by Zenshin Susanne Fiege
As I know it, Hollow Bones Zen started with in-person practice only, people simply meeting at sesshin, all together in a big circle, not facing the wall but each other. Long before Covid and my time with Hollow Bones, things like Cyber Sangha and morning sits were established, which made it possible to sit together at different places and time zones– again, not staring at a wall, but looking at a screen and being one of the “Hollywood Squares”.
When I attended my first online sesshin (the Mondo Sesshin in August 2020) I was pretty nervous. What would I need to do? How would I need to prepare my space and my partner, so that there could be the right silence? No distractions, like words wanting to be read out of the bookshelf, for example… I wanted to get the same experience as I had through in-person retreats in Germany in live places, with almost empty rooms, no books, no internet, no talking.
During this first online sesshin, I paid attention – watched every step of the online format, the whole “show” of opening and closing mics, switching between spotlight and gallery view, putting people into breakout rooms, or even sharing a screen. I was astonished how this “web show” evolved over time in only one sesshin period, hour by hour it got better coordinated, more fluent, fixed some troubles, etc. – And I had still the idea of “not getting in any way distracted by my room.” 😉
After that first online sesshin, other online events appeared on my schedule– Virtual Zendo or Sunday Sangha and many other online retreats. By that time, we had at least one retreat for 1-3 days every month. I joined them all, not only for the sittings, but also (as I am reflecting now) for learning more about how this can all be done seamlessly from anywhere in the world.
In the beginning, I had no idea who was doing what, but over time I learned there were different Jishas (caretakers/assistants) in place, and someone who was the online Inji (assistant to the Roshi) had also specific tasks in the online format. I noticed everyone had a different styles doing these things, and some were quite professionals dealing with Zoom.
I don’t recall precisely when I started to get involved in staffing Hollow Bones online events, but I know it changed my idea of silence completely.
I think it started with hosting Virtual Zendo in Europe, and some Sunday Sangha and reading group meetings, where I got used to Zoom and some of the technical issues that may come with it. When I was asked to be IT Jisha at a retreat for the first time I “prepared my ass off” to get everything set according to the expected plan.
I cured my idea that I would need “no words around me” or “nothing to read” so as not to be distracted– I now had printed sheets with schedules and different colored notes, various clocks and time zone information and all manner of other stuff piled up around my seat. It was a mess!
There was no thinking of a “silent” sit as I thought it had to be. I was constantly preparing, every bell was another initiation of a new process, a cue to get ready for my next “job” as the IT Jisha. My whole body was one big cramp, and I needed a whole other day to come back to any kind of relaxation after the retreat.
Over time, I was not only IT Jisha but was asked to be Online Inji– for which the main job is bringing participants and the Roshi into a breakout room for Dokusan together. This sounds simple when it’s only one Roshi for one day with all participants staying from beginning to end. You can simply bring them all in, one after another, and help the Roshi a little bit with the time management as needed. It becomes more of a matrix riddle when you have 3 Roshis, 4 days, multiple time zones across the world and different types of participation, such as it was at the 2021 Rohatsu. This was mind blowing– and finally fun!
Why can I say it was (is) fun? Because I realized everything IS going perfectly according to plan, even though my plan was a different one. I learned to let go of my idea of controlling things and at the same time my awareness was sharp. I was paying attention simply to the circumstance of the moment I was in.
People didn’t attend as expected, plans were changed, Dokusan took longer than planned– simply life unfolding in the virtual space, and I had to deal with it as the one who claimed the responsibility for it.
As IT staff, I am responsible to know how the tech works and what I need to do to fulfill my job – but I’m not responsible for life unfolding. I do what can be done and let go of the belief that I could possibly control anything outside of my mind (ha, and not even this).
In all the moments of high stress, when I realize my tension and remember to “open my fist”, let go of the contraction, and allow maybe laughter, maybe tears, maybe both to appear and show me that everything is good, that I’m ok, doing my job, and eventually I’m able to sit in profound silence while managing the “show.”
The silence is never coming or going– it’s always there, even in the thickest web (of life).
In the unlikely event that this writing has made you curious about experiencing the “matrix of silence” for yourself serving as IT staff, please don’t hesitate and reach out to me! I’ll be happy to teach you all I know and be your buddy for the onboarding process!
Zenshin Suzanne Fiege
Hollow Bones Zen Volunteer & Sangha Steward