Rosemary Stevens (Curtin University of Technology, Australia)
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.
(From The Heart Sutra – Sanskrit chant.)
I light incense and its fragrance brings tears to my eyes. I busy myself with the candles, using the role of hostess as an excuse not to interact with the others. Larissa’s voice pipes on in that plaintive, sidling manner she reserves for meetings. She has Craig’s attention and I’m grateful, for once. It gives me time to tame the breath, caught in my chest, like an awkward stone. Why did I agree to be part of this committee? But that was before the upset with Phillip. I place my cushion between Edmund and Craig, feeling in need of their strength. I can feel Edmund watching and I glance up. He doesn’t smile or look away; it creates an edge of discomfort and I pass him one of the photocopies – the new translation of the Heart Sutra. Larissa’s eyes swivel towards us and I hand one to her, then Andrej and Craig.
There is a crash from upstairs, followed by laughter. It can’t be anything serious. Phillip’s voice echoes down the fireplace – they’re playing the giant game. The ceiling shudders and there are giggles from the children once more.
“You people have absolutely no sense of time.”
Phillip’s words bother me and I begin to wish now that I hadn’t volunteered our house for the meeting.
“We’re totally punctilious about time,” I said. “That’s what Zen is all about – discipline. You know that.”
“All that sitting on black cushions staring at the wall. It’s masochistic.”
“Talking of time,” I said, “how come you were so late last night?”
“That’s a bit rich, isn’t it?” he said, “coming from you.”
I bit my lip, not wanting to contradict myself. It was true that our meetings invariably ran overtime, even if our practice didn’t.
“So, the Dream Group ran late for once!” he said. “What’s the big deal?”
Craig’s voice snaps me out of my reverie.
“What’s on the agenda?” he says.
“First up, there’s the Coorong retreat,” says Edmund. “It’s only two weeks away and there’s a lot to finalise. Then there’s the question of whether we want to adopt the new version of the Heart Sutra, which Claire has been looking into. Also, Larissa had something she wanted to add.”
Larissa takes this as a prompt, flexing her hands as though preparing to conduct an orchestra. Once satisfied that all eyes are upon her, she rests them demurely in her lap.
“Well, it’s about the dedication we chant at the end of sutras.”
We look on in silence.
“I mean, it’s so obvious – well to anyone who’s a woman perhaps.”
She throws me a meaningful look, which I exchange for a blank stare.
“The masters and ancestors we name – they’re all men.”
Her eyes dart back and forth, as though following an invisible text, posted inside her skull.
“Just a point of order,” Edmund says. “We haven’t tabled this for discussion. If there’s time, we can do so after the Heart Sutra issue or carry it over to the next meeting.”
“Oh, I wasn’t suggesting we discuss this now, of course,” says Larissa. “We haven’t even sat together yet.”
A smile blooms on her lips; it’s for Craig.
“Excellent. Good,” says Craig. “Who’ll be time keeper?”
Edmund raises a finger and strips off his watch. He fiddles with the knob until it makes a series of squeaks and then places it beside his mat. I hand him the cut glass bowl and metal spoon, which he sets carefully before him to act as a makeshift gong.
I dim the lights, then fetch the candle from the mantelpiece, arranging it in the centre of our circle. It wavers, spits and flickers. I sit cross-legged on my cushion with the others and focus on the breath. It’s still ragged. I am on the edge of tears and at the sound of the crystal bell, my face crumples. I glance up quickly to see if anyone is looking, but they all sit with eyes lowered, Larissa, Andrej, Edmund and Craig; silent as Buddhas. The hollows beneath their eyes are lit by an eerie glow. Shadows catch inside their eye sockets, under their chins and in their hair. Behind them loom druidic silhouettes. We are being drawn down into the centre of the earth and the triangle formed by my buttocks and knees anchors my drifting thoughts. I know the form: focus on the breath, stay with it to the very edge where it dies. Maintain awareness: wait for the incoming onrush of air. Over and over again, I have sought this stillness in the meeting of opposites, yin and yang, light and dark, in-breath, exhalation, emptiness and form. I have faith in the practice to act as containment in the face of the void. Faith in our teacher, Craig. It was he who said:
“Explore the body from the viewpoint of emptiness.”
“But it’s terrifying,” I objected. “There’s nothing there!”
“Nothing – and everything.”
I struggle to expand my chest against the pain gripping my heart, to free the breath. But fear gets the upper hand, replaying multiple versions of what had been said just minutes before. It was more than a tiff over time management.
“What do you mean – explore your sexuality?”
Phillip’s lips curled into a smirk as he glanced beyond me to the window.
“Sleeping around indiscriminately? Or is there someone in particular you have in mind?”
I didn’t like the tone of sarcasm that had crept into my voice.
“A specific person if you must know.”
He was bluffing, of course. I had met the people at the Dream Group; there was no one of interest – unless, there was someone I didn’t know about, someone new.
