In the last blog I talked about the early Zennists living in the mountains, shunning the cities and the emperor’s court. I said there is much to gain from such a retreat. The retreat is when we start the process of throwing away the crutches. Some can do it without too much delay. For others it is not so easy. They might carry the crutches around on the back or wear a small silver crutch on a chain around their neck. Or have a an old photo of their crutches.
Being in a deep retreat, not like a Tibetan retreat where you are around other people, is the time when you face yourself looking deep into a dusty mirror that you were told was “originally clear and pure” (Hui-neng). There are lots of names for the dust that hides the bright mirror such as day dreaming, picture thinking, worrying about the future, internal dialogues, and plain fear. But back to the crutches.
The crutches, which help to make us spiritual weaklings, are our world of concepts which are mainly rationalizations—call them excuses. You could put many of them on Freud's leather couch. The crutches are also pseudo-enlightenments which amount to persuasive conclusions about Zen as in, “Yeah, that is what Mu means.” As long as we are depending on our crutches, we will never get past the dust on the mirror. Without the crutches, it is possible to touch the dust surface and wipe a small bit away.
In a retreat it is no problem (it wasn’t for me) to carry water and cut firewood to cook with and to keep warm. It is easy to walk many miles beside a nameless stream or sit in meditation by a nameless small waterfall. After a while the crutches begin to become useless baggage. Concepts have less value. With whom can you share them, the Meadowlark or the bullfrog calling in the pond by the well?
There comes a time during retreat, which is the time when our crutches can be dropped so that we can walk on our own two feet, in which the dust on the mirror comes into sharp relief. Then we start thinking about the mirror, itself, which means we have to actually see it. During this time the value of the retreat cannot be over estimated. We are on the edge. The thin layers of dust are not so thick after all. The illusion is quite thin.