Sesshin at ZMM

Note: I have moved this earlier post to the top because I have added a long update. I deeply, deeply miss not being at sesshin this week. I think that may come out in the way I track the first full day of sesshin–I like just going over in in my mind.

The Summer Solstice Sesshin begins tomorrow at Zen Mountain Monastery, my spiritual home. I have sat a couple of dozen of these retreats over the last three years or so: I always went in filled with trepidation & emerged at the end of the week (usually) filled with gratitude. How I envy my fellow sangha-members who will be beginning sesshin tomorrow with a reading of the Sesshin Precautions, a list of guidelines for maintaining the inner & outer silence of the retreat. Under different circumstances, I would be arriving at ZMM tomorrow. But since I have the circumstances I have, I will try to bear in mind the spirit of the retreat during the coming week. I will not be able to sit the long hours of zazen, of course, but I want to respect & bolster that silence as best I can right here in my perch beside the river.

Update: I am trying in imagination & home practice to go through each day of sesshin with my sangha at ZMM. Monday: People arrive & stow their gear in their rooms or cabins; the retreat silence has not yet begun, so people chat & bring each other up to date, new people are greeted; there is dinner at 6:00, with training for service positions; most people continue to chat in the dining room or go to their quarters to settle in; at 8:00 everyone is settled in the zendo for the reading of the Precautions–the guidelines for sesshin: Silence (except for giving or receiving instructions during work-practice); averted eyes (don’t look directly at anyone, focus inwardly; don’t exchange greetings when you meet someone in passing; be on time, stay on the schedule (or a senior monastic, even the abbot, my roust you out of bed); there are others about dressing modestly (not a problem is you are a formal student wearing a robe that covers you from shoulders to ankles), not sleeping naked, when & where to wear shoes, etc. After the reading of the Precautions, the Four Bodhisattva Vows are chanted, the gong is struck, and the sesshin is in silence. People go up to bed. Tuesday: Depending on the time of year, the jikido bangs the big drum in the zendo three times & makes the round of all the hallways ringing a bell to announce the beginning of the day at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, though some people will have gotten up already in order to sit some extra zazen; there is a bit of a scramble for bathrooms & after that everyone heads for the zendo to sit two or three periods of zazen, depending on the season,which is followed by Oryoki, a formally organized breakfast in the zendo.1 After Oryoki, there are two hours of work practice. Then back to the zendo for two periods of zazen, followed by Oryoki lunch. Then there is an hour-long break, unless you have been assigned to the kitchen clean-up crew, which reduces this to about 40 minutes. A little before 2:00 pm, the drum sounds, students climb back into their robes & everyone goes again to the zendo, where everyone will now sit five half-hour periods of zazen2 broken by six or seven minutes of kinhin, walking meditation, either in the zendo or outdoors, weather permitting. At the end of this mental & physical ordeal, the gong is struck & everyone goes down to the dining room for informal (non-Oryoki) dinner, all in silence, with averted eyes, of course. (The food is universally excellent at ZMM, astonishing since the Head Cook & assistant are drawn from the residents & they have usually had no prior training as cooks. This is one of the central elements that support practice during a sesshin. People are very thoughtful about their food–or should be. Oryoki means “just enough,” by the way). After dinner, a couple more periods of zazen, then lights out.

Second Update: This post is becoming a little unshapely, but I want to give a much briefer description of the subsequent days of sesshin. After the long, hard Tuesday, Wednesday to Friday have virtually identical structures. Instead of the very long period of zazen that occurs on Tuesday, two of those periods are replaced by a teisho (dharma talk) from the abbot or one of the senior students. So the “container” remains much the same, but the daily experience of the middle days of sesshin follow–at least for me–a path that becomes familiar after having done a few sesshin. (I’ve talked to other students who confirm that I am not alone in the general outlines of my perceptions here.) Wednesday is hard because one is not quite ready, even yet, while at the same time knowing there is yet a long way to go. From Wednesday to Saturday, also, one meets with one’s teacher in dokusan, face-to-face teaching. You don’t get a lot of sleep during sesshin & you must focus to practice precisely, so you’re tired. Sometimes by late on Wednesday, I will have a couple of invigorating periods of zazen & energy comes flooding back. This can be a problem if it happens just before lights out. I usually have one night of sleeplessness during sesshin, often Wednesday. Thursday is my favorite day–at best I sail through it. Friday can easily turn ragged; if you are working on a koan, your teacher has probably rejected at least one of your presentations, which is frustrating. Also, by Friday, most people are bone-tired, except perhaps some of the monastics who have done this every month for years. Saturday is the last full day. Usually I get a second wind & feel happy, but it is inevitable that my thoughts begin to turn toward home. Instead of working on my koan, it will occur to me during zazen that I have to complete some task when I return home. Saturday follows the regular pattern, but the silence of sesshin is lifted just before dinner so that people may talk to each other.This first meal outside the silence can be joyous or difficult. If one has had a tough sesshin, bright conversation may not be so easy to take part in. But for the most part, sesshin participants laugh & talk, sometimes turning to serious matters, sometimes just joking around. On Sunday morning sesshin participants take part in the regular Sunday service at the monastery along with the public. There’s a big lunch after the service & then one does indeed drive home to take up the tasks of everyday life, “an ordinary person of no rank.” There is a real emotional arc to sesshin that serves psychologically to hear the teachings & to go deep into the emptiness of the self.3

