Sesshin

An account of a Rinzai Zen Sesshin led by Eshin Osho

Organized by the Vancouver Zen Center and held on Galiano Island

After you have established a meditation practice, then tried a short retreat or zazen-kai with us, the next step is to attend a longer residential retreat with a qualified teacher. Different traditions organize their retreats differently. Zen “retreats” are called sesshin, which translates roughly as “joining mind” or “serious mind”. Our Zen teacher, Eshin Osho, calls the experience of sesshin “becoming whole again”. Nothing completely prepares you for first sesshin (or other residential retreat), but I hope this account of my second sesshin will be useful to other students. For students who have little experience of our Tuesday night Rinzai zen practice it may help to explain our ritual and our emphasis on group practice. I was fortunate to be able to stay in Vancouver and attend the Zen center for a week after sesshin, so I was able to talk things over a bit with Eshin and his students.

Since the prospect of sitting and silence for seven days 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. is daunting, I started preparing mentally on the drive down to Vancouver. As I drove I listened to a CD my young niece burned for me. Among the classical pieces that we both enjoy she had sprinkled some excellent surprises. One of these songs summed up the tormented western mind that I was taking to sesshin:

I want to be special,
So fuckin' special,
I want you to notice me,
I want a perfect body and a perfect soul,
But I'm a creep.

It is often called "western disease" - grandiose expectations alternating with total lack of self worth. When we westerners start meditating this up and down between grandiosity and self doubt gives us quite a ride. As always in zazen, there is no way out except through. Only by letting grandiosity and self doubt exist, WOW look at that pendulum swing, do they gradually they come into balance. Somehow watching helps the pendulum run out of energy. I used to visualize this as a sort of vertical tennis game, with the grandiosity demon and the worthlessness demon tossing me up and down like I was the ball in their game. Allowing it, experiencing it fully, this leads to detachment and reduces suffering.

Rinzai Zen takes a very direct approach to self examination and teachers will readily use insults and tricks as well as encouragement and compliments to persuade a student to look deeply in a direction they have been avoiding. Since the only way for you to detach is for you to allow yourself to be fully penetrated by your experience this insistence on approaching aversions, and on accepting aversive interactions, is immensely valuable. In sesshin these strategies are used within a highly structured environment that makes it possible for one teacher to provide very personal guidance to many students. The structure includes: three ritual meals (oryoki), chanting for half an hour twice a day, twice daily individual interviews with the teacher, a daily dharma talk, work practice where one is asked to talk only as much as is necessary for the work, thrice daily tea ceremony (two formal, one informal with cookies), kinhin (in zen this is the practice of walking in step with other students and is mostly done outside), the keisaku (pine stick with which the jikijitsu may hit students on the shoulder), a lot of zazen (I estimated about 8 hours a day of silent bum-on-zafu time), and of course silence except for interviews, chanting, and brief work-related conversations. Sometimes there are also occasional unexpected "situations" arranged by the teacher. These seem to loosen attachment to the prescribed form and sometimes made me want to roll on the floor laughing (a desire that was renounced). Except for the actual experience of zazen, students are expected to act as a group using only non verbal communication (hand signals, bells, clappers, facial expression, bowing). Even in zazen one avoids disturbing others, this cultivates discipline and patience and helps counteract the self centeredness of just sitting with one’s own process.

In sesshin, as in our Tuesday evening practice and biannual two day zazen-kai, there is a jikijitsu to lead the ritual; a shoji to look after the environment, people's health, serving tea, and giving detailed instruction in ritual; and a tenzo to prepare and serve food. These roles are usually filled by experienced students. Jikijitsu, shoji and tenzo training have their own benefits, and the roles ensure that the ritual and people’s welfare are tended when the teacher is occupied with interviews, organizing the food, or otherwise seeing to the smooth progress of the week. In sesshin the jikijitsu has the added task of wielding the keisaku - it is not used in our evening practice or local zazen-kai.

All this structure allows the teacher a framework that makes highly individualized instruction possible although there can be as many as 13 students. I was often impressed by the depth at which Eshin works, and by how closely he observes others. Food, tasks assigned during the work period, conversations I had with him months ago, and tiny incidents during sesshin itself were all woven together in interviews and dharma talks to promote self examination. I was repeatedly faced with my own discomfort, left staring down the barrel of my own ignorance (zen students spend a lot of time with “don’t know mind”), shocked by my own attitudes, surprised, praised, challenged, teased, corrected and generally encouraged, and so were 11 other students. As usual Zen was paradoxical. By giving myself to this detailed structure I gave up most opportunities to make choices for a week, yet when it was all over I had gained a lot more confidence in my ability to make choices in everyday life.

Zen teachers do not hesitate to publicly expose a student’s failings. Through public correction we learn to correct our mistakes without hiding or making excuses. The most obvious method for practicing this in sesshin is through the combined efforts of the shoji and the jikijitsu. If you make mistakes in the ritual the jiki corrects you, publicly yelling "gassho", "stand", "walk in step", "sit up", or whatever instruction you need. You are expected to simply and silently comply with the instruction. This is an opportunity to find and express some dignified Buddha nature. The discipline of silence removes many of the strategies we have for covering up - there is no opportunity to explain, argue, excuse, joke, withdraw, show off, or create a smokescreen of any kind. In silence a mistake stands out starkly, and so does a correction. If you need detailed instructions the shoji will seek you out during a break, or bow to you to call you out of the kinhin line for instruction. If the jiki makes a mistake he or she is publicly corrected by the teacher - corrects the mistake - then calmly continues making his or her best effort. It is not unusual for a public apology by the teacher to be part of a dharma talk. Everyone works together publicly acknowledging and accepting their own imperfection.

