Sun, Moon, Me
Josh Meisenheimer has been practicing with Great Wave Zen Sangha since 2021. He is currently a West Shore Community College student, musician, and professional sound tech.
As I gazed upon the setting of the sun, throwing warm rays of illuminating reds and oranges, casting dark shadows, I felt tears in my eyes as I lamented for all those who may never see such beauty.
It was the Fall of 2021, and the college semester had started about three weeks prior. I was a freshman, nineteen years old. I had been practicing casual meditation for about a year when my English Professor, John Wolff, introduced me to Zen practice. It was an activity unlike anything I had encountered before. It encouraged wholehearted effort in my life while providing a unique means of introspection. After about a month of practice, I was convinced of the benefits foretold by previous Zen masters, and I resolved to set upon the path of self-realization.
Not long after this, I was invited to attend a zen camping retreat, an activity undisturbed by society’s comings and goings. I reasoned that this would provide an excellent opportunity to deepen my practice and a good time to meet some other members of the sangha that I had joined. So, I signed up, gathered my gear, and patiently awaited the day the camp was scheduled to begin.
I had gone car camping before but had never hiked into a campsite with nothing more than a pack of supplies. I met my group, a small party of three others, at 1:45 PM on Friday, October 15th. A man named Bradley, his wife Mckenzie, and the leader of our party, Gendo Roshi (my English Professor, John Wolff). We met at the Nordhouse Dunes trailhead between Ludington and Manistee, two small towns in Western Michigan. Though we had not yet seen snow, it was rather cold. Despite this, I elected to leave my winter jacket behind, rationalizing that I would be walking for a good while, with the jacket only hindering my effort. Boy, was that a mistake.
We set off around 2:00. We progressed step after step, hiking mostly in silence and stopping only a couple of times for a short breath and some water. Being quite in shape, I was not bothered much by the hike, and I was glad to be doing something physical, spending many of my previous weeks doing homework for my college courses. I was grateful to be in the woods again. I had missed the eloquence of the swaying tree trunks in the wind, the rustling of the leaves, and the fresh, unmarred scent of the earth. As we advanced further west, the wind escalated, and I heard the waves of Lake Michigan crashing on the shore.
We climbed up and over a steep hill bristling with thick roots that served as a natural staircase. As we made our way over the top, our journey ended. Roshi had led us to a dip in the topographical arrangement of the land, providing shelter from the incessant wind of Lake Michigan, 400 feet away. As we set up camp, I took in my surroundings. To the west was the great lake, a universal, seemingly infinite mass of water that hugged the West Coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In all other directions was forest, packed with a mixture of tall hardwoods with about half their leaves remaining.
As it grew darker, we all got a fire going, and I did my best to keep my mind from wandering too far from the woods. I thought to myself, “I am here; my mind should be as well.” We all gathered around our humble source of heat, not saying too much at first. The flames cast small flickers of light to which our gazes were drawn like moths to a lamppost. After some idle chatting, we went to our respective tents and did our best to bed down amidst the howling wind. I laid my jacket under my head as a makeshift pillow, embracing the relative simplicity of my newfound environment. I welcomed the snugness of my sleeping bag as I drifted to sleep.
I awoke the next day at 7:00, stretched out, and prepared myself for morning zazen. I rolled up my sleeping bag, which would serve as a makeshift zafu, and laid it gently upon my air mattress. The wind was still blowing, and I shivered at the cold as I stepped outside. I recalled my winter jacket back in my van, now regretting my choice to leave it behind. It was going to be a long day. I took a brief walk around the perimeter of our camp, noting the general layout. The land generally sloped downward to the south, and the surrounding hills were lined with animal trails. Being next to Lake Michigan, the soil was rather damp, providing quality habitat for mushroom growth. Indeed, it seemed that every other step brought a new mushroom into view, some of which I was familiar with, some not. After my brief stroll, I returned to my tent, entered, and zipped up the vestibule.
