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Buddhadharma : Fall 2009
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2 0 09 96 Two Dogs, a Parrot, and a Not-So-Silent Retreat By Sandy Boucher KIMSCAFURO W e gathered in a beautiful house on Bainbridge Island, where I was leading a two-day silent meditation retreat. We were there with our hostess, Billie, her husband, Tim, and their dogs, Rover, a whippet, and Chico, a yorkie. Oh yes, and in a large cage next door to our meditation room was Juba, an African Grey parrot with a red tail and rose- colored claws. Billie had made it clear that the animals would not be penned up, or sent out, or otherwise banished during our meditation sessions. They would be part of the environment. She was being so generous in opening up her home to us that I offered no complaint, while secretly suspecting that we might be inviting disruption. All went well the first day, with the dogs lounging peace- fully on the rug inside our circle of meditators. From the next room, now and then, came the muttering of Juba, or the ding- ding of the bell she tapped with her beak. Soon I was glad for the animals’ presence, which gave a homey, relaxed feel to our retreat. On the second morning I was preparing to lead the day’s first meditation when Rover threaded his way into the center of the circle, lay down, and began to chew a strip of cowhide. Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. Outside, birds twittered. In the kitchen, the refrigerator broke into a loud hummmmmmm. Everyone looked a little distracted, except Billie, with Chico draped over her feet like a pair of fluffy slippers. Our hostess seemed blissfully oblivious to the noise. It seemed time for a change of plan. “I’m going to teach you a hearing meditation,” I told the group. I explained how one could receive sounds in meditation— not reaching out to listen to them or identify them, not having a reaction to them, but simply welcoming the sounds, letting them wash through, without judgment, saying to oneself, “hearing, hearing, hearing.” If we could learn this, I suggested, we could use it in our everyday lives to avoid getting hooked by the random noises that sometimes drive us crazy. Instead, we could let the sounds happen, without clinging to them or pushing them away. “Crunch, crunch, crunch,” continued Rover, obligingly. Everyone understood. So, after a bit more instruction, I rang the bell for the hearing meditation, and we all settled in. Rover mauled his rawhide bone, the birds trilled, the refrig- erator shuddered and grew still; we received the sounds with more or less equanimity. But after about ten minutes, the deep voice of Tim came from the other room. The voice commanded, “Rover, Rover,” paused for a moment, then began again, calling the whippet, “Rover!” Then with more force, “Chico! Chico!” followed by tongue-clicking, and kissing sounds. Why would Tim be standing in the next room calling the dogs? I wondered, until I saw that Rover had not moved from the spot where he munched his bone, and Chico slept peace- fully on his mistress’s feet. Then I understood. It was not Tim but Juba, the parrot, who had learned to mimic her master’s deep timbre. The parrot’s voice had astonishing resonance, and I thought, uh-oh. Then she upped the ante, adding a shrill “Whooooooooeeeee” that sounded like someone who had just been pleasurably goosed. I struggled for composure, teetering on the edge of a vol- cano gathering force in my throat. “Chico, Chico, Rover ... Rover! ... click, click, smack, smack ... Whoooooooooooooeeeee.” No, I thought, hold on to yourself. You are the teacher— you can’t lose it in front of your students. And as the minutes passed, clinging by my mental fingernails, I managed to move away from the urge to roar with laughter. Then I was beset by another worry. Someone else in the circle was sure to explode. Would that quiet woman in the corner start it? Would it be the stalwart Zen meditator across from me? The neighbor from down the road? I waited as the minutes passed. “Rover, Rover ... Chico, Chico ... click, click, kiss, kiss ... Whoooooooooooooeeee.” Nobody broke. Inwardly, I saluted their nerves of steel. Twenty minutes went by and still we sat quietly. The bird shut up. And then, after a few more minutes, the meditation was over. I rang the bell, watched as people opened their eyes and looked around. Then I bowed to everyone in the circle. And, finally, we collapsed, giggles washing over us like waves of relief. SANDY BOUCHER is a Buddhist teacher and writer living in Oakland, California. Her books include Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison and Hidden Spring: A Buddhist Woman Confronts Cancer. Journeys