The Snake in the Hollow Bamboo

On January 1st, my time at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center comes to a close. I’ve been living, working, and sitting (meditating) at Green Gulch in Muir Beach, CA for three months as a work apprentice in Guest Services.

I’m not sure how or where to begin conveying the experience of living in this Soto Zen Buddhist communal setting.

And yet I will try.

First, some background may be helpful as to why I’ve been at Green Gulch in the first place. For that, please refer to my most recent previous post, “Pivoting to Sitting.”

In a technical sense, Green Gulch Farm is a “training temple.” Meaning that its overarching purpose is to orient and train Zen students and adherents in what is ultimately an extensive system of protocol, ritual, and ceremony in the Soto Zen tradition (a branch of Mahayana Buddhism) transmitted to this American temple in the early 1970s by its Japanese founder, Suzuki Roshi.

Symbols of ritual and ceremony at Green Gulch Farm
Symbols of ritual and ceremony at Green Gulch Farm

In a practical sense, Green Gulch Farm – through the execution of its purpose – has continued as a thriving and dynamic community, temple, guest destination, and organic farm and garden with many layers and moving parts for almost 50 years.

Garden tools at Green Gulch farm
Gardening Tools at Green Gulch Farm

There is vastly more to Green Gulch than meets the newcomer’s eye.

In a personal sense, Green Gulch has been for me what I would term “onomatopoeic.” Meaning that at least three of Zen Buddhism’s major concepts – Beginner’s Mind, Impermanence, and the Middle Way – are on constant and vivid display here.

Here’s what I mean:

1. BEGINNER’S MIND: I have consistently encountered “first times” for learning new work and Zen practices at Green Gulch. A simple but significant example of this is discovering where all of the cleaning, hospitality, and food supplies are stored and knowing what, how, and when to clean. There is always something new to find, something new to do. Having this information is like being given “the keys to the kingdom.” In a communal setting, we are constantly cycling through, well, everything: Honey, nutritional yeast, toilet paper, paper towels, tea, coffee, all forms of milk, everything. Vigorous communal consumption requires prompt replacement of supplies, and constant communal activity demands consistent, vigilant maintenance. Hence, work is an integral aspect of Zen practice at Green Gulch.

And with a constant ebb and flow of people to and from Green Gulch – whether daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, or every few years — newcomers are continuously needing to be oriented and informed; informed in the ways of dish washing, cleaning, and work protocol (in the kitchen, in guest services, on the farm, etc.) as well as – and most vividly – in the Zendo (meditation hall). The challenge of all of this “first-timing” has ultimately instilled in me a heightened level of patience for myself and others. I think I now know what makes a good teacher: One who imparts knowledge to another as if learning it himself, herself, or themself for the first time.

2. IMPERMANENCE: At first, all of this coming and going of folks to and from Green Gulch Farm was a bit daunting, disorienting, and, at times, saddening. I realized after a time that, as humans, we tend to attach pretty readily to people, places, and situations. What soon struck me is that when I enter anything – such as relationships, homes, or starting school or a job – I tend to take snapshots that are fixed in that moment of entering. So much so that when change occurs, it is often uncomfortable, even stressful.

Being at Green Gulch has shown me how to better handle attachment. To be more mindful about connection in the midst of constant – and constantly impending – change while acknowledging, accepting, and even honoring my own human frailty and vulnerability around attachment. It is in this abiding recognition of impermanence that perhaps I can better navigate life’s unfolding with a greater sense of peace and equanimity.

3. THE MIDDLE WAY: When all is said and done, what has made my life at Green Gulch so worthwhile, meaningful, and enjoyable is its balance. No extremes have clouded my experience. The daily and weekly schedule at Green Gulch is varied, a quality which greatly appeals to my restless and sometimes fickle nature, while discipline and repeated practice has grounded me firmly.There has been sitting, work, lectures and gatherings, time for play and introspection, wonderful food and meals, and other activities. Neither asceticism nor hedonism reign life at Green Gulch. It’s all about “The Middle Way.”

I considered adding to this list a fourth concept, the concept of Samsara, or “suffering.” Instead, I wish to talk about this concept separately.

From my understanding, Samsara is about how our attachment to anything is the root of our suffering. Samsara is one of those “much easier said than done” concepts. As in, it’s not the
s— that happens in life that causes suffering, it’s how we handle the s— that happens in life.

What brought this concept to life for me a few weeks into my stay was when I heard Green Gulch’s venerable Abbess Fu Schroeder utter a phrase during an address to Green Gulch residents.

She invoked, “The snake in the hollow bamboo.”

To paraphrase, what is a snake to do when it finds it has slid into hollow bamboo?

Relax.

Image of snake in bamboo
Snakes innately know to relax when caught in tight spots! Photo: Waldemar Brandt

This koan (a Zen Buddhist paradoxical anecdote or riddle) brought it all home for me.

When I am living with or are in some form of perceived constraint or discomfort — whether in a relationship, in a community, at work, or facing an adverse event – it helps to consider how this snake might model how we can better deal with a challenging situation.

So how have I learned to better relax while at Green Gulch Farm?

By sitting.

So to hone a slightly finer point, a distinction can be made between “meditation” and “sitting.”

From my perspective, “meditation” implies some degree of intended proactive clearing of the mind of thought or mentation.

“Sitting” is about observing without judgment the comings and goings of what arises in one’s mind while repeatedly re-turning one’s attention to one’s breath. A kind of natural, organic “think, rinse, repeat.” Now that I have sat twice a day almost daily for the past three months, I can feel the subtle yet profound beneficial effect of a consistent practice of sitting.

"Sitting" pose I used at Green Gulch Farm
“Sitting” pose I used at Green Gulch Farm Photo: Le Minh Phuong

And this effect I will not try to convey in words.

Yet, my valued reader, please trust me when I say that I am infinitely grateful for having had the opportunity to retreat from the quotidian rigor of a secular life for the past three months and experience life in the amazing community that comprises — and nature that surrounds — Green Gulch Zen Center.

Author at Green Gulch Farm
Selfie capturing one of many peaceful and contented moments at Green Gulch Farm

May we all be at peace in 2020.

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