I sat down on my sleeping bag zafu and took a deep breath, letting go of all my feelings and thoughts. I heard the ceremonial bell ring and began counting my breaths. “In, one. Out, two. In, three. Out, four.” I repeated this pattern up to ten, a practice known as “counting breaths.” Again and again, I counted my breaths to ten, doing my best to sustain my concentration. For thirty minutes, I let go of all forms of thought except this incessant counting. All there was was ten breaths. Nothing else. Finally, after thirty minutes had passed, I heard the bell signaling that zazen was now over. With a renewed sense of presence, I crawled over to my tent door and got up to my feet once back outside. By this time, the sun was still up, and I could see the color of the leaves on the ground, with their varied hues of red, yellow, and brown. I listened to the trees groaning in the wind, their branches swaying with a gentle, unhurried rhythm. I wished I could be as stable as those tall, everlasting trees. Groan as they might, they stood where they were, unmoved by the seasons. Instead of a tree, I felt more like the leaves blowing about on the ground below, being carried away by the wind, not in control of my life. But when I practiced zazen, it was as if I was a seed that had been planted in the earth, taking root and growing more stable every time I sat. As the day went by, I reflected on these thoughts while refraining from attaching to them, allowing them to fall away like the leaves falling from the trees.
A little while after lunch, Roshi gave a teisho or dharma talk. Once we had gathered around his tent, he began. Forgetting my chill, I listened to his words, bringing the truth of generosity to my ears. I bent all my concentration on what he was saying, listening with the acuteness of the eagle’s eye. For roughly forty minutes, all that existed were his words, ringing in my ears like the Zazen bell. Once he had finished, we all got up, ambling back to our tents for a second period of zazen. At the ringing of the bell, I began counting breaths in the same fashion as before, never stopping, as though I were the tree counting the infinite leaves below, assessing each one, acknowledging their presence, before moving on to the next.
As darkness once again crept closer, I walked down to the beach with Roshi. I was to help wash the dishes, a task I didn’t mind helping out with. Our sink was Lake Michigan, so I stripped down to my undergarments and walked in with our bowls. I was amazed at the warmth of the water; it must have been warmer than the air! As I washed the dishes, the sun sank lower, and the sky began to fade from a vibrant yellow to a warm orange. I scrubbed faster; this was going to be an exquisite sunset.
Gathering my clothes, I took off back toward camp, wanting to get back to the back as soon as I was able. I got dressed, noticing flares of red sunlight gleaming through the trees. I ran through the woods towards the beach, mindfully holding myself back from a mania resulting in a craving for pleasure. I wanted to see the sunset but did not want my desire to be a source of suffering. Then I realized that I might be overthinking, so I just ran, until at last, I mounted the crest of the beach dune overlooking the vast expanse of water.
I caught my breath; it was as if time had stopped. It seemed that all the earth was bathed in crimson, the sun being the epicenter of an explosion of warm colors, the streaked clouds overhead a canvas of scarlet. I felt frozen in place; my whole being was directed on this divine image. It was as if I were sitting zazen, yet I was not focused on my breaths. Instead, my practice was watching the sunset. It was not a challenging practice. It was easy to appreciate the sunset’s beauty; it was lovely. As the sun sank lower and I recognized the inevitability of its passing away, I became aware of some negative feelings within me. I did not want the sun to go away. I was attached to this sunset. And yet, it went away. I could not even control whether I wanted this practice or not; in one moment, I practiced watching the sun, and in the next, it was over.
For a moment, as I gazed upon the setting of the sun, throwing warm rays of illuminating reds and oranges, casting dark shadows, I felt tears well in my eyes as I lamented for all those that may never see such beauty. But only for a moment. Like the instant the sun goes from there to not there, I let my attachments go, realizing that there was also beauty in darkness.
Walking back, I pondered this. It had been effortless to witness the charming quality of the sunset. I thought to myself, “Surely, everything is beautiful.” Everything has this inherent beauty. And there are likely some beautiful aspects of that sunset that I failed to recognize. I thought to myself, “I must find the beauty of a sunset in everything.” Keeping this in my mind, I walked back to camp, looking up once to see the appearance of the first stars.
We passed the time that night by talking around our fire, each of us remarking on what had brought us to zen practice. Quietly I listened, simply observing the peace of the night. At long last, most of the others had gone to bed. Noticing shimmers of silver reflecting off the trees,
I glanced up, noticing the glamour of the moon. To the shore, I walked, once again transfixed. Coming to a halt, I looked up and reminisced for a moment. Much like before, my practice had now become watching the moon, my thoughts concerning only the image of the moon. I thought to myself, “Ah, this is beauty. This is what I wish for in my life.” And with a passing of a cloud, I let those thoughts be whisked away to the next fortunate traveler who would bear witness to that shimmering spectacle. No longer would I be trapped in one idea of beauty. No longer would I mindlessly wish for good when I did not know what good was. Again, I looked up. There was the moon. There was a star, a cloud, a black void of infinite depth. Looking at all of them, I looked at myself, seeing myself in them. There they were, and here I was. Here I am.