It’s winter now in the Northern Hemisphere, bitter cold and icy.
Crunching through the snow on my way home, I think of how this is prime time for yoga and religious retreats to South Asia, where the blistering tropical heat has faded into a temperate glow.
Across India, swarms of Western yoginis and meditators are joining gurus in temples and yoga halls.
I remember my own days there—not with a living guru, but a historic one.
Now, in snowy Chicago, I realize that what wisdom that time left me with could help anyone, anywhere, whether on a retreat or not.
On a June day in 2013, I departed my home in Bangladesh for Sarnath (where Buddha first taught) and Bodh Gaya (where he attained enlightenment). On long train rides, I read English translations of poetry by Ryokan Taigu. A Japanese Buddhist monk whose name means “Big-hearted, Generous Fool,” Ryokan is the most popular of Japan’s Zen poets. Although his life ended in 1831 when he died at the age of 73, he is remembered in countless hagiographies and poetry books in Japanese and English.
It’s an ironic twist. In his strict, conservative era, he broke many rules and surrendered all of the power he might have attained. He gave up a seat as temple head, drank alcohol, ate meat, wandered around freely and focused on poetry.
But Ryokan was rather special.
He was a master of several types of poetry, and offered a new verse freely to anyone who asked. He once wrote a daunting list of admonishments on ethical speech, too—but always gentle, he addressed it only to himself.
As I traveled around Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, I read his words and compiled my own self-directed admonishments.
That year, I’d been living in Bangladesh, where I’d weathered political chaos, harsh urban living and an overwhelming workload. I had been at Rana Plaza, a nine-story factory that collapsed, killing 1,140 workers. My meditation practice had lapsed.
Now that I was “traveling to a distant country, accompanied by… thoughts of the sadness in this world” (as Ryokan once wrote), I knew my retreat had to be remedial, not rigorous.
My guidelines combined the gentle monk’s sincerity with his rule-breaking. Here is how I began again.
An old Zen Buddhist saying says to “meditate like our hair is on fire,” which I always thought meant “meditate like you are trying to set your hair on fire by sheer force of concentration.” (I also always thought this was a completely insane thing to say.)
In Sarnath, I realized focus can be made more feasible by simpler means: I just quit coffee overnight.
Some find cold-turkey caffeine withdrawal terribly disabling. But for me, the sudden loss created a slow-motion feeling and the ability to stare peacefully for a long time. My whole daily agenda became what Ryokan wrote some 200 years ago: “Too lazy to be ambitious, I let the world take care of itself.”
When rest is your main game, sleep means scoring extra points.
In Sarnath, I remembered my time as a resident of a Zen Buddhist temple in the US. Each morning, we would do 108 prostrations, kneeling and bowing and chanting together. At the end, the head priestess would yell out, “Be awake each moment! Do not waste your life!”
I used to want to yell, “Be awake approximately two-thirds of the moments!”
Seriously, if you were awake every moment, you would be hallucinating after two days and your whole body would ache. Also, neuroscientists say meditation can be quite similar to the first, most shallow stage of sleep. Right after all this kneeling and bowing, we’d sit in meditation, and the same place telling us to be eternally awake would also enforce naptime. This was good, because we started this whole ritual thing at 5 AM. But it didn’t quite make logical sense.
Ryokan totally got that. His poetry reads,
“In this dream world
and talk of dreams —
dream, dream on,
as much as you wish.”
In India, I did that. I went for all four stages of sleep, and when staying awake for two-thirds of the moments seemed too strident, I capped off a three-hour morning nap with a thirteen-hour night of sleep.
“Be awake for almost none of the moments,” in other words. It felt deeply necessary.
There’s a Zen proverb that says, “Sleep when tired, eat when hungry.” First of all, this doesn’t square with the whole be-awake-each-moment thing at all. Second, nobody eats the minute they get hungry. People in Buddhist temples don’t do this. Even goldfish have to wait for food to rain from above.
In Bangladesh, the stress of people being crushed to death for no reason had eliminated my appetite, and I’d lost weight so quickly that my hair began falling out. In Sarnath, I was almost never hungry, but saw the need for replenishment.
