Please check our calendar page for application forms for our upcoming Sesshin and Intensives
Sesshin is an intensive, residential training period, usually of between three to seven days.
At sesshin, we separate ourselves from the concerns and preoccupations of our busy everyday lives. In these special training circumstances we are free to devote ourselves entirely to the practice of realising the Buddha Way.
The forms and procedures that follow are designed to establish an optimum setting for true Zen training for everyone attending sesshin. These guidelines provide a structure that supports each of us in giving full attention to the matter at hand. At the same time, internalising the guidelines, and practicing them mindfully, creates an environment for the entire group, which fosters and expresses our deepest aspirations.
There are Three Essentials of Sesshin. They are:
1. Don't talk or whisper.
2. Don't look around.
3. Don't greet people or make gestures.
Your eyes should be kept lowered. Eye contact is very distracting during sesshin. Don't signal others with gestures. Please don't greet or acknowledge your friends as you come and go in sesshin. Continue zazen at all times. Keeping your hands in kinhin position whenever possible will help to bring you back to your practice. During work periods, bring all your attention to the task at hand.
Promptness and Attendance
Always be at your place early and do not leave until you have the signal to do so. If you are not at your place, one of the leaders will have to go looking for you.
Entering the Zendo
Step into the zendo, closing the door behind you. Bow in the direction of the altar. This is your bow to the Buddha. Do this every time you come in, even if it is only to get a zafu. If you are coming in for zazen, place your hands in kinhin position and walk quietly around the edge of the zendo to your seat. Bow towards your seat. This is your bow to the Dharma. Turning in the direction of the altar, face the room and bow. This is your bow to the Sangha. Take your seat, facing the centre of the room.
Leaving the Zendo
When you leave the zendo, stop at the door, turn and bow to the altar. There are three instances when you do not do this:
1. When you go to dokusan.
2. When you leave during kinhin - bow while still in the line.
3. When you follow the Jikijitsu out for kinhin or meals.
In the Zendo
Please walk quietly in the zendo, and keep your hands in kinhin position. The only exception to this is when you go to dokusan: then your hands should be in gassho, and your zafu under your arm.
Sit still during zazen, chanting and other activities in the zendo. If you are in pain, moving makes it worse. Kneepads and spare zafus are stored by the door. There are chairs outside the zendo to use if your knees are sore. If you feel a sneeze or a cough coming, do not hesitate to cover your mouth. At such times consideration for others should be your first concern.
When you hear the Shijo bell struck twice, it is time for kinhin. Still sitting on your zafu, bow. Rock gently from side to side. Stand up and place your hands in kinhin position. If your foot has gone to sleep, be careful when standing. It is all right to stay sitting down until you can safely stand. If you cannot join the kinhin line, wait on your zafu until your place comes back. Then gassho and join the line.
Gassho when you hear the Jikijitsu's clappers. Turn to your left and immediately start walking. Do not wait for the person ahead of you to move. The Jikijitsu sets the pace. Please keep up with the person in front of you. Keep your head up and your eyes lowered during kinhin. Continue your zazen practice during kinhin and at all other times.
The Jikijitsu will clap the clappers before you reach your zafu to let you know kinhin is finishing. Stop at your place with your back to your zafu. All gassho together, then turn in the direction of the altar to face your place. Gassho again and take your seat.
If you need to leave the zendo during kinhin to get a drink, go to the toilet, or attend to some sesshin job, you may leave in one of the following ways:
1. Leave when you hear the Shijo bell for kinhin, and gassho at the door.
2. If you cannot leave quickly, walk in the kinhin line until you get to the door. Gassho as you leave the line, not at the door.
If the person in front of you leaves, maintain the gap.
When you get back to the zendo, wait inside the door until your place in the line comes round. Gassho quickly and step in. If your place has already passed or you are too late, wait inside, near the door until the line has stopped. Gassho with the final bow, and then return to your place.
If you need to get a chair, a kneepad or another zafu, please wait until the final bow of kinhin.
The principle is - 'everyone moves together'.
The Kyosaku & Acupressure
The kyosaku is an effective way to relieve tiredness and tension, especially in the shoulders. The sound of the kyosaku, as with all other sounds, brings us back to our practice. Acupressure releases tension from long sitting, and fatigue. Like the kyosaku, acupressure can return us to our practice. The kyosaku and acupressure are offered at sesshin, but only at your request.
