A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. So is this fleeting world. -The Diamond Sutra

Just as the first flowers stretched up and unfurled their petals from the dreaming earth, we celebrated Shakyamuni Buddha’s final merging with earth. The legendary Buddha is said to have extinguished the fires of desire and aversion in his lifetime and reached nirvana (“blown out” like a candle), freeing himself from the cycle of rebirth when he died. In this sesshin, we investigated how to hold the grief and fear that comes with knowing that everyone we love passes away.

At our first oryoki meal, Chozen instructed, “If you knew this was the last bite you’d ever take, how would you treat it?” The clatter faded as we sighed a collective, heart-aching “Mmm…” She continued, “But Oh, look! Here’s another bite. A gift, the first bite of your new life given back to you.” We continued last bite, first bite, until Chozen asked, “All the tastes and textures you were just enjoying- where did they go?” Where indeed. What does it really mean when something’s just gone, whether as simple as a nourishing meal or as inconceivable as a dear friend?

“If you knew you had a month to live, what would change?” Jogen asked. “When we’re not present, in a way it’s like we’re already dead.” The room fell silent beyond noble silence, and he lowered his gaze. “And what a terrible shame.” We filed out soberly for work practice to engage with the only life we have. How would we wash floors, chop vegetables, dig a hole if this was it? And what splendid details could spring forth that we’ve spent our whole lives ignoring?

Chozen implored us to empty our egos, drop away every craving and hostility so fully that nothing’s left but a skeleton dancing with fire in its eyes. In this way, we can “quiet the mind to abandon the body” and “merge infinitely into the whole universe” (Dai E Zenji).

We concluded the retreat in total darkness, as Chozen said how it feels when someone we love or a great teacher dies- as if all the light has gone out of the world. Then Alexa, our youngest resident, stepped forward in her service position debut to relight the candles, symbolizing great wisdom springing from all, even the youngest or a child.

Earlier that day, Hogen gave me a prep talk for chant leading: “Loud, strong, dignified, about half that fast, and if you die of mortification, we’ll just fold it into the ceremony.” Chozen laughed, “Yes, we’ll lay you in front of the alter and sprinkle flower petals on you.” That night, as I watched Shinei’s rainbow petals flutter to the ground with Soten following as “smell-maker” (christened by Jogen), incense smoke curling around the beloved faces of my companions on the path, my gaze fell to that sacred spot between the haishiki bowing mat and altar. Moonlight streamed in the windows, frogs softly peeping their goodnights. Candlelit faces floated around, and I imagined my body lying there as Chozen described, the chanting voices of the Heart Sutra rising and falling:

Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.

The abbots may have been joking to ease my nerves, but in that moment I felt a deeper acceptance that if it was meant to be, it was meant to be, and I really couldn’t think of a more sacred space to draw one last precious breath and take my noble place among the vast majority who’ve gone before me.

Contact Janet at stories@zendust.org.