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Zen Christmas

'Zen Christmas', by Chris Johnston'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 from Japanese culture, which has a great gift for this kind of daily ceremony, from the art of drinking tea to that of flower arranging.

In the West we are rapidly approaching our own peak of ritual behavior, Christmas. It is full of ceremony, though most are anything but meditative. All these celebrations with people and presents and food and drink and excess. I love many of these Christmas rituals and, as the youngest in a big family, am particularly loyal to them. But they seem at a painful remove from my days of silence in the bush.

This is such a frantic time of year for many of us, but then outside of the monasteries and retreat centres, daily life itself is always busy and full of chatter. Already, silent breakfast in a still-dark zendo, with mist rising on the mountains, has been replaced by a scramble against the clock, one greedy eye on the newspaper, one greedy hand reaching for the Weet Bix, our toddler clambering all over me and garbage trucks screeching by outside.

How to find the silence here? How to really hear what's in our hearts and in the world outside? We have built a culture which feeds on the human propensity for distraction. Our appetite for the internet, television, iPods and mobile phones shows a determination to keep silence, both outer and inner, at bay. No wonder we feel  exhausted.

But even amidst all this noise there is a deep power within all of us to say, 'stop'. We can do that by carving out the time for daily prayer or meditation. Turning off the computer and taking a walk. Putting down the newspaper and really seeing those who sit at the table with us.

Perhaps my new Christmas ritual will be to try to find something of the spirit of oryoki in city streets and family life. Probably not over the Christmas ham and champagne, but there are still other spaces for silence in this celebration — watching the lights on a Christmas tree, or standing around that crib with its baby boy-child sleeping.

Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a Sydney writer, and a producer with ABC Radio National. She was the winner of the 2005 Margaret Dooley Award.

Topic tags: sarah kanowski, sydney zen centre, silent meditation, christmas, consumerism



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Existing comments

I tell myself that silence is always there, it's just that we cover it often with noise. There is a deep 'well' of silence within me that reminds me of the silence that is always there. It is were i feel the presence of the God within all things. When I am conscious of this silence within I see that the silence never leaves. To turn towards this silence we also must turn to our own humanity and this can often involve too much honesty - hence the distractions we create. Yes under the clothes we wear we are naked, and under the noise we create silence will always be.

Andrew McAlister | 22 December 2008  

very enriching article.

Augustine Aimale Sami | 22 December 2008  

A lovely reminder of how silence and taking the time to hear our breath can make us feel stronger. Thank you Sarah.

Anna LM | 23 December 2008  

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