Waiting for Wine
Pines are straight, and brambles are crooked; cranes are tall, and ducks are short.
In the age of ancient emperors, people forget about both government and anarchy.
Such peace ~ a hidden dragon in the abyss;
Such freedom ~ a soaring bird sheds its tether.
Nothing can be done about the Ancestor’s coming from the West~
Within, gain and loss are half and half.
Reeds go along with the wind, turning in the air,
The boat cuts off the flow and reaches the shore.
Spiritually sharp mendicants here,
Observe Fayan’s method.
~ Hongzhi Zhengjue, Case 27 verse, The Book of Serenity
In a bit more than a week, Pacific Zen folk will gather deep in the Santa Cruz redwoods for our Fall Retreat. And like the Pacific salmon and steelhead, now schooling at the mouths of the North Coast rivers, waiting for the fall rains to push upstream, we will gather in expectation together. The subject of this retreat is The Book of Serenity, the third great book in our formal koan curriculum, following The Gateless Barrier and The Blue Cliff Record. The Zen school, even from its early days, settled on two models of awakening: one active, dynamic and embodied; the other quiet, still and serene. The first two classics are from the dynamic schools: Wumen of the Linji (Rinzai), and Xuedo and Yuanwu of the Yunmen (Unmon) and Linji branches of Zen. The compiler of The Book of Serenity, Honzghi, contributed verse to the 100 koan cases, and was a legendary figure of the Coadong (Soto) school. He advocated “silent illumination” meditation. And his poetry shines with a subtle, warm and gorgeous light.
I have lost a bit of sleep in the past week over my own personal struggle with methods dynamic and quiet. Our family has a few acres of grapes, and every other year we hold back a half ton to make our own house wine. The many schools of thought in winemaking basically come down to two: Do a lot of additions, measurements, and manipulation; or do almost nothing. This year (I now see in hindsight as an homage to Hongzhi), I am letting the wine just sit ~ a kind of shikantaza of fruit of the vine. That mostly means not pitching commercial yeast, but having the patience to allow the native, wild yeasts brought in on the grapes and floating around the winery, to develop on their own. But wild yeast brings uncertainty in both matter and timing: we get the yeast the universe chooses for us, and it is days slower in growing than pitched yeast. The just-sitting method of winemaking requires patience.
So, as I write, fermentation of our grape must has begun. We crushed and de-stemmed the grapes last Friday; they were fat Cabernet berries with a treacle so sweet, they were almost inedible and the sugary juice left a coating of sugar on our hands and arms. A dark and thick cap of broken grapes and skins has formed on the top of the 500-liter stainless steel tanks. W
hen I take the protective cardboard top off the otherwise open tanks, a gust of CO2, produced by the wild yeast, makes me cough, and then I take in the rich, deep and fruity smells of wine being made. Taking out a sample, a splash hits the floor, leaving a splat like black paint. But the wild process, the silent illumination process, is slower than I planned, and I will likely be away in retreat when all of the sugars get fully converted to alcohol. The fruit juice then becomes “dry” wine and is ready to be pressed and put into an oak barrel.
So we wait in silent illumination, to understand what the universe will bring us. It may be spoiled wine or wonderful vinegar. It may turn out to be marvelous wine. And there is a peace and freedom in that waiting. I love this line from the poem above: Pines are straight, and brambles are crooked; cranes are tall, and ducks are short. That’s it. That’s it.