The retreat was themed around the Zen koan ‘What Is This?’, which is a traditional method for inspiring curiosity, wonder and insight into the nature of phenomena (no less). The daily schedule of the retreat comprised of periods of sitting and walking meditation interspersed with meal breaks. The encouragement was to practise diligently, in silence, throughout the day.
On the first morning, during a walking period, I came across a small pile of stones beside a garden path. Next to the pile, a number of these stones had been arranged, presumably by another retreatant, into a smiley face. I didn’t give it much thought at the time and carried on walking.
The next day, I was walking along the same path when I noticed the stones again. Something had changed. Taking a closer look, I discovered that the mouth had been reshaped into an expression of surprise. Wanting to stay true to my meditative intentions of abiding in moment-to-moment awareness, I simply noted an inner flutter of amusement and carried on walking.
On the third morning, I became aware of a mild urge to steer myself along the path towards the stones. My curiosity had got the better of me. Sure enough, the stones had been reshaped again. The surprised face was as before but, above it, additional stones had been arranged into the shape of a question mark.
The next day, against my better judgment, I felt compelled to return to the stones. They had not changed. I noted my disappointment. On the fifth day, I was up that path before I knew it, as if on auto-pilot, eager for a peek at the stones. I found them unchanged again. More disappointment.
On the sixth day, I checked three times. No alterations forthcoming. Perhaps the mystery stone-arranger had decided to get more serious about their retreat, I don’t know. As for me, well, I was obliged to reflect upon my walking practice as a descent into an embarrassing quest for mindless novelty.
Koan Get It
On the last day of the retreat, I was determined to resist the lure of the stones. Not determined enough, as it turned out. Walking in the garden, I felt that familiar urge, more powerful than ever, to pay them one last visit. “Oh, go on, have a look,” whispered my inner novelty-seeker, “Once more won’t hurt. It’s the last day, you won’t get another chance, you know you want to. Have a little break from the mindful walking, go on, you deserve it…” On and on went this prattle and hype. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Off I went up the garden path.
As I approached the spot, still some metres away, I could see that the stones had, in fact, been rearranged. The surprised face had gone, as had the question mark. Other shapes had taken their place. Ridiculous as it may sound, I felt my heart jolt with excitement. I picked up my pace, my neck extending forwards like a curious cat.
I reached the spot and stood over the stones. Now I could see them clearly. The first thing I noticed was that some of the stones had been arranged into a big arrow pointing directly to where I stood. The second thing I noticed came accompanied by a little burn of embarrassment and shame. Above the arrow, the stones had been neatly arranged into three words: YOU ARE HERE.