I have written the above account as [two] single blocks because that is often how it feels experientially, though one makes little markers throughout the day & the week to gauge progress. It would probably be better not to do this, but I’ve always found it necessary to give myself little reassurances such as, “Lunch is finished, here’s rest-practice, half the day is past,” or even, glancing at my watch, “Twelve more minutes of rest-practice, ahh.”4 I deeply, deeply miss not being at sesshin this week.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I’m going to write an entire post on Oryoki.
  2. This was always the hardest period of the whole sesshin for me. On subsequent days, two of those five periods will be replaced by a talk from the abbot or one of the senior students. During talks, one is allowed to discreetly shift from one zazen position to another. The mind during talks is facing outward.
  3. A note on the language of this paragraph: I found myself disconcerted to be jumping around the ragged collection of pronouns offered by English, especially those marking point of view, jumping from first to second to formal third person. Partly the is the result of forcing the pronouns to serve both the purpose of addressing the reader (“you,” “one”) & characterizing the experience of the participants, both singly & as a collective (“I,” “we”). A jumpy point of view.
  4. At ZMM, everything is a practice–something undertaken with conscious engagement, even a nap.


I have been so calmed & uplifted just now by the visit with my North Country sangha1 this morning. The sangha is one of the “three treasures” of Buddhism, along with the Buddha & the Dharma. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult, to practice Zen outside the context of a sangha.

My friends came just before ten, we sat fifteen minutes of zazen, our dogs being remarkably & unusually quiet, then they went out & stacked our firewood for two hours in the pouring rain. After that samu,2 they came in again & we drank tea together. Doesn’t sound like much, you say? I cannot even begin to express how precious this contact with my fellow Zen students is at this time in my life. At any time, yes, it would be lovely; but given my pain & the lethargy that follows pain, the transformation of mind / heart / body I feel right here right now is almost unbelievable. One is not used to medicines that work so quickly & dramatically & to such good effect.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Sangha (Pali: सङ्घ saṅgha; Sanskrit: संघ saṃgha; Chinese: 僧伽; pinyin: Sēngjiā; Tibetan: དགེ་འདུན་ dge ‘dun) is a word in Pali and Sanskrit meaning “association”, “assembly,” “company” or “community” and most commonly refers in Buddhism to the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns.
  2. Samu (作務 samu?) refers to physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical and spiritual practice. Samu might include activities such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, or chopping wood. Samu is a way to bring mindfulness into everyday life as well as to get things done. Samu is popular in Zen monasteries, particularly as a means of maintaining the monastery and as practicing mindfulness.

Medicine Buddha

It would be a comfort to believe that chanting the dharini of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru could cure cancer. Seeking comfort, people sometimes cultivate such a belief.  To the extent that people gain comfort from such a belief & the practices flowing from it, I have nothing critical to say.  Sick people will find relief if it’s available. Call in mind-over-matter, or the placebo effect, it seems clear that comfort & relief. They will also look for it even if it is not available & this slips over into a distortion of reality, delusion. (“They?” I know this person–it is me.) That’s something we Buddhists like to avoid when we can. No doubt it easier to to maintain healthy, non-delusional belief within the context of a culture-wide belief system. Such cultural systems are disappearing from the world–and have been doing so for at least a couple of centuries–under the pressures of modernity.

The scholar & teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman does what is most difficult for a Western Buddhist: He adopts the traditional Tibetan worldview that Western Science is wrong in its most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. As far as I can tell from reading & listening to a number of Thurman’s lectures, he is completely sincere in this. He can say, for example, that the fundamental underlying force in the universe is bliss [nirvana] & that it was the Buddha who discovered it. Thurman follows this with the idea that the Buddha’s discovery constituted the founding of a “buddhist science.” Thurman follows this up with what I take to be a metaphysical or spiritual insight I find valuable. Referring to the Four Noble Truths, Thurman remarks that the big deal here is not the first truth, that our world is characterized by suffering, but the third, that there is relief from suffering. “Any fool can invent suffering,” he says–“it takes real genius to see that there is a solution, nirvana.” Like many other religious modernisers, Thurman wants to find a justification in science for his belief in “buddhist science.” I don’t really get this. I remember seeing the same phenomenon when my parents used to drag me to the Grace Brethren church in San Jose. A lot of those men were engineers & I used to think that was why they tried so hard to find ways to align their faith with science; unfortunately, this almost always meant distorting or misunderstanding science.

