First Kyol Che

Kyol Che is the ninety-day retreat that is held twice a year (winter and summer) in Korea. Three-month winter Kyol Ches and three week summer Kyol Ches are also held at the Providence and Warsaw Zen Centers.

The meaning of "Kyol Che" is tight dharma. It is a time for intensive practice. Silence is maintained except for functional talking, one-on-one interviews with the teacher twice a week, and weekly dharma talks. Participants can do one to thirteen weeks, and there is an intensive week in the middle of the Kyol Che when extra practice is added onto the schedule.

Over the years the schedule has changed slightly, but generally it means rising at 4:45 a.m. and practicing though most of the day until bed at 9:40 p.m. Fifteen minutes of prostrations are the kick-off to the day, followed by sitting meditation from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. and then forty-five minutes of chanting. Shortly thereafter we have a formal breakfast followed by a work period and again sit until the formal lunch at noon. After lunch is the longest break of the day - almost one hour (a treasure time - I would generally walk to a solitary spot in the woods to sit and look and listen or would add my own voice to the sounds of nature with chanting). The practice begins again at 1:30 p.m. and goes until 4:30 p.m. These sitting stretches are generally thirty to forty minutes with ten minutes of walking meditation in between. Occasionally, there is a long walking meditation outside during the afternoon. A light, formal supper is served at 5:30 p.m., chanting is from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and sitting goes again until 9:30 p.m., when the evening winds up with one final effort: chanting together for ten minutes. (Kyol Che in Korea maintains a schedule that is very similar, except wake-up is at 3:00 a.m. when the Korean temple where it is held begins the day.)

Kyol Che offers the opportunity to simplify the structure of our life and serves as a wonderful background against which to attend to mind's functioning. Outward distractions are minimized so that our focus can more readily return to this moment.

To me, a new student before my first Kyol Che, it sounded wonderful - a perfect and rare opportunity to hunker down with the habits of mind that seemed to me to hinder a clearer, more energetic and compassionate functioning of my life. And the group support would be so useful in maintaining the schedule - in not buying into my own wavering mind when the original intention and motivation would be fogged in. It seemed like a very good idea, and making that space in my life was possible. So ?

Lying awake for a little while before the bell and listening to the stirrings of those still asleep and those beginning to awake - outside in the woods and on the pond the sounds are still too quiet to hear. Some mornings it's still hard to get up and others it's easy and natural. In any case these is no choice: we're all sleeping together here on the dharma room floor, so it's time to get up, roll up our mats and sleeping bags, put them away and use the bathrooms quickly. Then we meet back at our seats for bows. Today I'll try again to be, mentally as well as physically, here for bows - or at least for one third of them - so far it's probably been about one eighth.

Today is interviews - good - a break for the old knees and back - but then there's that damn kong-an. Bowman Poep Sa Nim gave me this one four months ago and still no clarity about it (Hey - cut the crap - stay with this moment - What is this !?)

How can I sit really deeply when there is this person next to me sneezing for the twentieth time? Once more - just one more time, and I'll scream!

Oh, God! Then pain is too awful - surely we've sat past the scheduled time. Is the head dharma teacher sleeping - or is she simply torturing me? I've read stories about this, purposefully making us sit longer to push our limits. Well, it's damn inconsiderate. Don't they know how painful this is? (Sound of the wooden clapper) Oh - right on time - my thinking again.

Okay. Just walk around this room ? One step at a time ? Whoops - once again I haven't been here for 7 minutes - okay - there are 3 minutes left - just come back to this step and this step.

Bananas again?! I want something more substantial - and some variety. Boy! when this thing is over I'm going to the "Swiss Alps" for cheese fondue and salad with that wonderful house dressing and wine and chocolate mousse and coffee.

Gradually there is a change - small inroads into complaining, wanting mind - periods of quiet; light changing on the floor as a cloud passes overhead. The small bruise on an apple - wow! It tastes of slightly hard cider.

And bows - at times it is just the movement of the body, up and down - and not just me. This whole group moves as one - one body - is this it? When I finish here I'll give a dharma talk about this experience: This is what practicing is about! Whoops - how many bows have we done? There are countless ways to lose this moment, even through wonderful insights and feelings.

Interviews again ? there's the bell ? my turn ? up, walk to the room ? close the door ? holding this question carefully. The same question asked - still no answer ? return ? sitting down. Oh, that's it! Of course! So simple, so obvious, open the window of mind ever so slightly - the joy of a fresh spring breeze ?

And now a new kong-an. There's no handle on this one. Any way I look at it - just a smoothly polished metal ball with no place to catch hold or to penetrate. Impossible! Let it go. What is this?!

Day after day - how many now? Sixty-five? That willow - every day now there's some sense that buds are beginning to expand. The cold creaks of winter winds are giving away to enormous winds carrying some warmth. More frequently now there are downright balmy days. Today after lunch with my sweatshirt off, I'm down to a T-shirt. The big rock I sit on more often now gives warmth rather than draws it from me.

Eighty-three days? One week left. Can't believe it. All these days and minutes are suddenly almost at an end. Such mixed feeling arise. Family, friends soon to see and talk with. And these increasingly precious moments on the cushion soon to decrease. So what is this! Let's not waste this time.

And this group. I know next to nothing of anyone's life history yet some strong bond has grown here - through sharing this effort together. The idea of one body/mind has given way to a fuller experience of one body/mind - so much more complete than the idea and so ordinary, too ? What is this? Breathing, light changing - still pain at times but the flow of the day and its rhythm is smoother with less struggle. Still many kong-ans unanswered - and these, too, are part of the rhythm. The willow is glowing with a light yellow-green. Spring bird songs fill our ears. No more creaking of the massive trunk with these gentler winds.

Tomorrow we finish. Tonight many of us sit later and rise earlier, a habit that has been gradually happening over the last few weeks. All of our habits seem to remain, and yet softer - the raw energy of beginning has given way to a more supple movement as group; the openness of the air jives with the milder air of Spring.

Today we finish - stay with it ? what is this? Movement - of light, of season, of bodies through the day, of each of us offering a stick of incense and any merit earned to all sentient beings, of packing our bags and hugging and speaking "hello" and "good-bye" and moving on.