Some years ago I had the good fortune to stumble upon a weeklong meditation retreat in the wooded Uplands of Indiana led by a teacher whom I’d never heard of before. With the exception of its duration and the fact that it was in a natural setting and in the Soto Zen tradition, I had no idea what to expect. My job, simply enough, was to show up and remain open to experience. Anyway, after arriving and taking one look at the schedule posted on the door of that little rustic cabin turned zendo – the fourteen daily periods of seated meditation (zazen) separated by brief periods of walking meditation (kinhin) – the first experience that I opened up to was that of fear! Fourteen fifty minute periods of zazen each day! Could I physically take it? Could I mentally take it? I didn’t know!
The schedule struck me as dauntingly unrelenting – nothing but zazen and kinhin interspersed with just enough time to eat and sleep and attend to the barest of personal hygiene needs. Why were there no periods of chanting or work practice on the schedule – no lectures or private interviews with the teacher, either? Oh, how I loved chanting and Dharma talks and work periods, it suddenly occurred to me! Come to think of it, though, I might have then welcomed a scheduled root canal for the fact that it would give me a break from all of that meditation! This was a desolate lunar landscape of zazen, after all, an alien environment devoid of distractions and diversions. There weren’t any toys to play with, dammit! There was nothing to keep me from doing what I knew in my heart I’d gone there to do – engage in the practice of zazen with the entirety of my being. No, let me rephrase that; there was nothing to keep me from being zazen – purely and simply.
I hadn’t known it at the time, but the teacher leading that retreat, Shohaku Okumura, was and is one of the foremost authorities on the Zen practice of Dogen Zenji. He’s been instrumental in translating Dogen’s writings into English, as well as leading teaching retreats during which he expounds upon their more nuanced meaning. Okumura has also been instrumental in bringing to the West the rigorous form of meditation retreat practiced at Antaiji monastery under the tutelage of his teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. The schedule that I was barely able to wrap my mind around as I stood there on the doorstep, so to speak, was a variation on this “Antaiji-style”. But that wasn’t all. Whether practiced in the Antaiji-style or any other perhaps less taxing variation, this meditation retreat was the most seriously regarded of any in the Zen Buddhist calendar. The meditation journey that I was about to embark upon was, in fact, rohatsu sesshin.
Rohatsu literally means “the eighth [day] of the twelfth month” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 292). When used in this context, rohatsu refers to the eighth day of the twelfth month of the Asiatic lunar calendar – the day on which the Buddha is thought to have awakened to ultimate reality upon seeing the appearance of the morning star after seven straight days spent sitting in meditation. Sesshin, according to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994), literally means “collecting (setsu) the heart-mind (shin)” (p. 311). In a 1992 lecture given at the beginning of sesshin, Robert Aitken Roshi stated similarly:
The word sesshin is a compound sino-Japanese term made up of two ideographs, setsu and shin. Shin means mind. Setsu has several meanings – touch, receive, convey. Usually sesshin is literally translated to touch the mind, but it also means to receive the mind, to convey the mind. All of these meanings are included in that one expression, sesshin.
Kosho Uchiyama Roshi states that “‘sesshin’ means to touch or listen to one’s true mind” (1993, p. 78). Rohatsu sesshin, then, is a period of practice during which one strives to the best of one’s abilities to actualize that which the Buddha actualized in those seven days leading up to and including his enlightenment. Perhaps it was just as well that I’d arrived with no expectations!
Sesshins Without Toys
My previous lament regarding not having any toys to play with is not an original observation. Antaiji-style sesshins are what Kosho Uchiyama Roshi refers to as “sesshins without toys” for their scarcity of mental playground equipment (1993, pp. 78-92). Interestingly, just about everything that we usually consider to be Zen practice is but a toy to be played with when viewed through this lens. This might seem strange to practitioners who revel in the learning of the chants and bell-ringing, and the various forms and protocols of Zen practice. Indeed, Uchiyama has been called iconoclastic by some. Iconoclastic or not, “sesshins without toys” makes perfect sense when we consider the second of Uchiyama’s seven points of practice: “Zazen is the most venerable and only true teacher.” Likewise, this point of practice makes perfect sense when considered in light of Dogen Zenji’s Bendowa in which he states: “[P]racticing zazen in an upright posture is the true gate” (Okumura, 1997, p. 19).
This “sesshins without toys” approach should not be construed as a throwing away of so much of what we normally think of as Zen practice. Not in totality, anyway. Chanting, bell-ringing, lectures, work practice, and numerous other forms and protocols all have their place. When it comes to sesshin, however, this approach actualizes a deep understanding of why Dogen referred to zazen as “the true gate.” Yes, it is possible to arrive at a modicum of insight while reading a sutra, or listening to a teacher’s lecture, or by asking your thorny question and having the mirror of reality turned back on your “self” by the answer, but the deepest of insights occur while practicing zazen, while abiding in stillness, after letting go of all ponderings and conceptualizations. This is the solitary pursuit furthered by the practice of sesshin without toys.
If you’re preoccupied during your zazen – yearning for the upcoming chanting of sutras in order to change positions and enjoy glorious respite from the oppressive boredom in which you are drowning – then perhaps that upcoming service has become your toy. If you’re pondering during zazen what you will say during dokuson (your private interview with your teacher), then perhaps that upcoming dokuson has become your toy. If you’re eagerly awaiting during your zazen the teacher’s upcoming Dharma talk for the permission it will grant you to look around at least a little bit and think about something else for at least a little bit, then perhaps that upcoming Dharma talk has become your toy.
In fact, if you’re approaching practice as if you’re some little Zen child who needs to hold the teacher’s hand all the way to awakening, then the teacher/student relationship has become your toy. You’re an adult for Christ’s sake! You’ve been sitting zazen long enough to know what needs to be done. Now do it! Don’t busy yourself with the abundance of toys in your toy box when there’s work to be done! The Buddha didn’t have anyone to turn to as the storms of his zazen raged. By the time he came to be sitting under the Bodhi tree with the intention of awakening he’d already arrived at the conclusion that zazen would be his most venerable and only true teacher. And so it is that the teacher sits facing the wall along with everyone else at an Antaiji-style sesshin.
So…, throw away your toys! Let loose your concepts of gain and loss. Let go of the image in your mind of what it means to practice Zen. Relinquish the counting of your breaths, for in counting there is always one who counts. Forget breath-watching, as well, for in watching there is always one who watches. Discard all techniques to pass the time, for in such techniques are yearnings for something other than what is. Forget the days yet remaining, and the periods until you sleep. Forget dinner, and the bell, and your very next breath. Forget that you are on some path; you are The Path. Forget that you are sitting zazen – you are zazen. This is just sitting – shikantaza.
Back in my post entitled Absolute Freedom I observed that “there is great freedom in having nothing left to do – absolute and utter freedom.” The beauty of an Antaiji-style sesshin and this “no toys” approach is the quickness with which one comes to realize the absolute and utter freedom of having nothing left to do but sit.
Aitken, R. (1992). Some words about sesshin for newcomers to Zen practice. Transcription of a lecture given at Sydney Zen Center, accessed via http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/zen/aitken-0.txt
Okumura, S., Leighton, T. D. (1997). The wholehearted way: A translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Tuttle Publishing. (Original work published 1231)
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Uchiyama, K. (1993). Opening the hand of thought. (Tr. by Okumura, S. and Wright, T.) Published by the Penguin Group.
Toy Rabbit by Nevit Dilmen via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank