Last month I went to a three-day women’s retreat which had a big impact on me. It was led by two Zen teachers and the thirty or so women who attended mostly remained in silence and sat zazen (the upright sitting Zen meditation) but not always as we shall see. Here is a picture of the retreat, when I was the chant leader for our group.
Integrated skillfully into these serious proceedings, the weekend also included a bit of playfulness. Several times during the three days we were divided in smaller groups to act out skits, complete with props and written prompts. One evening we sang a few rounds together. Encouraged by a French-speaking Vietnamese friend, we also sang together a classic French tune, “Colchiques dans les prés”.
The topic of the retreat and of the skits was “The Five Hindrances”, Zen parlance for various forms of confusion resulting from challenges, even small ones. The Buddha called these states “hindrances” since they hinder the mind’s capacity to clearly assess what’s happening. The five hindrances are:
. sensual desire (and/or “desire for sense experience”)
. ill will/anger
. (corrosive) doubt
I am sure we can all identify with at least one, and probably several of them at various times throughout our lives. The skit I performed that had the most impact on me was when my group was asked to act out for a few minutes the hindrance about negative doubt (not the healthy type of doubt that prompts one to question). Not only was that the hindrance I identify most with (though by no mean was it the only one!), the written text given to our group to illustrate it was also one I most liked when I first read about it in the most recent book by one of the teachers who led this retreat. (The book’s title is The Hidden Lamp, author Susan Moon.) The excerpt my group was given to “play” with is called “Faxiang’s Recognition”, China, 5th c., and here it is:
The nun Faxiang often shared her clothing and food, giving the best to the nun Huisu. The other nuns admonished Faxiang, saying, “The nun Huisu is uncultivated and inarticulate. When she wanted to study meditation, no one would give her instruction because she is the worst of idiots. Why don’t you sow the seeds of generosity in a more spiritually worthy field?”
Faxiang responded, “One would have to be a saint to know the spiritual accomplishments of the recipient of donations. I’m a very ordinary person, so I would rather do it this way.”
Later, Huisu sponsored a seven-day meditation retreat with the community. On the third night, when the others arose from meditation, she did not get up, remaining in a deep meditation state until the end of the retreat. It was only then that the other nuns saw Huisu’s extraordinary abilities, and for the first time they understood Faxiang’s insight.
As an autistic woman, I can really identify with Huisu, the woman who is not taken seriously, and am grateful than Zen practice helps those who do the practice day after day. They may thus (at times and relatively — it is a long and arduous road and I am far from being any good it) achieve a greater clarity.
So when it was my turn to prepare to act out a simple skit I chose to act out with my own impromptu props: I ran up to my bedroom to get them. The prop was what I call my headgear: a hat, my large Ear Protective Headset, sun glasses and a face mask. With that regalia fully on I am unrecognizable. I wear it to protect myself as much as possible from what I call “AGRUAR”, a word I made up to describe the stuff that renders me ill: AG for aggressive, RU for rushed, AR for artificial — in this case, unwanted sounds, lights and smells. This is what I look like with all of it on:
Of course, because of the negative feedback I often get when I wear this headgear, I try to not wear it all at once. I am fortunate: as I recover I need it less and less. Sun glasses and hat are not so different from what everybody else wears. I wear the large noise protection headset only in the bus and on my bike when on a longer trip. If it is dark at night I often also wear my hat with it, a thing I dislike having to do as that appears so odd. However, I have recently noticed some people wearing rather large headsets, albeit to listen to music, with their caps on.
At the retreat, when I wore my headgear in front of the others, and told them why it was I used it and how hurtful the negative feedback about it was, I suddenly felt very vulnerable. One other group member introduced me with the sentence (It had to be a doubt): “I doubt anyone will take me seriously” and I collapsed on the floor in tears, hugging my knees.
This experience had an immediate effect though: the same day, in the evening, though I usually do not go to evening events because I am too tired and the lights bother me, I decided it was safe enough to go to the singing that was to take place. When I entered the room, it was kept rather dark, though with enough light to see. However a woman started to complain about the lesser than usual brightness , but then she looked at me…and she stopped her sentence short, she did not complain anymore. This last picture is a close up of the one above, when I was the chant leader for the group.