June 16, 2010

A Day at the Grist Mill with Bonnie Myotai Treace

Yesterday I was lucky enough to get out of my cave cubicle in the Tricycle office and travel to Garrison, New York to the Grist Mill, where Bonnie Myotai Treace leads retreats for the Hermitage Heart sangha. Garrison is a 90-minute train ride straight up the Hudson River from New York City. The Grist Mill, pictured below from across the mill pond, is within easy walking distance of the train station. The Hudson Valley is so beautiful it seems odd that is so close to the city. In the morning when I woke up in Brooklyn it was warm and sticky, the air heavy and still. In Garrison it was cool, breezy and clear.

Garrison Grist Mill

I was there with videographer and friend of Tricycle Denise Petrizzo. Our mission was to film the first part of a teaching by Myotai that will appear on Tricycle.com in July as our Tricycle Retreat, "Whole Life Offering." Arriving early Tuesday morning, Denise and I walked around the mill, which is tucked into a deep green wood full of streams, ponds, and small rocky waterfalls. A few feet into the woods at the beginning of our walk, we startled two fawns and were too slow to catch them on camera. Stupidly I didn't take any photos.

When you have a video camera to worry about, sometimes you slip on the small stuff like still photography. Myotai later told us a story about the late John Daido Loori Roshi, who was famous for his love of photography and fostering creativity in his students. He would send his photography students out on long walks by Zen Mountain Monastery and tell them to take just one picture! They must have come back having seen so much more, searching the landscape intently for that one perfect shot! Daido's birthday was June 14th. (Two pieces by Myotai appeared in the Spring 2010 Tricycle: "The Sword Disappears in the Water," and a remembrance of Daido, "Being Love by Loving.")

Myotai arrived with her Springer Spaniel, Lady, and showed us around. We went inside the mill and saw the amazing machinery that half-fills the building. (Here are photos of the rebuilding of the mill, which was stripped to its bones and redone in the late 1980s by the owners, the Open Space Institute.) The second floor is a rustic loft space where the sangha sits, and where we set up and filmed a half-hour dharma talk. I won't give it away—you can see it online soon. (As always, the first talk will be free; the others will be open to Tricycle Community Sustaining Members.) From this main sitting space and shrine room a door opens out into empty space and you can see the bend in the rocky stream below. There are waterfalls above and below as the stream, like thousands of others nearby, leaps down from the Hudson highlands to the estuarine river. Sounds of water in varying tones and rhythms fill the air, making it obvious why water permeates so much of Myotai's teachings. (You can see this open door and the water teachings in the video on 108 Bowls.)

Afterward we got lunch from the Garrison Market. There was a historical marker on the way that I missed reading as we drove by. It had something to do with George Washington or Benedict Arnold. This area was a hotbed of activity in the Revolutionary War and West Point rears up on the bluffs above the west bank of the river. Washington had his headquarters nearby for a long stretch of the war. The Hudson narrows and bends here and a fort was built at West Point to guard the S-shaped sweep of the river far below its heights. Benedict Arnold gave—or tried to give—West Point to the British in one of the defining acts of treason in American history. Before that he was an American hero. Did he change in between? Were there two different Benedict Arnolds, or many, or none? Was there really someone called Benedict Arnold?

On the way back, I took my time walking down the woodland trail behind the mill to the station, which swarmed with students from the military academy heading into New York on leave. I felt calm and lazy as they rushed onto the platform, caps under their arms, shoving and jostling each other in their excitement. There had just been some kind of ceremony and the cadets in dress gray had to sprint from the parking lot to make the train. The mechanical doors shut behind the last one and they crowded down the aisle, red-faced and panting. One showed off the award he had been given. The others looked at it solemnly for a moment, then laughed. He snapped the case shut and laughed too. The cadets slumped back in their seats and wiped the sweat from their foreheads and ran hands through their close-cropped hair. This train was only taking them to New York. Soon planes would take them much, much farther away. My uncle was a West Point cadet, thirty years ago—or is it thirty-five, forty years ago, now? (Was it J. D. Salinger or Evelyn Waugh who wrote something like, "In ancient China, military heroes were figures of fun?" It's a reference I wish I could relocate. I've wanted it often these last few years.)

But hours before, all this militarism and reminders of war seemed incredibly remote from the Grist Mill as we sat in the grass and ate our picnic lunch. The wooden mill overlooking a round sweep of the burbling creek was a modest and peaceful echo of the high stone walls of West Point towering above the bend in the Hudson. At the mill we couldn't see the military academy or sense its presence in any way. The gray walls were hidden by a thick screen of trees, the shouts and marching music lost in the loud persistent birdsong and the endless laughter of the water rushing over rocks to the river, and then out to sea.

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