Thursday, April 19, 2012

Four Truths of Sesshin

One: All of Sesshin is Suffering

From forgetting my Oryoki bowls, to being late to take the refuges, to wake up bell, into hours and hours of sitting, through twenty services and oryoki meals, hundreds of prostrations, soji, dishes… Following the schedule completely is suffering, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Medicine Bowl might be the worst, though.

Two: There is a cause for Sesshin

We chant about it in morning service: all my ancient twisted karma; born from beginning-less greed, hate and delusion. Sitting is first and for most an exercise is not generating karma. What karma can accumulate when speech, movement and even thoughts are restrained?

Sesshin is the process of cutting the Gordian knot that we create in our lives, through our actions, speech and thoughts. Just sitting there the past and the future unwind into the present moment, past misdeeds are confronted and desires for the future examined in detail. Sitting puts our karmic life under the microscope and asks us to look at it, to classify it and understand the roots of our suffering.

Three: There is an end of Sesshin

The schedule loops day after day, it becomes a steady rhythm and you move from place to place, ceremony to ceremony, sit to kinhin, back to the cushion, setup for talk, eat lunch, take a break, afternoon sitting, service… The clock ticks through every moment of the week, keeping an eye on the schedules posted around is pretty much mandatory. It's also the only reading you get to do. Savor it.

Six full days of living in a darkened room, staring at a blank wall. But then, on the seventh day, it ends. You have breakfast, a closing talk, lunch and then the sesshin is over. You can talk again. Read. Have a cookie.

OMFB a Cookie.

Four: There is a path to the end of Sesshin

The path has eight steps

    1. Right View - Sure it's painful and exhausting but remember that you're here to have fun.
    2. Right Intention - Just to make it through to the end seems like enough of an intention.
    3. Right Speech - None. Well, as little as possible. Dish shifts are a good place to sneak in a word or two.
    4. Right Action - Do whatever is needed of you in the moment, you might luck out and get to serve tea.
    5. Right Livelihood - Do your soji job well, make it your personal mission to keep your area perfect for the week.
    6. Right Effort - Try not to miss sittings. Try. I signed out for one evening sit on the tenkin pad: "in room crying".
    7. Right Mindfulness - Remember that everyone else around you is going through the same process, give them space.
    8. Right Concentration - Enjoy your zazen. It is the dharma gate of bliss and repose, after all.

Keep these four truths in mind of and follow the eight steps and you might do a little better than just Surviving Sesshin.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice Period Blues

I only have a day to get this written, the sesshin at the end of the spring practice period at Green Gulch starts Sunday evening. We'll take the refuges after dinner and then it's no talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact for seven days. After the experience last time I'm not sure exactly how this one will go, but since I can sit all seven days I will.

Follow The Schedule Completely

One of the attractions of monastic life, and therefor of participating fully in a practice period, is that you don't have to waste any time thinking about what to do next. There's a schedule, structure, the meals and services run on time, tea is served at a particular hour, bedtime is announced with clackers, the wake up bell is rung each morning by the shousso. There is a correct way to do everything, and a place and time for every ceremony, even just the ceremony of zazen.

Householders do not enjoy such luxury, we are always juggling multiple schedules, constantly adjusting priorities depending on both necessity and preference. Having kids throws in a level of imperative that makes trade offs that were once unthinkable a practical reality: someone may be likable but flawed, and do I have time for that? In that environment, dedicating time to practice and meet regularly with a teacher means cutting more and more discretionary activity out of your life. When I hear people talk about this as a matter of necessity, not preference, I understand what they mean.

These two worlds come into collision when your teacher leads a practice period. Both residents and visitors who have applied to spend a number of weeks on the farm without leaving, and to sit each morning and through two one day sittings and finally a seven day sesshin at the end. This puts immense demands on the teachers time especially having regular practice discussions with everyone who signed up.

It becomes basically impossible to schedule practice discussion, making your best option to sign up for the one-day and seven-day sits. If a practice period is a tour of duty, i'm a reservist: one weekend a month, seven days a year. While is hard to have a regular schedule interrupted, it's important to consider what a rare thing it is to have access to this level of practice as lay practitioners.

The Inside and the Outside

As a lay practitioner, no matter how serious, there will always be a line between being inside the community and being outside. As much as I try to walk across that line on a regular basis, at the end of the day I can go home, have a beer and a burger and there's no Tenzo to tell me different, no Ino to check in with if I want to skip meditation, no Tanto to keep me from using my iPad at the dinner table.

The support system that makes monastic life possible stays right where it is when we go home.
Being at Green Gulch for a day of sitting, or a week of Sheehin, is a step out of day to day living. But it's not a complete step into monastic living, it's something between, a Zen twilight where the people in the outside world don't quite understand what you're up to, but to a certain extent neither do the people inside.