“She wants to have a relationship with me.”
“Don’t be juvenile! That’s out of the question!”
I was speechless.
“Because of the children.”
Was that the best I could do? Didn’t I say, “because of us?” Later, perhaps. It sounded so lame.
“Why not explore your sexuality with me?”
The words evaporated from my lips without resonance, sounding hollow and unconvincing. I was not keen these days to explore my sexuality with Phillip.
Craig clears his throat. I open my eyes, but he’s not looking at me; he’s staring into an invisible crystal ball just inches from his knees. I lower my gaze and the carpet blurs as the words of the Heart Sutra come to me.
Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form;
Sensation, thought, reaction, consciousness are also like this.
But the words offer neither comfort nor meaning and it is like seeking the stars through a narrow reed.
Rain begins to patter outside – it has been brewing all day. I glance at Edmund – five minutes must be up by now – but he doesn’t stir. Phillip’s right; we don’t have any sense of time. Edmund could leave us here for ten, fifteen minutes, no one would be any the wiser. For the first time, I begin to have an inkling of what it is that frustrates Phillip so much. Perhaps we are the ones that chase after dreams, not him.
A crystal note rings through the room. I open my eyes to see Edmund bent lovingly over the cut-glass bowl. The sound ripples out in bright waves. Fire glows in and around the bowl, as he moves it gently back into the centre of the circle. Red, blue and gold lights flash in his hands, before settling into a pale golden liquid. He withdraws them. They are like slender lilies.
I get up and adjust the lights so that the room is not so dim.
“So,” says Craig, “the Coorong retreat.”
There is a thump from upstairs, followed by a pause and then a scream from Elizabeth. I freeze. Is she hurt? The low rumble of Phillip’s voice plays over hers, which sounds more angry and tired than genuinely hurt. He really ought to have her in bed by now.
“There are two rooms available,” he continues. “One is oblong and basically wood-panelled with narrow windows on either side. There are doors at both ends – which could pose a problem for locating the altar.”
His voice rises hopefully at this latter observation. He clears his throat.
“Then, there’s a hexagonal room with two sides consisting of glass, overlooking on the one side, sweeping views over the Coorong and, on the other, a native garden. The other sides are of wood-panelling and there are doors at one end, leaving the opposite wall free for the altar.”
His voice is so full of music that I can picture it immediately and know exactly which room I want and which room he wants. Suddenly, my heart squeezes with excitement as it dawns on me that this is my first time as leader and it could be in this room; the one overlooking the Coorong and the beautiful native gardens. I picture them full of rocks and boulders, lichen and moss, waterfalls, ferns, birds and native flowers.
“Is there a difference in price? You know, between the two rooms?” Andrej asks.
He retracts his chin, the way he does when resistant to Craig’s more fanciful ideas. Craig runs his fingers through his hair once or twice, studying the carpet before his gaze ventures no further than Andrej’s chest.
“There’s a difference of about $20, which isn’t huge.”
“The hexagonal one being more expensive?”
“$20 in all or $20 a day?”
“$20 a day.”
Andrej pockets this information with a grimace. Larissa shifts on her cushion and cocks her head to one side, as though to include Edmund in her aura, but her focus is on Craig. She looks miffed. An immense feeling of delight overtakes me. Craig asked me to be the leader – not her.
“Wouldn’t it be difficult for those people sitting on the window side? I mean with a view like that, think of the distractions. Don’t you think it would be better to have the plain room?”
She underscores the point with a flourish of fingers. Craig stifles a sigh. When he speaks, his words are slow and measured.
“I feel it would be good for people’s practice to work with challenge.”
“Don’t you think Zen is challenging enough?”
Larissa’s laugh scatters over us like a tinkling bell. She throws her head back before bringing herself under control, her eyes still moist with merriment. Andrej frowns and Edmund lowers his eyes.
“Well, you know what I mean!”
I wonder if she knows I’m going to lead the retreat? If Craig asked her to be chant leader? But I can’t see her in that role – her voice is too small and it doesn’t carry the same status.
Craig allows an unconvincing patter of laughter to escape his throat.
“Yes, I take your point. But, seriously, I think people would adjust. We could put the most experienced sitters there.”
“Wouldn’t it be breaking with form, though?” says Andrej. “We always sit facing the wall.”
Craig nods, biting his lip.
“The newcomers won’t know the difference,” Larissa chimes, unimpeded. “Why not put them by the window? Not that I’ll be there myself, of course – but you get my point.”
I stare at the bowl. It is full of a golden light swaying with the movement of the candle, filling and emptying; ebbing and flowing. Larissa’s voice whines on like a plaintive violin. Andrej cuts across every now and again, followed by Craig’s deliberations. Edmund remains silent.
Why didn’t Craig tell me she wasn’t coming to the retreat? Did he offer her a place first? Ask her to be leader before me? Or did he ask me first and she decided she couldn’t come – to save face?
