The Bonsai in the Window: Lay Practice in Chi-town

By Josh Mather

Seven years ago, I decided to move to Chicago to pursue my career as a musician and artist as well as help my partner through grad school and beyond. Moving away from the Zen Center was a shock to the system for me spiritually. I missed the sound of the traffic on Speer, the elegance of the Buddha in the zendo, and most of all the endless fellowship with friends over tea and cookies, and even beer and cheese. I found myself floundering to find stability in my practice. The rug had been pulled. There was no wall to lean against.

IMG_1861Throughout my years in Chicago I have sat with several different centers, but none of them felt quite like home. I was lucky enough to come back to Denver for sesshin as well as regular “Skype-usans” with Karin Sensei and rediscover the practice that had supported me for so many years. These short spurts of practice have been a beacon, a lighthouse seen from afar that has helped keep me on my personal path. Sesshin as a focused, intense practice is there to remind me of the well of spiritual water that is always there to drink no matter where my life circumstances have led me. It has helped support me during tough times and allowed me to get myself to the mat at 5:30 in the morning no matter the condition of my body-mind. I am so grateful to the Center and all it has given me, but ultimately I am the one who decides to go over to the mat and stare at the wall for twenty-five or thirty minutes.

Recently, I purchased a bonsai tree and placed it near my altar and sitting place in the window amidst my other plants. At some point, I decided – not sure why – that I would only water this plant during my ritual before sitting. Light the match… light the incense… put the incense to my forehead… put it in the pot… water the bonsai… sit down… set the timer. This seemed appropriate. The plant sits on the windowsill and just is. It accepts when it doesn’t get water, and when it does. It is there when I sit, and when I don’t. And yet, it fills me up when I pour the water over its branches and see it get what it needs. To see it drink, to help it live. It is a reflection of my mind and my awareness. The mat functions in exactly the same way. The cushion exists whether I sit on it or not. It is totally fine with just being a cushion whether or not I use it. And yet, it seems happy to fulfill its purpose. It seems lonely without me – ha!

This is a metaphor that helps with my practice. I am exactly what I am, whether I formally practice or not. Yet when I sit, I can see into what makes me tick, what makes me feel, what makes me, me. There is no need to judge the sitting before or after. Just to sit, just to light the candle, just to water the bonsai. When I pour the water over its branches, I pour water into the universe, the Buddha, the phenomenal world. The bonsai is a reflection of my practice and my practice is a reflection of its life.

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