Homage to the Zendo

I hang up my jacket

place boots on floor,

keys in cave of my shoe

and open the door

 

No matter how many times

I open that door

the beauty still shocks

 

Silent figures on black cushions

soft in buttery light

they do not see me

but I see them

 

I spot the last free cushion

arrange myself like a teacup in a saucer

and stare at the scrubbed wall

my eyes trace stenciled forms on white

so different from the picket-fence on Sundays

 

what stories hide behind these alabaster walls?

…..

“I met Maylie at a three-day sesshin at Lloyd Fulton’s,” Rob said, as he took a spoonful of Asian noodles. We were eating dinner at Japhy’s in Arcata. He gazed out the window for a moment, remembering. A skateboarder whizzed by. “It was in the winter of ‘98. I told her in dokusan that I was interested in helping her build the zendo.”

“But I went into it with some hesitation,” he continued, looking back at me. “I’d have to be the lead guy, and I’m not comfortable with that. I’m more of a hang-back kind of guy. I wasn‘t used to working in a group. I remember we had a meeting in the library-- Maylie, Mark, Rose, Gordy. and a few others--and I held back some. But it ended up working well. ”

“You and your partner worked on it jointly, right?”

“At first it was just me. Dan, my business partner, and I were just starting to work together at that time. Later, I went to the Board and asked if Dan could join me. He was eager to work on the zendo, and I wanted to work with him.”

“This was your employment, right?”

“Yeah, it was full-time work. We began labor in October '99, and it took three to four months.”

“What did you charge?”

“Ten dollars an hour. Our fees were $15 at the time, but Dan wanted to do it for $10. He liked working on a zendo, even though he wasn’t a Buddhist."

…..

Innumerable labors created this building

I see people standing under studs

discussing, deciding, arguing

all the worries, the late-night phone calls

…..

“Were there a lot of problems, sticky points?” I asked. “I always hear about unexpected issues that come up in construction.”

“Not with Maylie,” Rob said. “We never had any differences. But there were definitely issues with the city, even before we started thinking about the zendo. The property had been red-flagged. The previous owner, whom I met with several times during the period we were applying for a permit, maintained that the downstairs of 740 was legally a separate unit. The city buildings department disagreed, and that issue had never been resolved.”

 “What did they make you do?”

“We had to upgrade the septic system, put a new septic tank in. Which wasn’t a bad thing, considering the number of people using the bathrooms. And we had to take out the fridge and the range in the downstairs kitchen. In other words, release any claim to second-unit status.”

We ate for a moment in silence. I visualized the downstairs kitchen area of 740, seeing the sink and the cabinets, the absence of a fridge or stove. I had never really noticed their absence. 

“We spent the summer of ‘99 designing and planning,” Rob went on. “There were a lot of decisions. The entranceway to the zendo, for instance. Gordy pushed for that; if he hadn’t, it probably wouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t part of the original garage.” 

“I can’t imagine the zendo without it,” I said. “Where would we have put shoes and coats?” 

Rob nodded. “Originally we wanted to put the outside door along the north wall (the side facing the house), but the ground slopes there, and a door in that location would have required more grading and landscaping. As it is, we had to scrape down the ground and put in French drains--underground drains--to avoid flooding. But I like it the way it is. We bunch up a bit, but it works.” 

He paused. “And then the roof. The previous garage had been built in two phases, the original garage, which was near the altar, and a second add-on, which was slightly larger, where the door into the zendo is. There were two entrances, one on each side. The owner used the entrance on the house side for his car.” 

I was puzzled. This sounded odd. “You mean he would drive into the driveway and then back into the garage?” 

“Yeah, it probably was awkward. And the roof was  complicated because the previous garage had two intersecting roofs, one for each part. Inside, there were interior walls holding up the roof on each side, that jutted into the room. If we had left them, it would have divided the zendo into two parts, which wasn’t what we wanted. We wanted to build one big roof.”

Rob looked up from his bowl. “Dan and I kept discussing it and at some point he said, “Why don’t we just rip the whole roof off and start over? And that made sense. We were trying to work with the existing structures, and it just wasn’t coming together. It cost somewhat more, and cost was always an issue. But the whole project came to only about $20,000. In construction, that’s nothing. At market rates today it would be at least 50K.” 

“Ripping out the roof and starting over allowed us to create the cathedral ceiling, and the feeling of airiness, which we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. And we ended up with one big, undivided room. ” 

“Was it a hassle making these changes since you had already submitted the plans?” 

“No, you’re allowed to make changes after the plans have been approved, but usually the changes aren't as big as this one was. But the inspector was very helpful. She made the adjustments on site, using White-Out.” 