The Ino leads the chanting; please chant with your ears. Stay at the speed that is set by the Ino. Chant at a pitch and a volume where you do not have to shout or strain. You should be relaxed, so that your chanting rises from your belly.
The Teisho is a koan commentary given by the Teacher. The teacher faces the altar while delivering it, and is offering to the Buddha a live and concrete presentation of his Zen. Sit formally through the sutra and the Teacher's reading of the case. During the teisho, sit comfortably within the limit of your zabuton - don't lean against the wall. Listening to the commentary is really a mode of zazen.
It is important to meet the Teacher in dokusan. Dokusan is a chance for creativity and mutual deepening. The Teacher's intention is to guide us towards realisation of our essential nature, not to judge us.
Dokusan is a time to ask questions about our practice. You don't have to have a reason to go. Say what is in your heart. If you have nothing to say, that's all right. Tell the Teacher you have nothing to say. This is your presentation. Dokusan is completely confidential. The Teacher does not discuss it with anyone else, and it is requested that you do the same. The teaching given to you may be inappropriate for someone else.
General Rules For Sesshin
Open and close doors mindfully. Keep your seat in the zendo tidy, also your bedroom. No smoking during sesshin.
Do not read or take notes in the zendo, unless instructed by the Teacher. There should be no books - except sutra books - in the zendo.
It is important to be careful of personal hygiene during sesshin, as infection can spread very quickly. Please be careful to wash your hands thoroughly before handling food.
There is a lot to remember. Most of it is learned as you do sesshin. Just do your best and feel free to make mistakes. No one is judging you. These rules and procedures provide us with a conversation-free structure that we come to know. This security sets us free to settle into our depths.
Wholeheartedly joining in is the key to a fulfilling sesshin. If you come from another discipline, please put it aside during sesshin, and join with us. Engage in the timetable of activities, and in your free time have a sleep, go for a walk, etc. Indeed, with this spirit, relaxing or working, everything becomes zazen.
"Sesshin" means, 'to settle the mind; to touch the mind; to convey the mind.' Each day provides myriad opportunities to continue this practice. Essentially, each moment contains everything we need. Doing zazen moment by moment opens us up to these possibilities, allowing us to settle into our depths.
Teisho: Some word's about sesshin for newcomers to Zen
by Robert Aitken Roshi
This text addresses some of the most fundamental and delicate religious issues. Therefore, it should be read, quoted and analysed in a mindful way.
Soon your sesshin will begin. 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. It is a time to put everything aside, to forget everything and to focus all one's enquiring spirit through the medium of the practice, counting the breaths or koan work.
To touch the mind of course implies an individual action. To receive the mind and to convey the mind show how the action of realisation is not self-centred. In fact, you are simply the agent of realisation. If you enter sesshin with the spirit, "I must become realised", then you are setting up a conflict with the basic fact. Fundamentally, heaven and earth and I are of one spirit. All things and I are one. Dogen Zenji asked, "What is the mind? The mind is mountains, rivers and the great earth, the sun and the moon and the stars." And of course it is all people, all things, all plants, all animals. And particularly in this instance it is your brothers and sisters in the dojo. Your own individual effort is very important but unless it is effort with the spirit that you are the agent of realisation, it is self-centred.
Sometimes I hear people say after sesshin, "Well, I certainly worked through a lot of things during that sesshin," and I think to myself, "That wasn't such a good sesshin for you." Sesshin is not a time to work things through. Things may be worked through in your practice but if you set yourself toward working through things, that is to say, reviewing old traumas, then you are not using your time effectively.
Sesshin is a time to focus wholeheartedly on one thing, just that count, just that koan, nothing else. You must forget yourself in that practice and then things will be worked through.
Yasutani Haku'un Roshi used to caution us at the beginning of every sesshin that there are three basic rules for sesshin. These rules are not established for the sake of ritual or ceremony. They are rules that have been worked out empirically over many hundreds of years in the operation of Zen seclusions. The first of these rules is no talking, not even whispering. There is something about the human voice that is very distracting. Your ears prick up and your concentration is lost. Don't talk at all. During a work period you may have to ask, "Where do you keep the mop?". or maybe you don't have to ask for it. Maybe if you use some initiative, you can look around and find it yourself. If some emergency comes up, then you may speak to one of the leaders privately, succinctly in a soft voice. Remember that your leader has his or her own practice too. Too much complaint, too much emergency, will have a poor effect on the entire sesshin.