Rather than Zen proverbs, I felt compelled to mimic the part of “Eat, Pray, Love,” where Elizabeth Gilbert enters an Indian ashram and eats like she’s in a contest.
I forgot about Buddhist proverbs and went on a “see food” diet—as in, “when I see food, I eat it.”
The guesthouse helped tremendously. They served meals of rice, spicy fish, and mango pickle so often that I could make up the meals I’d missed while sleeping. Pushcarts serving rice cakes and potatoes lined the roads, and I chugged liters of mango juice till I sloshed inside. I felt grateful and deeply nourished.
Forsaking “Eat, Pray, Love,” I relied once again on Ryokan. His words rang true:
“Returning to my hermitage after filling my rice bowl,
Now only the gentle glow of twilight.”
4. Accept praise.
Buddhism has a pretty nice idea about doing things for their intrinsic value, not just for external rewards. Ryokan said it in a poem once: “Yes, I’m truly an idiot… This old fellow just likes to smile to himself… The world owes me nothing.”
In Bodh Gaya, there is a retreat center whose grounds are covered with tiny stupas. A stupa is normally a building-size monument, and getting one is like getting a key to the city. But this retreat center had made it possible to dedicate a “miniature stupa”—similar to a large chess piece atop a pedestal—to basically anyone.
Amid the many dedications was one for “all beings, past, present, and future, who wish to have a stupa dedicated to them.” I wondered if there is a kind of Lama Kanye West Rinpoche out there somewhere, wallowing in narcissistic feelings of under-appreciation and insisting someone should devote a stupa to him or her.
No doubt clued into Buddhists’ insistence on humility and good humor, somebody had short-circuited the unenlightened ego-mania of everyone.
I laughed with delight.
Then I realized that that praise felt good. The world owes me nothing, just as it owes the many people who died that year in Bangladesh nothing, technically speaking. But the problems of Bangladesh had crushed many hearts, including mine. To let go required feeling alright about myself. Praise helped.
I thought Ryokan, the gentle fool, would have approved.
5. Go Where They Ain’t.
Bodh Gaya (where Buddha attained enlightenment) and Sarnath (where he gave his first teaching) are two of the four most important sites of Buddha’s life. (The other two are Lumbini, where he was born, and Kushinagar, where he died.) They attract enormous crowds of pilgrims each year. But mostly they come in the winter, when Sarnath’s weather is hospitable.
When I traveled there, India was basking in the 100-degree heat of late June. The crowds of travelers were small and local. (They liked to stop me, the only white person in sight, to take my photo.)
Whole temples stood almost empty.
Sitting on a Japanese temple’s white marble floor, I listened to a tremendous silence – a true rarity in bustling South Asia. I knew it was the same that Ryokan, a lonely hermit monk lying on a Niigata mountainside, had heard two hundred years ago.
Crossing the border once again, I looked back to India, folded my hands, and directed one last bow to Ryokan. Long after he assumed his life and work would be forgotten, I felt his presence everywhere.
In reality, of course, there was no need to go to India at all to feel that way.
Even Ryokan himself had never been there—and his influence on my retreat was not specific to South Asia at all.
In fact, the current North American winter chill would be far more familiar to the Big-Hearted, Generous Fool. “I live in the mountains of Echigo,” he once wrote. “White peaks all around… Ice, snow, and clouds blend together.” Although he wandered in his middle years, Ryokan never fled to large gatherings in warmer climates.
The retreat wasn’t specific to me, either. Rest, nourishment, praise, quiet, and good poetry from a light-hearted soul are good for everyone.
While many flock in India in darkest winter, there is nowhere on Earth one needs to go to sleep with abandon and eat for deep replenishment, accept compliments on behalf of all beings, or listen to the silence, or, above all, to embrace Ryokan’s rule-breaking gentleness.
“Winter will be soon be over;
Please, please come visit
My grass hut.”
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: M. Sophia Newman
Apprentice Editor: Megan Ridge Morris / Editor: Emma Ruffin