“Who else was involved?”

“Mark showed up everyday, and other sangha members dropped in from time to time. And Maylie, of course. I remember the day we brought our first load of lumber.” Rob smiled, “Maylie helped unload all the lumber. That was the only physical thing I remember her doing. But she was always around. She fixed lunch everyday. She was a good cook! Soup, rice, veggies. And everyday we said a Zen grace.”

“Where did you eat?”

“In the house. She and Dan hit it off. He had read a lot of ancient Buddhist texts. He’d bring one up, and Maylie would say, “Oh, you’ve read that?!“

…..

My socked feet pad across wide board oak flooring

Walking on trees from the forest

I want to roll around this floor like a cat

Press my cheek against its honeyed finish

Curl up in the rectangles of light

…..

“And the floor?” I asked. We were finished with our noodles by now, and sat there, sipping tea, nibbling our cookies. Outside, the skies were darkening. Clouds scudded across the sky. 

“The original floor was made up of two cement slabs of different levels. The older part of the garage was about six to eight inches higher than the add-on part. So we had to frame it up to be at the same level. When we finished putting in the plywood, Mark, Pete and I meditated on it. Our first experience on the zendo floor. It felt really good.” 

“How long was the plywood phase?” 

“About six months, from the end of January to June, when an anonymous donor contributed the money for the hardwood floor. Pete delivered it, and Mark, Gordy, John Coonan and I finished it in a couple of days. We subbed out the sanding and finishing.”

It was time to go. The precept discussion would soon start, and I wanted to have time to study the zendo  with Rob before people arrived. We climbed into his truck and drove up the hill.

Inside the zendo, I looked at the side walls to see if I could detect where the room had once been divided. Nothing; it was seamless. I glanced up. “The skylights.” I said. “There are three on one side and only one on the other. Why?”

“We kicked that one around a lot,” Rob said. “We would probably have gone for two skylights on each side, but the roof of the entranceway limits the space on the north side. Also, see this,” he said, pointing. One side of each skylight was plumb, the other was sloping. “Usually, both sides are one way or the other. We did it this way to open it up.”

“Pete pushed for the door,” he went on. “An emergency exit. We brought Maylie’s coffin through that door. I don’t think we’ve opened it since.”

“And the low window?” I asked. I always like sitting near that window, the chance to see the branches and the foliage on the other side.

“That was designed to provide air for people with chemical sensitivities. In general, we paid a lot of attention to using chemically sensitive materials.”

We stood in the middle of the zendo in a rectangle of light. “The thing is, this wasn‘t just a job,” he said. “It was very special. We put a lot of time and thought into skylight placement, window placement, the rafter ties."

I looked up at them. “We didn‘t have to install pairs of rafter ties,” he said. “For strength purposes, you only need one rafter tie every six feet or so, but we put in pairs, for the look. They look more like beams. And everyone had input, which was very special. Input in a lot of construction jobs is not welcome.”

“What was Maylie’s input?”

“She wanted the gable windows on each end.”

We stepped outside into the entranceway. “How were you and Dan acknowledged?” I asked. “lt’s such an enormous task.”

“Sojun came up from Berkeley and we had two ceremonies. The first was very informal--people from the sangha came and thanked Dan and me. We were given gift certificates to “All Under Heaven.” Maylie wrote us each a formal letter of recommendation, you know, ‘To Whom It May Concern.’ I still have mine. We never asked for it. That was neat.”

“A couple of days later, Sojun blessed the new zendo in a formal ceremony. There were a lot of people. Some of the Shasta Abbey folks came.”

“How does it all seem to you now, as one of the main people who created it?” I asked.

“Oh, I see the flaws, you know, the places where oil is needed, that kind of thing. But I appreciate the skylights and the rafter ties. I’m really glad we did them in pairs. And I’m glad we put in the gable windows. I don’t think anyone expected it to turn out so nice,” he said. I smiled to myself at his modesty.

A few people were removing Jackets and shoes in the entranceway. I thanked Gordy silently.

…..

No matter how many times

I open that door

the beauty still shocks

…..

I re-entered the zendo in the soft light and gazed up at the cathedral ceiling. How open, how spacious. I studied the paired rafter ties. And at my cushion, before arranging myself, I made a point to look at the gable windows that Maylie wanted.

…..

So that someone like me

Someone no one even knew

could come after

stay dry and sheltered

and face a textured wall

 

softness washes over me

like warm water

thank you

by Louisa Rogers, from Rinshin-ji Voices, November 2004