time I had seen the bowls, spoons, and chopsticks. Practitioners of oryoki must learn how to fold and unfold the ceremonial cloths, how to handle the bowls, how to pick up and use the wooden spoon and chopsticks. At mealtimes, we were given no more than five minutes to finish three humble bowls of food, usually cooked grain, soup, and salad.
During that first morning’s breakfast, as I lifted the chopsticks, they clattered to the floor. Suddenly, the head cook appeared. Very poised, very ceremoniously, she picked up the chopsticks, bowed to me, walked to the altar, held them out as she bowed to the Buddha’s statue, and walking ever so mindfully to me, smilingly offered them back. All the while, my face was flushed and contracted, and I must have looked like a Zen fraud. After only a few hours spent in silence, language had begun to seep through our bodies and gestures—the way one held one’s shoulders or tilted one’s head, or simply how one pursed their lips told you what we were feeling, thinking. We told our stories without saying a word. At that moment, the neon-lit marquee across my mind read something like Shit, oh shit. What an idiot.
My mortification aside, several things move me about this formal way of eating. First come the chants of reflection and peace before taking the first bite of food. You are to finish all the food you take, no exceptions. Afterwards, you rinse the bowls with the allotted hot water and drink a portion of it, the effort of preparing food and then receiving it coming full circle. This way of eating calls for economy, elegance, and a very clear presence of mind.
Starting a meditation practice really means sitting down and making a contract with yourself to light candles and shine them in your internal hiding places, to know intimately the ways you lie to yourself. It also means making a promise not to beat yourself up for any of it. I thought myself a good person, but once, on that same retreat, during oryoki, a very graceful and experienced monk spilled a bowl of condiment made with ground sesame seeds and salt onto her black spotless robes, and my heart clapped with glee. She was serene-faced and straight-postured, with cropped hair and kind brown eyes. I watched her struggle to clean the mess and thanked deities, Christian and Buddhist alike, that it wasn’t me.
I had often wished I had a better story for why I came to meditation. I’d read about the lives of teachers and how they found this practice. I imagined their seeking to be a meaningful journey, one in which meditation was genuinely discovered, and flourished as part of their life’s path. Mine, by comparison, sounded so girlish: once in my early twenties, devastated over a break-up, I sought comfort in Zen practice. I had been volunteering at the Urban Farm in Hayes Valley, and noticed that other volunteers didn’t see, or didn’t mind, that I was hunched over my patch of dirt with an expression that looked like the world was ending. Crying while gardening gave me a sense of relief. I could somehow accept my own predicament, no matter how fleeting this acceptance, because I had a pile of pulled-out weeds I could feel accomplished about.
One rainy day on my way to the farm, instead of waiting out the weather in my car or under a shed, I walked up the hill on Laguna Street and knocked on the heavy doors of the San Francisco Zen Center. The person who greeted me was polite, but a bit cool, disinterested. She quietly and promptly went back to her office while letting me peruse the bulletin boards and brochures. When I walked across the freshly-mopped floors to the courtyard, where a student was raking yellow spotted leaves, I didn’t know it then, but I must have decided there was something there for me—a way to befriend my flaws, my ineptitude at relationships, even my inability to get over a guy I had only known briefly and upon whom I had projected most of my future happiness, a delusion I would repeat many times over.
This was how, a year after that day, on that first meditation retreat, I found myself struggling at every oryoki meal. I tried to fold and arrange my placemat into a four-pointed star but it refused to be anything but lopsided—an imbalance that suggested the weight of my unexamined life. My bowls were perched perilously close to the edge of the raised platform that served as a table and could topple at the slightest movement of a careless hand. Not a vegetarian by nature, I had been snacking on trail mixes and bananas during breaks to keep full. I didn’t dare ask for seconds and risk being the last person in the hall eating. I feared fumbling as I cleaned my bowls and wrapped them back into the cloths, the tight, lotus-like shape now stained yellowed from food. Ugh. I really need to hand wash them or they will be so gross by the end of the week.
Whenever I’d watch movies featuring monks or Buddhist practice, I’d always winced a little at how uncinematic they could be on the screen. There would be Thich Nhat Han serenely walking on lavender fields in France. Or a scene of meditators sitting upright, as if in repose. The clock says 6 AM. Zoom in onto a monk deep into his concentration, then breaking into a yawn. That feeling captured meditation for me. After all, at the Zen Center’s library, books were stamped on their back pages with an earnest, cheerful wish of goodwill for borrowers: Have an ordinary day! A sign on the bulletin board during our silent retreat read: What’s happening today—Nothing. I laughed (wildly, inwardly) every time I passed by it, loved being privy to the joke. Because we were admonished to avoid casual talk in these retreats, I couldn’t comment on it with anyone, but I looked for affinity in my favorite faces, fellow practitioners I’d designated as warm and friendly. Who knew the why or how of this? We were all probably playing a variation of this game—separating people, consciously or not, into those we liked and those we didn’t, simply by the faces they wore.
On the second to the last day, I passed by the sign, and instead of chuckling, I felt something inside me break open. What was on the agenda was Nothing, because we were cultivating Something from which more possibilities could emerge. We were letting the soil sit fallow. That year, the country was deep in its mess in Iraq, and Nothing also seemed to me an entirely appropriate response in a world in which things were happening at a breakneck speed. That day, I sat for a long time under the sun, among the leaves in the courtyard, letting that quiet revolution in me take root. I wish I could say that I became a more evolved person after that. If that was a revolution, its leaders were still corrupt and besieged by infighting. Lust, rage, loneliness came roaring back. Hey, we’re coming along too! they said, defiant and stubborn.
On one of the last oryoki, I was deep in one of my cherished daydreams, probably finishing a conversation with my ex-boyfriend, getting the final say at last. So mature and articulate was I in this virtual iteration, this millisecond lapse resulted in the server spooning a full cup of raw almonds into my bowl. Finishing that many in the allotted time would be impossible, as was breaking the silence in the meditation hall. I frantically made the gesture for “enough.” In my panic, I tried to devise a plan to bury the nuts somewhere under the mats, a Zen temple sacrilege if there was ever one. Oh shit, oh fuck, dear bodhisattvas who look after the gluttonous and absent-minded, please help me.
At that moment, I looked up, and saw the monk who just days before had spilled the condiment onto her robe. Her eyes met mine, then her gaze fell to my vest pockets. The chants to signal the end of the meal had begun, the kettles of hot water for rinsing now about to be passed. Sometimes all one could do was pocket one’s troubles for another day, make them part of her nourishment. I grabbed the almonds and shoved them in my pockets, before joining my hands together in front of my heart in prayer.
Karen Llagas is a recipient of a Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize, a Hedgebrook residency and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. Her first collection of poetry, Archipelago Dust, was published by Meritage Press in 2010. Her poems have appeared in Rhino Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, the anthologies Troubling Borders, An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora (University of Washington Press, 2014), The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010), Field of Mirrors, (PAWA, 2010), among others. Based in San Francisco, she lectures at UC Berkeley and works as a freelance translator.