November seems to have become “gratitude month” for many North American Buddhists, no doubt due to it being the month of our Thanksgiving holiday. Don’t be surprised, then, if you should happen to see one of your friends posting a lot on social media lately about all that they have to be grateful for. Just be grateful for the subtle reminder to pay attention to all that you have to be grateful for. It will likely have you feeling all the more settled, content, and happy as a result.
I just committed to sitting Rohatsu sesshin once again – a weeklong practice period commemorating the seven days that the historical Buddha spent in meditation before realizing enlightenment. So, once November draws to a close I’ll begin sitting like a buddha, settling my mind like a buddha, facing my karma like a buddha, and waking up like a buddha. Well…, we’ll see about that last one!
Of course I’m grateful for the opportunity to sit Rohatsu once again. A lot has to fall into place in order to be able to practice with such intensity. One needs health – it’s a pretty physically and mentally arduous endeavor. One needs a little money, and time off from work and other responsibilities. One needs to have glimpsed at least a little bit of one’s bodhi mind in order to have chosen to spend a week in meditation instead of strolling on a beach somewhere, hiking in the mountains, or sightseeing in some exotic locale. One needs a place to practice, and people to practice with as well. Most often this means that one needs to have found a teacher associated with a temple where such practice is valued. For all of these things, I am grateful.
The Soto Zen Center were I first learned Zen forms was not all that big on long meditation retreats. The longest began and ended over the course of a weekend, and much of the time was filled with chanting, bowing and bell-ringing, Dharma talks and work practice, ritualized meals and ritualized interviews with the teacher. Sure, I’m grateful to have experienced all of that, but I’m especially grateful to have become familiar with something known as “sesshin without toys” – a form of meditation retreat that gives the practitioner nowhere to hide within an unrelenting schedule of meditation after meditation after meditation.
Just as I was becoming ripe for a longer meditation retreat it happened that a flyer arrived in the mail at our Zen center informing us of a Rohatsu sesshin to be held on the grounds of an Episcopal retreat center in the Uplands of Indiana. I don’t recall the flyer saying much of anything else about the retreat other than how long it would last and that it would be led by a teacher whom I’d not yet heard of, Shohaku Okumura. I knew nothing of “sesshin without toys” as I walked up to the door of that little cabin in the woods and looked at the schedule taped on the door: 3:40 a.m. wakeup, two periods of meditation before breakfast, five before lunch, five more before dinner, and two periods of meditation to close out the day at 9:00 p.m. There were no “toys” for the mind to play with. There was nothing for the mind to be distracted by save for what it could conjure up on its own. There was no respite and no relief from the experience of mind experiencing itself. Needless to say, it was a transformative experience.
I’ve since come to know that Shohaku Okumura is one of the most respected experts on the Shobogenzo, a compilation of writings by the Zen monk, Eihei Dogen. I’ve also come to know that he learned this Antaiji-style of sesshin from his teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, and he has practiced it ever since. By the way, Uchiyama Roshi wrote a refreshingly accessible little book called Opening the Hand of Thought in which he expounds upon the subject of “sesshin without toys.”
Anyway, fifteen years have gone by. Shohaku Okumura is now abbot of Sanshinji in Bloomington, Indiana. And over the years I’ve lost track of the number of seven and five and three day sesshins that I’ve done either at that little cabin in the woods or at the established Sanshin Zen Temple. What I’ve not lost track of, however, is the fact that those periods of time dedicated to the experience of mind experiencing itself have been central to my finding my way back home.
I no longer belong to a Zen Center anymore. Suffice to say that practicing forms for the sake of practicing forms holds little meaning for me at this point in my life. I’m grateful to have learned them, for they opened me up to that which is truly transformative. But it seems as though I’ve opened up even further and let it all go. I’m not interested in wrapping my Zen meditation in a tight and tidy religious package anymore. I’m merely interested in that which is my birthright – the direct experience of mind experiencing itself. And I’m grateful to be able to go someplace where, at least for a week, everyone else will feel the same.
Foggy landscape by Carschten via:
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank