Advice from a Bat. Michael Young
Hunt only at night. Fly erratically.
Defy even your own expectations.
Feed on beetles, moths, and mosquitoes,
whatever is small and annoying.
Cultivate the myths about you
until every predator fears your legend.
When hunting, be guided by a language
only you can hear. The same is true
when courting the one you love.
Clean fangs and fur nightly. Crawl
or climb to confuse the observant.
Retreat to a cave no one believes in.
Let the day and the world pass
while you sleep, and sleep upside down,
ready to wake and fall into flight.
Saturday, June 29th, 4:50 AM, morning bows in the zendo hall. The Summer Solstice Sesshin.
A week ago I was at ten thousand feet, climbing along the Roman Wall of Mt. Baker as the sun rose. Now I am closer to sea level, sitting on a zafu cushion, bowing as people take their places. Most I do not know. Some I recognize. A few names I know.
The day slowly appears.
It’s the sixth day of a seven day zen retreat. I joined on the fourth day. Yesterday, after lunch, sitting outside, I watched two women watching the stone wall of the monastery. Two more women joined them. They sat in silence because the precepts are in place.
I looked too. A bat, the size of a matchbox, crawling among the stones, turning his tiny teddy bear head left and right as he tried to find his way. A baby, I am sure. Close to where he belonged, but not there yet. I had the sense that if he did not find his way, he would not survive the night.
Later we did kinhin, walking outside. I tried to be mindful, present in the moment, aware of nothing but my footsteps on the path, but my mind wandered. A storm of thoughts. Then I saw Tyko, a senior student, standing near the stone wall, his feet set apart, like a soldier standing guard, as the line walked by him. I looked down at his feet: there was the bat, on the ground, crawling in the grass.
I returned to my zafu, sat, and tried to clear my mind. It wandered. Shugen had spoken of climbing the mountain (toward enlightenment). Some see the mountain. A few reach the trailhead. Rare are the ones who make the climb. Here we are. And here I am, climbing a mountain again.
I doubt I will ever reach the summit. I am not enlightened. I am student here and I tell people I am last in my class. When someone corrects mistakes I make in the rituals (which is every time I am part of a ritual) I get upset, and this is because of my ego. I have miles to go before I reach no self. But the longer I sit, the better I count my breaths to ten, the more the scripts of who I am fade, and this is progress, my ego fading.
We hunt stillness by chanting in Japanese and in Pali (a language no one speaks any more). I do not know the meaning of the words I chant – meaning would be a kind of distraction.
In the mornings I work in a garden, on my knees in humid air in silence pulling weeds with others by my side doing the same. This is also zazen. This is also a metaphor. Once it began to rain and we kept working as though allowing the rain to fall upon us is part of our natural state, because it is.
In dokusan, I asked Hojin (my teacher) if she knew what happened to the bat. She looked at me confused.
“I found a small bat in the monastery,” she says. “I put him outside in the stonework.”
She helped set him on his journey, I thought to myself.
I returned to my zafu cushion and tried to still my mind. I opened my eyes and breathed in the people sitting near me. I wondered about their thoughts. I have heard people crying during meditation. Once a woman bawled. We just sat with her. In my mind I said, “This sadness is too much for you and I am taking in as much as I can to ease your burden.”
At the end of zazen that evening, I stayed in meditation a bit longer. I focused on the shuffle of people leaving, putting on their shoes, going upstairs and downstairs, and listened as attendants straightened cushions. I breathed in the last scent of the incense.
And then I walked back to the Jizo house in the darkness. Dozens of fireflies flashed in the field. I saw bats against the sky, snapping their wings, hunting moths.
I dropped into sleep. Sometime after 2:00 AM I woke to sounds of someone walking, then I dropped back into to sleep. At 4:15 AM, the man whom I asked to wake me woke me.
4:50 AM, morning bows in the zendo hall. The song birds are waking, but as the light grows stronger, their voices quiet, and as they grow silent, I still my mind. My thoughts turn to the bat. Has he survived?
On this last morning, we are allowed to speak, the same way Quakers speak when they sit together. Someone describes waking after 2:00 AM to sit early in the zendo hall. He says that as he walked along the field, he watched thousands of fireflies. He starts to cry as he describes it, the beauty. A woman talks about working in the garden with five others as the humid air turned to rain and she kept pulling weeds. Another describes the bat she watched in the stonework searching for his mother.
I breath in. I breath out. This is the extent of my practice. Here I am on retreat in a place no one out there understands. They would think me crazy if they knew. Upside down. But I am ready to wake and fall into flight.
And what became of the bat – I do not know.
Christopher P. Kriesen. July, 2019.