Sesshin is a beautiful, painful and enduring tradition of touching the heart and mind. It involves meditation (Zazen), chanting, drums and intricate eating rituals (oryoki).
I want you to do it for me, yourself, and all beings in the 10 directions.
I’m more of a (D & D) dungeon master than a Zen master, but I do love sesshin and I want everyone else to love it with me. This is for two reasons: first, if everyone likes sesshins, we’ll sit more of them; second, you’re a Buddha and so sesshins are for you. This is what we’re made for. Believe me on this one, it comes from the place in me that wouldn’t die in a suicide.
The first part of the first step to surviving a Zen sesshin is to not survive. Zazen can be a coffin, so give up any hope of escape, and die like a champ atop your zafu. After that, get ready to nap like a corpse, cucumber-pad your eyes like a corpse, hot-water-bottle your knees and hydrate like a corpse. Don’t think of yourself as a Zombie, though, because you’re more of a wight (a high-level undead).
The second part of the first step to surviving sesshin is to shine like a Buddha. Zazen can be blackness shimmering with life, so cultivate the mind of dead or alive. After that, get ready to follow the schedule with impeccable grace, chant with a full heart in harmony, complete oryoki in complete calmness.
Then you might see what happens when you stop seeing, and Buddha starts being.
I’d like to offer some practices that will afford you spa-like self care and the will to crush your bones like our ancestors did. Remember that rest and effort are two sides of the same coin. In the last ten years, I don’t know how many sesshin I have sat. Each one has arisen completely differently; I’ve learned that the key is to expect nothing.
Sometimes it’s kensho (insight), sometimes it’s makyo (dreams), sometimes complete satori (‘I don’t know’), and sometimes teeth-grinding (‘a mouthful of dust’). However, I am convinced that you can make your body a mass of doubt and with your 360 bones and joints, and 84,000 hairs, concentrate on who am I really?
Here is what do to:
1. When the bell rings, get up! Obey the bell with no exception to the rule. On this front, be like Pavlov’s dog. Don’t question it, just do it! Your ability to question is exactly what will launch into a great debate of should I get up or should I stay in my warm bed? We all know the answer is to stay in the warm bed, but you came to sesshin to wake up, not sleep, so get up!
2. Breathe. That may sound funny, but if you don’t you’ll be tortured. I like to settle by filling my lungs completely and letting out a slow, deep, exhalation. Try and stretch the exhalation as far as thirty seconds. When I’m settled, I let the long breaths be long and the short breaths be short. Keep a mind that tries to see its own eyeballs. If that makes you crazy, count your breaths, or count just the exhalations. This is following the breath.
3. Support your sit bones to support your back. The round cushions known as zafus are usually flat as a pancake come fifteen minutes of sitting. They smush under your hiney and your pelvis sinks and you start to collapse like a black hole, leading to back pain and constricted breathing. I start in full lotus and turn the zafu on its edge, like an egg, placing it directly under my sit bones. The firmer the zafu, the better. At some point it feels like it’s being crammed up my you-know-what, but I find that it still supports me when my legs wilt to half lotus, quarter lotus, burmese and then to the ‘I have legs?’ stage.
4. Manage your pain pre-emptively. I have sat countless sesshin in 100% full lotus and I’m lucky my knees and ankles and hips still live. Despite having caused no permanent damage, I literally made myself sick with pain. This is not necessary to practice! However, it’s good to challenge your self with balance. During a sesshin, I start with full lotus. Next period, I reverse my lotus. Next period, it’s half lotus. Next period, reverse the half lotus. Wherever you’re starting, switch it up. This has physiological benefits.
Why an emphasis on lotus? Well, I’ve never had back pain from sitting in lotus, and the leg pain has always faded within 10 minutes of releasing the lotus. I have had back pain from sitting on a chair and it lasted a week. Of course, my ‘lotus’ may be your ‘chair,’ so be sure to choose what is most comfortable for you. The key is to adjust your posture in some balanced way from period to period.
5. When it’s rest time, go down. Like Pavlov’s dog, eat fast, shit fast and sleep fast. Don’t exercise, don’t stretch, drink something warm, put your eye pads on, your ear plugs and your mouth piece in (if you grind your teeth) and maybe elevate your feet. You might not sleep on the first couple of tries, but I’m an expert at this now. Ask my wife, we share a room in a temple, and she’s amazed. For an extra kick, have a cup of coffee or tea ready for when you wake up. Down it and wait for the bell to start Zazen
6. Keep your eyes down as you move through sesshin and in doing so keep them on your practice. If you’re going to be irritated, let it be you. If you’re going to be elated, let it be you. Don’t watch others. Notice where in the body-mind you are aware of others.
7. Oryoki. Play it safe and don’t take seconds. Eat lightly. Oryoki means ‘just enough and that’s probably one and a half scoops of each offering. They’ll probably hand you a chant card, but ignore that and watch someone who knows what their doing.
8. Try sitting all night on the last night of sesshin. I’ve done this just once and it took me a really long time to work up the courage. But I can’t think of a better time and place to try, as you’ll be fed and the only responsibility you’ll have is to show up. To watch the sun rise, set, and rise again in a Zendo (meditation hall) with good windows is something I’ll never forget. I had an overwhelming sensation of arriving after sitting all night.
I felt completely comfortable, as if I’d found the heart of practice somewhere in the middle of the night. I was also amazed that I could do it! A few bowls of tea helped. Take a break and get something warm while stretching your legs. Don’t try to sit for longer than an hour. I did this on another occasion and I found that when I sat four hours straight my legs would not work and I was marooned like a goofball while the other students went to lunch. Yeah, don’t be a hero.
I offer this guide as a student who once was exhausted at the end of sesshin, but now feels completely alive at the end of sesshin. As a resident at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, the few doors of escape were locked tight and only the gateless gate remained; I haven’t found it, but I am deeply grateful to my teacher Abbess Linda Ruth, the Tanto Jeremy, and Sensei Kosho Zenrei for their guidance and support.
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