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Walking Into Winter


I have been here before. Before the Pandemic, I was walking every morning, or five mornings a week, before work or on weekends and worrying about how I would manage into the winter. I did for a while. Until my feet got too cold.


I am telling myself as winter is here again that I need to buy wool socks and boot liners. I thought I had them in my sock drawer, but I couldn’t find them. I will look again.


Did I decide years ago that I would never need them? Did I put them in a bag and leave them on the stoop for the Viet Nam Veterans?


Yesterday was gray although I could see the sun trying to push through. Rain was in the forecast. I walked in the gray. I am walking more now since retiring for the second time last June. I am joking that walking has become my occupation and pre-occupation. I have much more time now to worry about walking and to worry about winter.


Yesterday, I was more worried about the gray than about the cold. The day before had been cold and crisp. I jumped into walking enthusiastically. In the gray, I am daunted. Finishing my morning coffee, preparing to push myself into the gray, I come back to that koan to which I have returned over and over.


“Every day is a beautiful day.”


Although most translations quote Yun Men saying, “every day is a good day,”[1] I have always worked with my wording. How could I have possibly passed this koan? It feels to me like all my life I have been screaming, “Every day is not a beautiful day.”


How did I pass this koan? Don’t know. Now I want to say that I was a fraud as a koan student although I didn’t know it at the time. I did it all wrong. I treated koans as obstacles on the path to becoming a Sensei.


Blame it on Bernie. In the midst of my re-engaging with him as my teacher, -- he had taken me back as his student although he had never really stopped being my teacher even as I threw myself into study with Jishu, -- I would be her first shuso, -- Bernie had simply said, “Two teachers are fine,” – he decided that koan study via email wouldn’t work. At least not for me. Bernie was living then in La Honda. There was no Zoom yet. He had then sent me to do koan study with Roshi Bob Kennedy in Jersey City. I could get there on my way to work if I got up at 5 AM. The idea was that once I completed the four prescribed books of koans, I would go back to Bernie to finish preparation for transmission.


Each koan was a hurdle. It was all about passing. I had no appreciation of deepening although Jishu had tried to point me in that direction. I remember fondly beginning koan study with Jishu just before her passing, just before she and Bernie moved to Santa Fe. I would drive to Yonkers from Brooklyn in the early morning and run into see her. I would bow and offer my koan. It seemed that she always said, “Go deeper.” Nothing more. I never felt rejected, only encouraged. But where would I “go”?


I would climb back into my car and drive back to Brooklyn to arrive at work by 9 AM.


Bob was a wonderful teacher and I received such gifts during the time that I spent with him, those weekly early mornings in Jersey City and in sesshins, but I feel now that I wasted my time with him. I could have gotten so much more if I wasn’t in such a hurry to pass, to move on to the next hurdle, to get back to Bernie. How much more would I have gotten if my intention had been to truly penetrate and to be penetrated by my koans?


Through it all, I did manage to blunder to my heart, to a release from some of my conditioned reliance on my brain. But I could have gone so much deeper.


Now, as I am doing koan study with my students, I am finally going deeper. Perhaps because I am no longer in a hurry to get them somewhere, I have stayed longer with many koans, perhaps longer than the students would have liked.


Last spring, I heard a number of Maezumi Roshi’s direct successors comment that Maezumi did not do koan study with all students and that they now do it only with a few. My impression was that Bernie did koan study with all students who had gone beyond establishing a firm sitting practice, and that Bob did too. Or perhaps I misunderstood. In the world of Zen, we never really know what our teachers are doing with other students. Perhaps now, I am doing koan study with my students for me, for the opportunity now to go deeper.


“Every day is not a beautiful day.” I feel like I knew this before I could walk. Even before I could talk, but that is not possible. It is as if I have always known the “famous” story about my mother, how in her late teens or early 20’s she had cancelled lunch with her future sister-in-law because it was raining. I grew up with her fears of catching cold. Mommy always made sure I was bundled up when I went out to play in the winter. If she caught me with my jacket off playing basketball, she would always insist that I put it back on. I couldn’t take the jacket off until I was out of eye shot.


Once again, I am threatening to walk into winter. Dee says she is going to clear off the treadmill in the bedroom so that I can walk indoors. But there is something pulling at me to face the winter.


Toward the end of her life, my mother diagnosed herself with Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a real psychiatric condition, SAD. She bought herself some special lights she thought were helping with her seasonal depression. I imagine that I have some of that SAD too, although forcing myself out of doors to walk even on the gray days seems to be helping. Morri says there is science behind this: we do get exposure to sunlight even on overcast days.


Yesterday, finishing my coffee, looking out at the gray, I could feel the gloom on my face. I got out and walked into the gray, wondering “Will I ever be able to walk in the rain?”


Maybe.


Today, seven weeks after stepping into my four-foot hole, I skipped a breakfast meeting in order to make sure I could get some walking in b


efore the rains arrived. More relaxed, I would walk at least until the rains began. And then I would walk back to the car in the beginning of the rain. I wasn’t far from the car. It wasn’t a hard rain. It was fine. It was beautiful.


Will I ever get to the place where every day is a beautiful day?


Not just in my head.


In my bones.


In my marrow.

[1] Case 6, The Blue Cliff Record.


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James Breslin
James Breslin
Dec 22, 2022

Thank you Friend.

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