We are delighted that you are considering attending a Zen retreat. We admire and respect your courage in taking on this adventure of sitting still through whatever arises in silence. Facing our stories, thoughts and emotions that arise as we face our life-truths and transforming these emotions is our practice. Sesshins (Zen retreats) can be life transforming. If you are new to Zen, this page describes different elements of Zen retreats that are integral parts of sesshin that help create a transformative atmosphere.
If you are attending a sesshin for the first time, we will do everything to make it work for you in a way that doesn’t disturb the meditative atmosphere for others. Please let us know if you would like us to explain or discuss any of these elements.
Rituals: Unlike Insight meditation retreats which are now increasingly common in the U.S., traditional Buddhist retreats including Zen intensives, seem to have some apparently rules and rituals around walking, bowing and eating. When we do not understand their purpose and the teaching behind them, they can create a sense of constant performance pressure, especially in our initial years. The idea of having these rules is following: First goal is to create a sense of community and shared-identity by asking everyone to be mindful of each other (e.g., walk in sync like a caterpillar instead of walking alone or putting the teacups down at the same time or finishing meal together). The second goal is using/heightening our tendency to want to be the best in following rules and learning to let go of getting it right. Most creative teachers do understand that this second goal has shadows. If we are naturally anxious, all these rules can seem controlling, debilitating and not freeing, especially if the purpose of these rules is not explained. If performed with the right spirit, these rules create a sense of beautiful harmony at retreats.
Posture: It is absolutely okay to sit in any posture while maintaining an elongated curvature of the spine. Having said that, we encourage everyone to sit on the floor on a cushion if it doesn’t dishonor the body. It is our experience that sitting cross-legged, especially in full-lotus, activates hara in ways that other postures might not. in ur modern culture, our heart-minds are not naturally “purified” and still. Sitting in full lotus cuts through our ruminating mind and helps us focus on hara. However, we should not do it if and when it dishonors the body. Rinzai Zen has traditionally been very masculine. It has taken some of our female friends some effort and many conversations with female teachers from other lineages to begin to honor their bodies when they are in their moons. Similarly, while a little discomfort can be used to focus on hara, regardless of gender, one should not try too hard to sit in full lotus when constantly in pain.
Sleep: Like other rules, early wake up times can create anxiety on first 1-2 days if you are following the most rigorous schedule. By the time third day comes, our physical bodies are exhausted, heart-mind feels simplified and we sleep very well. Some can have deep, baffling, lucid dreams. Overall, when people really are able to focus on hara, the need for sleep goes down.
Chanting: The meaning of chants where we read a Romanized version of Chinese or Japanese language sinks in subconsciously. The most important thing, is the state of mind chanting from hara takes us to. When people really chant from their hara, the whole body, especially lower abdomen, feels energized and activated after chanting. Sometimes, hara pulsates, our faces get red with chi (energy) after long chants. Chanting is really an effective meditative practice and not a ritual.
Walking meditation: We notice the person in front of us through the sway of their shoulders so that we can keep in sync with their feet without looking at their feet (so that we move our right foot when they move their right foot).
Samu (Work): Usually, most meditation retreats have “yogi” jobs or “samu (work practice in zen tradition)” where people help in overall clean up once every 1-2 days. Our retreats are unique in the sense that we have no assigned full time cook or manager. When retreat attendees work together for cooking and cleaning silently, it keeps costs down and creates a powerful sense of community. Please do your best to maintain meditative atmosphere will working and treating each action as an opportunity to serve Buddhas around you.
Dokusan (interview): This process is supposed to be confidential and should stay between the person is teacher’s role, student and Mu! This confidentiality can be abused by teachers but the purpose is to let every student experience their own answer to each traditional or life koan. The teacher should not share any details of the conversation to protect the privacy of the student because people share their vulnerabilities with the teacher. The student can share their own journey but not the answers to traditional koans. Traditional koans are used with long time practitioners, are powerful tools to help us in our awakening and they are transformative to the extent we are mindful of applying them to our real life situations. We are never fully done and we all have to keep practicing. Thanks for joining us in practicing together!