Please remember that personal crisis can be a great opportunity in zazen. The only emergency that can take you from sesshin comes when one gets a telegram that someone is gravely ill at home, or something of that kind. Other emergencies should be worked through. One becomes very sensitive during sesshin and convinced that a neighbour is wriggling just to distract me or the monitor is hitting me too hard or not hard enough, or the meals don't contain enough protein or they're too salty or not salty enough or I'm not getting enough sleep or my legs hurt too much and so on. Well, all of these things, except the latter one, can be just set to one side as delusion. If your legs hurt too much then you may sit in a chair. But remember that just like working out in a gym, you cannot stretch your legs to the point where you can sit comfortably unless there is a certain amount of pain. You cannot develop yourself unless you become a little tired or a little sore. So push yourself. Zen is the middle way and it is important not to get blown out so that you come to the point where you simply cannot ever do zazen again. So, find the middle way between extremes and sit in a chair if you must.
The second rule is no looking around. I want to tell you a story about that. The first Roshi in the United States was a man named Sasaki Shigetsu, also known as Sasaki Soku-an Roshi. He established the American Buddhist Society which later became the first Zen Institute of New York, and it was his wife, Ruth Fuller Sasaki who wrote Zen Dust with Miura Roshi. A man named Emanuel Sherman was a student of Sasaki Roshi. The Roshi gave him a zazen robe. The war came along, Sasaki Roshi was interned and he later died, and Sherman rather fell away from the practice of doing zazen. Then in l957 when my wife Anne and I were teaching in Ojai, California, Nakagawa Soen Roshi came to hold memorial sesshin after the death of his friend Sensaki Nyogen Sensai in Los Angeles. I persuaded Sherman, who was also living at Ojai at that time, to come with us to the sesshin, and he wore his robe. Roshi asked him before sesshin, "Where did you get that robe?" and Sherman told him, "It was given to me by Sasaki Shigetsu Roshi in New York when I studied with him before the war." He turned over the lapel of his robe where something was written in Chinese characters and said, "I've always wondered what this said." And Soen Roshi read the inscription and asked, "Did Sasaki Roshi write that?" Sherman said, "Yes, he did." Soen Roshi said, "What a great roshi he was." Sherman said, "What does it say, what does it say?" Soen Roshi said, "It says, 'don't look around'."
You see, if you are seeking to touch the mind, eye contact is very distracting from this practice. You are seeking fundamental communication and the distraction of ordinary social interaction can be destructive.
The third rule is "no social greetings". This follows naturally from the first two. The original Japanese says something like, "no social signals." In other words, if two people come to a door at the same time, there is no need for one person to gesture to the other to go first. One person goes first and another follows, like two drops of water in the stream, very naturally. You don't use social signals in a crowd of people but if you are walking through a crowd of people you can make your way without touching anybody, without any signals, without any word. People move aside naturally and you move aside naturally. That's the way it should be in sesshin. If you follow these three rules, no talking, no looking around and no social greetings, you will have a good sesshin.
Now I want to say a few words about the dojo. Dojo is a term that you are familiar with because it is used by people in akido, karate, judo and so on. It's even in the English dictionary. It is a sino-Japanese term made up of two ideographs. "Do" is the Japanese pronunciation of Tao, as in Tao-te-ching or Taoism. And Jo simply means place. The place of the Tao. Tao means "way". Arthur Whaley translates the Tao-te-Ching as the way and its power. But Tao does not mean only a way to - it does not simply mean a means. The opening words in the Tao-te-Ching are, "The way that can be followed is not the true way." So we should understand what Tao means.
When Kumara-jiva and other great translators set about rendering Buddhist Sanskrit into Chinese they had to find Chinese words that were equivalent to particular Sanskrit expressions. They used the word Tao to mean not only path but also realisation. They used Tao to translate Bodhi. So Tao is not only the path to realisation, it is realisation itself. Actually Dojo is a translation of the Sanskrit word Bodhi Manda. Bodhi is enlightenment, Manda is spot or place, the place or spot of enlightenment and it refers to the spot under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha sat when he saw the morning star and had his great realisation.
