Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Zen Christmas

  • 22 December 2008
'Who is hearing?', is a question Zen practitioners are invited to sit with in meditation. One of the primary koans in the Zen tradition, it can open up our notions of self by drawing attention away from the mind into a more direct connection with the environment.

For me, what I usually hear when I sit in meditation with this question are aeroplanes and kids on the street, but for a few days recently I exchanged the sounds of the city for the rich silence of the bush: kookaburras, rain falling on leaves, buzzing flies.

Twenty years ago the Sydney Zen Centre built a retreat centre across the Hawkesbury River. A clearing in the bush with a meditation hall, a cottage, three pit toilets and three outdoor showers. It's a place to hold silent seven-day retreats. At this time of year, the property's wattle trees are in glorious golden bloom, their tiny pompoms turning up in the most unexpected places — the toilet floor, my sleeping bag, the incense bowl.

Silence has an honoured place in all spiritual traditions, and it is the principle around which monastic orders build their days. In Zen, silent meditation is the cornerstone of practice, and the opportunity to sit for extended periods is greatly valued for laypeople as well as for monks and nuns.

On my retreat, days started at 5am and continued until the last bell at 9pm, with rounds of sitting and walking meditation, chanting, and private interviews with teachers. The schedule feels alternately profoundly restful and, depending on the hour and my mood, somewhat akin to being incarcerated in a benevolent mental asylum.

Ritual structures the day, including the meal ceremony oryoki: three times a day servers bring trays of food into the meditation hall, we unwrap our meal bowls and then eat silently. When finished, we wash our bowls, dry them carefully, and place them beside our cushion ready for the next meal.

At my first retreat, I found meals the most difficult time to keep silent. Sociability is such a strong part of sharing food. But now oryoki is my favourite part of the day; an experience of being together in activity while respecting each other's inner life. And in quietness it is easier to give real attention to the food and to be grateful for it.

Surrounding the most ordinary of activities, eating, with ritual makes it newly beautiful. Zen draws most of its aesthetics