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.

Sesshin at Zen Mountain Monastery

Heading tomorrow to ZMM for sesshin. When I get back next week I want to pick up my discussion of Zen from early in the year, regarding Zen’s relationship to the divine & supernatural from some previous posts.

From Zen Chants, by Kazuaki Tanahashi, a teacher with whom I have studied briefly:

In a common Zen invocation, Vairochana Buddha—the pantheistic divinity regarded as existent in each and every particIe—is addressed. Noting the presence of many buddhas and bodhisattvas in Zen, some of us may see it as polytheistic. Others regard Zen as atheistic, since the central figure on the altar is usually Shakyamuni Buddha—a human being, not a deity. Those who have faith in Amitabha Buddha often refuse to worship other divinities, so their practice may appear to fall into the category of monotheism.

Thus, Buddhists—including Zen practitioners—can be seen as running the gamut from having faith in a single deity to many deities to omnipresent deities to no deity at all. The ambiguity and diversity of this situation do not seem to bother people much. Accordingly, I propose a concept of ambigu-theism to characterize the theological orientation of Buddhism (13).


Dream about Sesshin

I have continued my practice of sitting zazen while here in Vietnam, though I only seem to be able to sit once a day, in the evening, rather than my usual twice a day, morning & evening practice. And I’ve been listening to dharma talks by MRO teachers. When I return to the US, just before the semester begins, I will spend a week at the monastery for the August sesshin*. Lat night I dreamed I had arrived for sesshin, which for some reason was beginning with a large public gathering in a tall building quite unlike the monastery. “Well, I’m new at this,” I told myself, “just go with the flow.” But there wasn’t much flow & people did not seem to know what was going on. I decided to just go to the zendo & wait, but I couldn’t find it. I knew it was on the ground floor, but all the elevators were behaving strangely & the staircases seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Classic anxiety dream, of course, though with an unusual object.

M.C. Escher Staircases

I never did find the zendo & woke up feeling frustrated, but also with the notion in my head that “just sitting” is much harder than one might suppose. Just getting to the place where one can sit is no simple matter!

*Characterized by silence and deep introspection, sesshin is recommended to anyone who is sincerely interested in experiencing intensive Zen training. We wake up each day before dawn to begin a schedule that includes 7 to 10 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent meals in the zendo (oryoki), work practice. . .