martes, 13 de septiembre de 2011

Crazy? Not me! A week on retreat in Seville was exactly what I needed.

In the white heat of late afternoon in Andalusia an ant struggles across sun-bleached stones. Her burden is a feather, wispy, white and delicate, from the under wing of a baby bird. She staggers sideways. The gentlest of breezes bellows out the plumes, sail like, thwarting her advance. For each centimetre gained, another is lost. Again and again the feather is wafted off her shoulders. Doggedly she shrugs, gathers up her treasure and resumes the onward journey. Zig-zag fashion. A colleague crosses paths with her and they appear to confer momentarily. I peer more closely and see a change of tactics. Now she has harnessed the breeze and her course is linear and rapid. She and her feather are coasting along, homeward bound.
I am spending this week at Seikyuji Zen Buddhist temple near Seville, where I have had the luxury of indulging in long hours of contemplation, meditation and perhaps rather too much soul searching (aka navel gazing). It’s just what I need after the buffeting of the last few weeks. Moving from Ireland to Spain proved to be a much stormier journey than I had anticipated. Finally though, I too am coasting along here at Seikyuji, where peace, not silence, reigns supreme. In the evenings, when the heat has abated, crickets begin their chorus of chirps, owls screech and jasmine breathes its seductive aroma into the night air. That’s when I patrol in search of escarabajos, beetles the size of a two pound coin floundering upside down, legs flailing desperately in search of a foothold. At nightfall dozens beach themselves on the porches of the temple and surrounding buildings. The plight of these bumbling insects evokes compassion. When I leave I hope that another volunteer will continue the rescue mission.
Two weeks ago I was teaching at university, preparing my students for their foundation year exams. Now I’m harvesting olives, gordales they’re called, the fat green tasty ones that are sold in a few select delicatessens in Belfast, my home town. It’s hard work. My shoulders, neck and arms have been quick to protest under the weight of the basket harnessed to me.
Seikyuji temple is located on the Morejona estate and is surrounded by mature olive groves. Three hundred olive trees bear fruit here, fruit which has to be harvested, sorted and pressed. Harvesting is done by hand. In the autumn, voluntary workers – like me - come for a few days or a couple of weeks to pick hundreds of kilos of olives that are sent to a nearby organic press. The oil and the olives are marketed locally under the logo of the community. It’s a modest income which is used to partly finance the day to day upkeep of the temple and subsidise the cost of retreats.
            Up to eighty people at a time can participate in retreats at La Morejona. Dormitories surrounding the temple are basic but the beds are comfortable and clean. There is usually Zen monk or nun on the premises available for spiritual guidance. Zen master Raphaël Doko Triet comes from France to attend the more heavy duty retreats (sesshins) involving hours of daily meditation. I’m not ready for that yet.  Rising well before dawn to the clang of bell has sent shock waves through my entire system. Meditation on that first morning became a war of attrition against sleep deprivation, nausea and, inevitably, joint pain. My knees screeched fire and my hips whimpered piteously in the half light of the temple. In the distance gunshots echoed through the countryside, morning and evening, as hunters set out in search of quail and rabbit. Still, we sat on in silence.
            Once morning meditation is over, we troop out out of the temple behind the resident monk for a brief stroll past the olive groves, pomegranate and fig trees, and along a path leading to the pond. Alert to our approach, a dozen or more frogs plop into the depths of safety. That’s where they’ll remain until twilight, when the temperature descends to more merciful 25º.
We file into the kitchen for breakfast and I’m starving. I’ve been up for three hours and have had nothing to eat. Since there are only seven of us this week, meal times are not the military operation launched three times daily when the temple is running at full capacity. For summer camp a team of four cooks and an equal number of washers up man the industrial-size kitchen. Austerity does not prevail in La Morejona. Food is prepared with gusto and creativity, to restaurant standard. Every evening we gather for an aperitif of wine or a glass of beer accompanied by olives which last year’s retreatants harvested. Dinner is served outdoors, under an inky blue-black sky, peppered by stars whose constellation I can only guess at.  
By 10.30 I’m fading but there’s still work to be done. In the kitchen, surrounded by the remains of tonight’s meal and dozens of dirty dishes, I turn to another retreatant, laughing off his offer to relieve me and add that I wash up at home because I have to. I wash up here because I want to. And I really mean it. My co retreatants are a joy to be with, there’s plenty of craic here, as we would say back in Belfast. I’m hooked now, a fellow traveller in a community that spends its evenings, weekends and holidays (well, not all) sitting cross legged in darkened meditation halls and sweeping temple floors after breakfast. Next stop – the south of France in November. I’m already looking forward to it.
And, just in case you’re interested, here’s the website. But be warned; only Zen practitioners already affiliated to a group will be accepted on retreat.

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