Thurman is such a fine & energetic explicator of Buddhism I wish I could join him, but I can’t. There is a kind of old-fashioned film called, Travel with Robert Thurman to Bhutan, in which a group of students does exactly that. Along the way he delivers a couple of dharma talks that are pitch-perfect & offer genuine insight into liberation; the film ends, however, with Thurman lecturing Bhutanese education officials on the need to oppose modernization. The logic of this, flowing from his initial assumptions, is flawless. As practical politics it leaves a good deal to be desired.

And yet, imagine a post-apocalyptic planet in which some small pocket have kept “buddhist science” alive & imagine that over centuries a new world culture emerging based on the idea of relief from suffering. Well, I never liked that John Lennon song anyway. For one thing, it’s not “easy if you try.”

Nevertheless, I love the idea of a medicine buddha & the images are striking. Bhaisajyaguru is almost always portrayed with deeply blue skin, much darker than the Hindu god Krishna, for example. In both traditions, a distinction is made between light blue, associated with turquoise, and dark blue, associated with lapis lazuli. One could get lost in the tangles of Indian color symbolism & never emerge from the tangles, but it seems safe to say that early Indian culture, both Vedic & (later) Buddhist, associated light blue / turquoise with the sublime & infinite. Just spend some time staring at the sky. So here I am out on the cutting edges of modernity, yet trying to find some use for these images from a traditional culture that retain something powerful for me. Perhaps I can only read & understand them in symbolic & aesthetic ways. But is that a diminishment? Isn’t that how the peasants have always understood such images?

Some Buddhist Movies (A List of Six)

My mother, who loved poetry & the poetic, would have loved reading to me when I was a little boy, but I was bored by verse & wanted her to read books about fire engines & other machinery. When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I burst into tears, terrified. And though I went on to write poems, I am still wary of stories, preferring accounts. Over the last eight weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on a fold-out bed with a wide screen TV on the wall opposite. I had not turned it on for many months prior to my illness, but given the flat stretches of time adding up afternoon after afternoon, I began looking for movies to watch. But I don’t really like movies. I wound up scrolling through Amazon’s documentary offerings–full-length films as well as TV series. I filled several afternoons with shows about archeology. Most of the things I could find about Asia, Buddhism, or religion in general were awful. Junk New Age “spirituality” of a very low order. But there are some lovely exceptions, listed below.

  1. Journey with Robert Thurman in Bhutan: Did you know that Uma Thurman’s father is a big-time Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition? I didn’t, until my friend J. who is a movie buff, told me. This is an hour-long travelogue that manages to fit in three or four major dharma talks by Thurman without seeming the least bit top-heavy. Thurman is, in the West, a Buddhist conservative. He maintains a strong, even combative, commitment to traditional doctrines such as reincarnation. I don’t always agree with him, but I have immense respect for him–& as time goes on, I find his doctrinal conservatism less & less of an issue. Visually, the film–just under an hour long–feels old-fashioned. The presentation is unified despite moving back & forth between straight travel film & the sections in which everyone sits down & Thurman teaches.2.
  2. The Zen Mind: This is a travelogue, too, though not in such an obvious way as the Thurman film. The filmmakers go to a number of Japanese monasteries and talk to Zen teachers. The discursive sections help explain things unfamiliar to Westerners without being intrusive. I was going to say that the film is more about Zen Practice than Zen Mind, but of course they are the same thing. The cinematography is effective, the structure a simple narrative.
  3. Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self. This film is pictorially gorgeous. It follows a group of Korean Zen nuns as they go to a remote mountain monastery for a 90 day retreat. The film provides subtitle translations of what the participants say, but almost no explanations or descriptions. What struck me is that the nuns perform many of the same rituals and behaviors that I am familiar with from my American monastery. They also play games during breaks that, without explanation, will mystify a Western viewer. The prize for the three winners in one of these games is that all they other players must give them three formal bows–a lesson in the reciprocity of winning & losing, but also a subtle critique of Zen’s penchant for hierarchy: usually we bow this way only to our teachers, but the winners receiving the bows are just part of the community, their status contingent & temporary. The film’s subtitle, “In Search of Mind,” seems misleading, since what these women are presumably in search of is no-mind.
  4. Talking with Buddha: This film depicts how Tibetan Buddhism is surviving in its Indian sanctuary. The opening sequence is really slow, but there is a lot of good photography and talks with monks and one brilliant Western nun. Filled me with hope and joy.
  5. Zen: This biopic of Dogen Zenji the 13th century Master & founder of Soto Zen was not new to me. I watched it first a couple of years ago. It also breaks from the first four movies in my list by being dramatic, not documentary, though what it documents is drawn from what we know of Dogen’s life. The film seemed more contrived to me on this watching, more didactic than I had remembered. Not surprisingly, I liked the commentary from Buddhist teachers & the filmmaker included on the DVD.
  6. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring: I haven’t watched this one yet. Another dramatic film, it comes very highly recommended. I expect to watch it sometime over the next couple of days.