My heart quivers with the light of the candle, filling up and emptying out. Who are the other leaders? Why didn’t I ask when Craig phoned?
Edmund cuts in.
“The hexagonal room is a beautiful room – more airy and spacious – it has a nice energy to it. The oblong room feels cramped and dull. I think we should take a risk and try the hexagon. It’s an experiment as it is, going to the Coorong. Might as well make it a completely fresh experience.”
Craig lifts up out of his shoulders and relief sweeps through me. Andrej nods thoughtfully. Larissa sighs.
“As I say, it doesn’t matter to me – I won’t even be there.”
“They’re a small group – the Goolwa Zen Centre – and our visit is an enormous encouragement to them. I don’t think they mind very much whether they sit with a view or not.”
“I feel we should be guided by Craig and Edmund,” I offer. “After all, they were the ones who visited the place.”
Larissa smiles at me sweetly. Craig peers over his glasses with a look of gratitude, which I return. I’m going to be leader in the Coorong in a hexagonal room full of glass.
There is a loud knock at the door. It makes me start. Then it swings open and a beaming Phillip walks in with a tray of tea and cake. Christopher and Elizabeth are at his side, clad in pyjamas. Christopher’s eyes are fastened on the milk jug, which he bears carefully before him and Elizabeth clutches her favourite rag doll, Emma, by the wrist. Phillip lays the tray down on the desk beside the window and, sweeping past me, picks up the crystal bowl and candle. He removes them to the sideboard and settles the tray in their place. The overhead light catches his hair, which falls about his head like a magic crop circle. I remember the first time I met him his hair looked exactly like that. He stands up and grins. Everyone stops and looks at him, smiling. Elizabeth holds onto his leg, viewing our group from the safety of his trousers. Christopher has set the jug down next to the tray and stands with his arms at his sides, viewing it with pride. Larissa smiles at the children and then at Phillip.
“That apron does something for you,” she says.
Phillip grabs hold of the floral frills and everyone laughs but it is Larissa’s voice, which can be heard above the rest. He bows and curtseys and I watch, basking in that familiar effervescence. He has replaced the light of the candle. His skin seems luminous. His hair and the space around him shimmer and sparkle. My heart flowers into my throat and I feel as though I were falling in love with him for the first time. My mouth hangs open and we all look at him. He sweeps Elizabeth up into his arms and she snuggles into his neck. He puts out a hand for Christopher. Tears weep behind my eyes and I can’t believe this kind and loving father has anything to do with the man whose tongue spat venom just a few moments before the meeting. They leave the room, closing the door quietly behind them. I hear their voices trail up the stairs – his, entirely different from the one that still rings in my ears.
“Someone specific, if you must know.”
My heart beats a troubled tattoo and I can’t concentrate on the proceedings, catching momentary fragments only.
“I mean, there are a lot of women in Zen nowadays…”
“A meeting of hearts and souls,” Phillip said.
Or did he mean, “bodies”?
“The Ancient Seven Buddhas … we’re their direct successors.”
“But they’re all men!”
Surely Phillip was joking.
Larissa waves her arm around in vague circles, her eyes searching the ceiling. Then, she lets her shoulders drop and looks at me imploringly. Suddenly, I feel for her, our old alliance rekindled through mutual helplessness. I open my mouth and words tumble out.
“I know it’s important to mention the Ancestors by name. But, Larissa’s right – they are all men. I can’t help feeling that some general acknowledgement about women would be helpful – especially today.”
Larissa sighs out of genuine relief and I remind myself she’s nervous and insecure – just like me – that’s why she behaves like that. Whereas I retreat behind a facade of civility, she’s a drama queen and I like her for that.
“After all,” she says, “there were women! We know that – even if we don’t know them by name!”
Craig is nodding and frowning.
“Yes, I see. Maybe something about “the unknown women” – something like that?”
Larissa beams radiantly. We all smile – even Andrej. Why is it so important to keep her on side?
The discussion on the Heart Sutra gets shelved. We’ve run out of time. How come Larissa’s item got seen to before mine? It doesn’t matter. I wasn’t up to it, anyway.
We stand, the way we always do at the end of a meeting, and stretch our legs, holding hands in a circle. Craig’s are smooth and cool; Edmund’s warm and firm. Mine are cold and I feel distracted. I should have taken the tray away and replaced it with the candle. It doesn’t feel right having a resonation around the empty cups and plates; the crumbs and serviettes.
I smile at everyone as they leave, hugging and kissing, cautioning them to go carefully and watch the drive, it’s very steep. The minute they’ve all left, I lean back against the door, feeling drained and empty, tears streaming down my face. It must be late and Phillip will be in bed. I should go to him.
Rosemary Stevens worked in London for a literary agency and publishing house before becoming a free-lance travel writer in Asia. She now writes fiction and some of her short stories have appeared nationally. She lives in Perth, where she continues to teach and study creative writing and is currently working on a novel as part of a doctoral thesis at Curtin University of Technology.