Zen Mountain Monastery Sumida River Rehearsals (Pt. 3)
Contributed by Kevin Salfen, University of the Incarnate Word
Photographs by Kevin Salfen
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
One of the most practical and revealing rituals I’ve observed during Theatre Nohgaku’s residency at Zen Mountain Monastery has been the twice-a-day assigning of work to members of the community. During the residency, we constitute part of this community. We are preparing something for them, and for ourselves, but we also eat with them and meditate with them, and so we are assigned work. Every day at 8:15 and 1:30, the duty roster is read out like a litany: “Noh rehearsal: Rick, David, Tom, Elizabeth, Colleen, Laura, Gary, Matthew, Miriam, and Kevin. Y—: gardening. K—: carpentry projects.” And so it goes until every member of the community is named and given a task. Work sessions come between breakfast and lunch and again between lunch and dinner, with one hour of free time from 5 to 6. When at work, community members are asked to use speech only as it is required to aid the task at hand.
But this description is a little misleading. Labor goes on, of course, outside the formal work sessions. For example, when we arrived on Sunday, J— told all of us that we would share in kitchen duty, though the residents would take care of this until Tuesday, when the monastery returned to its normal schedule. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, many of us went ahead and pitched in at the first opportunity, scraping rice out of pots, rinsing communal-living-sized salad bowls, drying cutting boards, mopping, sweeping, cleaning tables, and whatever other odds and ends needed doing. J— reminded us that “there’s no merit in zen.” Fair enough, but there is a certain satisfaction one takes in labor when it benefits so many in such fundamental ways. Other monastery residents will have clean plates and cutlery for one meal because some of us took the trouble to wash and dry them, and the residents are doing the same for us many times over. In fact, “we” and “they” start to blur in the kitchen. Although clearly guests, bringing something out of the ordinary to Mt. Tremper, we are also working in order to share and sharing in collective work.
If that sounds a bit self-congratulatory, it’s not meant that way. What I’m really remarking on is our troupe’s instant, almost natural willingness to participate as fully as possible in the experience of monastery residents. Each member of Theatre Nohgaku comes at noh from a different place and with different goals. But all of us have lived through three weeks in Bloomsburg, PA, with the Noh Training Project and not only survived to tell the tale but have gone back again and again for more, some for each of the project’s previous nineteen years. Life during the Noh Training Project is largely communal—shared meals, shared labor, shared living quarters—and deeply concerned with Asian culture, which makes it a kind of preparation for our rehearsal week at Zen Mountain Monastery. So kitchen duty links TN’s life in Bloomsburg and Mt. Tremper. It’s simple and practical, but it’s one of the things that makes performances of noh in both places possible.