So, your meditation hall, your dojo, is your sacred place. Your cushions are your own personal dojo, your own personal Bodhi Manda, your own personal spot of realisation. Thus it is very important to keep the dojo as a sacred place of realisation. It must be spotlessly clean, it must be in regular order with a figure as the focal point of devotion - a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. Before the Buddha or Bodhisattva, you should have incense, flowers and a candle. The candle represents enlightenment, the flowers represent compassion, the two sides of any genuine religious experience. The incense is an offering to the Buddha, as of course candle and flowers are as well.
In front of every Rinzai Zen monastery in Japan there is a sign that carries the name of the temple, the name of the mountain, for all temples have a mountain name as well as a building name. There is also the name of the sect, the Rinzai sect and the name of the Branch, like the Myoshinji Branch and then the words Semon Dojo. Semon means "special". So it is a special place of enlightenment. When I hear people say, "I don't need a special place of enlightenment, I can do zazen anywhere," I feel they are not ready to do zazen. The mind is just too tricky and if you say you are doing zazen all day long, that means you are not doing zazen at any time. You need a special corner, if only in your own bedroom, to make sacred. The process of religious practice is one of sharp incisive focus. It is one of all-out devotion. This doesn't mean that you go around all day long in your everyday life with a long face but it means that when you practice, you only practice. You include things in that practice which are conducive to the practice, and you exclude other things. In this way you cultivate your own Semon Dojo.
Now about practising without a teacher. This is extremely difficult, so please keep yourself within bounds and follow the directions in the orientation as closely as you can. When you first sit down, please take a couple of deep breaths, all the way in and hold it and then all the way out and hold it. You may do this through your mouth, although this is the only time when you should breathe through your mouth. Then when you've taken these one or two deep breaths, rock back and forth, first widely and then in decreasing arcs until you are erect. And then lean far forward and thrust your rear end back and then sit up. Now you are ready for your breath counting. Unless you have already worked with a Roshi, I would think that you should stay with breath counting. If you have taken the koan Mu for yourself and worked on it for some time, then that will be all right. But please don't switch around and experiment now with breath counting, now with Mu, now with the Sound of One Hand, now with the Original Face before your Parents were Born. It becomes too diffused.
So if you are counting your breaths, just count your breaths. But if you have taken up Mu, then count your breaths for one or two sequences and then begin with your Mu practice. Key Mu to your breaths in the same way that you key your count to your breathing. There comes a time when you can forget about breathing and just face Mu. Your breath at that time will be very small.
Your practice is not merely to focus on something. You must become that thing itself. If you are counting your breaths, then count "one" for the inhalation, "two" for the exhalation and so on but let the count do the counting. In other words, let that point one count one, let that point two count two, let that point three count three and so on up to ten and then repeat. It's like the musician seeks to let the music play the music but he or she must practice a long time before that can happen. So you must practice letting the count do the counting.
Mumon said about the koan Mu, "Carry it with you day and night." What does this mean in practical terms for the student at sesshin? It means that you should be doing Mu or counting your breaths, from morning to night and that you should put yourself to sleep with it. If you're chopping vegetables, you need to concentrate only on chopping. You can't think about counting your breaths at such a time or you'll be cutting off your thumb. In any very demanding work, please focus on that. You can't focus on Mu while you're explaining irregular French verbs. You can't concentrate on counting your breaths, really concentrate, if you're driving a car. So focus entirely on what you are doing if the task is very demanding but there aren't so many demanding tasks at sesshin. Chopping vegetables and cooking may be the most demanding of those tasks. So keep yourself with your breath counting or with your Mu at all times and then when you go to bed, lie down and hold Mu lightly, or hold your breath-counting lightly and put yourself to sleep in this way and your zazen will continue in some fashion during your sleep.
There are two ways to get through a sesshin. One is to concentrate on survivaland the second is to focus on each moment as it comes up. Either way will get you through the sesshin. But only the second way will give you an effective sesshin. If you focus on survival then you will be disappointed after your sesshin, because you will know that you have wasted your time just thinking about getting through it. Forget about getting through it, just focus on that one, on that two, on that three, that's all - nothing else. Have a good sesshin!