This public correction can be very uncomfortable as we usually rush to cover up our imperfections, but in Zen you eventually learn to accept yourself as you are by accepting that your failings are obvious, ordinary, and not special to you. At first I tended to only notice my own mistakes, but as this has become less painful I am seeing my mistakes blend in with everyone else's. Chanting is a good place to notice this as it is difficult for westerners to chant in Japanese, and even the English chants are long and hard to follow correctly. I don't think I'll live long enough to experience it - but they say a Zen master is one big mistake! In dharma talks sometimes Eshin says “we are all one big mistake”. This is a powerful antidote to getting stuck in the "I want to be special, So fuckin' special . . . But I'm a creep" song.

Dharma talks are an additional opportunity for public instruction and correction as well as including basic instructions that apply to everyone. All dharma talk material was abstract enough to make sense to everyone at some level so you are never quite sure which parts are for you personally, and in a way it all is. That did not stop me from being regularly startled by hearing my own exact words and actions thrown back at me - and I'm sure 11 other students had the same experience.

Koten, a Soto Zen teacher, once told me that Eshin has a lot of “Japanese karma”. He meant that where Oriental students will accept instructions and learn by following them, western students balk at anything that has not been exhaustively explained. Eshin expects his students to move toward an oriental attitude and try things without explanation. I must have no “oriental karma” at all as I regularly hear myself whine “but why”, mentally if not out loud, and I have balked a lot. This time Eshin seemed to be in more of a western explaining mood than usual, or maybe I was in more of an oriental listening mood. The purpose of sesshin was addressed extensively, and the cyclic nature of the process was often explicitly explained. After sesshin Eshin explained that sesshin is "meant to stress you", to find our difficulties so we can face them. In dharma talks we were admonished to walk the middle way. "It is natural for people with a lot of pain to start with, people with more problems than others, to make more effort at first sesshin. We are told "practice like your hair is on fire", be careful with instructions like this. Work hard, but not too hard. Don't go crazy with it." After sesshin Eshin told us that [Joshu] Roshi (his teacher) will cause crisis in sesshin , "the last thing he wants is for it to go smoothly - then you won't grow."

Sesshin was not easy - Eshin says "sesshin is never easy." It took three emotionally painful days to resolve some of my reactions afterwards. When I told Eshin that it took me days to finish with sesshin he just said “it always does.” Traveling back from sesshin with other students certainly confirmed that everyone was engaged with some serious internal process. Some people were ready to talk a lot after their week of silence, and some were quieter than usual, tentative and slow about communicating. Everyone was affected in some way. I am not special. There is usually some turmoil after prolonged intensive practice. The effort is worth it, benefits continue to manifest as things integrate with everyday life for a long time after sesshin is over.

The jikijitsus at this sesshin were expert with the keisaku (stick) so its use became a little clearer to me this time. A jikijitsu with the keisaku walks slowly and softly round the zendo twice every other sit. At the Mount Baldy zen center where Eshin trained the jikijitsu decides who gets hit, but at these Vancouver Zen Center sesshins the participants request the keisaku by bowing as the jikijitsu walks by. If you bow then the jikijitsu faces you, "two people bow together", you turn your head and drop your shoulder first one way then the other receiving two loud hits on the trapezius muscle of each shoulder. Then "two people bow together" again, and the jiki turns and walks on. The loud hits act on your acupressure point to release physical and mental tension at the same time. The effect is like a massage and like a massage it can hurt a bit. I found that when I got stuck on something my shoulders crept up. Then a hit on the shoulders with the Keisaku was very helpful; not as good as jumping into icy waters perhaps, but enough to make a budding obsession loosen its grip on the attention. The loud hits wake everyone else up while they relax the recipient so it is a bit obnoxious to request the keisaku too often. I was so interested in how this worked that I probably was obnoxious.

Vipassana teachers tell stories about feeling like they were going to be enlightened, then hearing the dinner bell and choosing food over enlightenment. The Zen student is not faced with this choice. When the clappers sound, everyone gets up. Since one eventually learns the oryoki ritual so that it requires little thought, whatever process was happening in sitting meditation tends to continue during the meal (although eating adds its own sensory input as well). Maintaining precise ritual in what can be a confusing whirlwind of experiences is good training. If you get really good at oryoki you will be able to give attention to the task at hand regardless of little irritations, flying thoughts, or persistent powerful feelings. No wonder the samurai found Zen useful. Even for non samurai it is good training for carrying mindfulness into every day life, more complex than walking meditation but the same principle.

A week of structure and silence is a long time. I kept expecting things to get boring, but there was always another challenge ahead. I was constantly surprised. You can get complacent and selfish meditating by yourself, but in sesshin there is usually something to snap you out of that. As Gareth (one of Eshin's Vancouver students) said "we shouldn't call it a retreat, it's an advance." The idea is for the experience to carry over everyday life. Zen is good medicine for western disease. I experienced that I'm not "fuckin' special" or “a creep." The grandiosity and worthlessness demons are smaller and weaker. I am stronger, happier, steadier on our middle path, and filled with gratitude that this form and this teacher are demanding and uncompromising enough, and witty and funny enough, to cut through my defenses and allow me both a more complete and satisfying view of life, and the ability to laugh at myself more fully and more often.

I can try and tell you about it, but if you really want to know, do it!

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