Monday, June 20, 2011

Surviving Sesshin

The first I heard about Sesshin was one Saturday lunch at the beginners table, Shundo was outlining the basics: sitting all day, no talking, and when he got the the part about no reading or writing I remember saying something along the lines of “Are you kidding? That’s just crazy.” I wasn’t sure that I could handle it, and clearly I was right, but for the most part I was able to keep to the schedule and follow along. There was a lot of discomfort on many levels but the experience was deeply rewarding and I’m grateful for all the hard work that the residents and staff at the zen center put into making the weekend happen.

The Oryoki Incident

Over the course of the three days I felt like I was gaining competency in the forms, by the third day the routine of the Zendo was becoming second nature, there wasn’t much worry about making mistakes, when I was out of form i would simply adjust and that was that. I started to feel real comfort in the services. I even felt like I was getting good at Oryoki, until breakfast on Sunday.

We had finished eating and moved on to the wash cycle, I had cleaned my Buddha bowl and was working on the second or third when the unthinkable happened: I dumped about half my wash water along with my spatula onto the floor of the Zendo making a racket and a mess. Mortified, I had no idea what to do, I really couldn’t get up because my bowls where still on the meal board in front of me, I froze for a second until the attendant to the Tanto who was sitting next to me leaned over and gave me instructions “put your hands in gassho and someone will come around to clean up.”

Soon enough, a sponge appeared, the mess was mopped up, the dropped spatula was taken to the alter to be purified then returned to me, and I put my bowls back together and wrapped them up with shaking hands. After the meal when we got up to leave the Zendo I tried to brush the remaining water off the meal board and was shaking my head feeling embarrassed and clumsy when I heard the words, “don’t worry about it.”

In Zen there is the concept of sudden enlightenment, that all the effort you put into meditation and study and practice only lay the groundwork for awakening, there’s a leap that you have to make on your own from the mundane to the profound. It comes as suddenly as a flash of lightening when it comes but there’s no anticipating it or planning for it. It just happens when it happens.

I had spent two days sitting, composing letters in my head, struggling with my karma and generally worrying myself into a bit of a state. Those four words, right at that moment, were like opening a dump valve, suddenly all my worry fell away and it was all I could do not to laugh out loud with the joy of relief. That feeling dissipated over the next few hours but every now and again when I would catch myself getting back into the worried and anxious mind i would repeat it back to myself, “don’t worry about it.” Works like a charm.


As we were leaving the Zendo at the end of the last sit, Jordan said a few words in conclusion and asked Blanche if she had anything to add, her reply which i’m paraphrasing was wonderful “we’ve been breathing together for three days, we’re conspirators now.”

Even without talking or trying not to make eye contact, there’s a feeling that developed over the three days of real connection to everyone else in the group, especially the few of us that were left on the third day after many of the residents dropped out (this is pretty understandable, it’s pretty easy to just walk next door and get back to your regular routine). A few people I knew from Saturday service in particular felt much closer and familiar.

There’s a lot more I could say, but in closing I think the most important thing I took away was that while being serious about practice is important, you can’t be too serious, especially if you're just a beginner.