Reflections on Sesshin by David Edwards

No mud, no lotus.

Sesshin is a core practice of Zen schools across the world and is offered twice per year by the Adelaide Zen Group (along with 3-4 shorter weekend intensives). Sesshin has been described in various ways including; the essence of Zen practice, an opportunity to collect one’s heart and/or mind, a vehicle to drive a life of peace and comfort, a powerful tool for spiritual transformation and even a gruelling “meditation marathon”. Most people find sesshin a rewarding, as well as challenging, part of their practice.

In early October 13 people who practice with the Adelaide Zen Group gathered at beautiful Goolwa Beach for up to 7 days of practice. The group’s initial work is to create the unique sesshin container: creating an atmosphere of support for each others’ practice. This includes a commitment to no talking or eye contact. This allows our attention to turn inward, away from the world’s distractions, in fierce but compassionate scrutiny of the fiction that is the self. Sesshin provides a rare opportunity to practice this difficult work.

The days become a flow of zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation, including two longer walks each day one along Goolwa beach), chanting, teisho (formal Zen talks given by a teacher), Encouragement talks, and dokusan (private interviews with a teacher). Each participant has several opportunities a day for Dokusan.

Part of the power of sesshin comes from the personal instruction given during these meetings. The intensity of sesshin comes from the potent combination of zazen, silence and frequent Dokusan. The schedule also includes a brief period of daily work practice, rest periods and three vegetarian meals a day but mostly it’s about zazen with around eight hours out of each day, beginning with wake up at 4:45am and ending with lights out at 9:00pm. There is virtually no free time except for breaks after the meals. When the body is perfectly still and the senses have nothing to play with, the mind’s activity is the only show in town.

Experiences that might arise during sesshin include seemingly prolonged periods of frustration, fruitless striving, sleepiness and dullness, boredom, profound stillness and peace, exquisite appreciation for just-this-moment, tremendous aversion to just-this-moment, deeper concentration than is usually possible outside of sesshin, and periods of having to endure compulsive thought patterns that repeat endlessly like broken records. There can be periods of great physical or emotional discomfort or pain, and periods when we settle so completely that this pain is transcended.

What keeps us coming back to sesshin, despite the sometimes gruelling nature of it? It’s not the moments that are peaceful and pleasant, although those are very nice. It’s the overall effect on our Zen practice and our life. Spending a week in sesshin is like spending time in graduate school, or in an intensive training course, the subject matter being your own mind. You may learn a great deal studying in your spare time, but nothing compares to setting aside the time and energy to delve as deeply into a subject as you possibly can.

David Edwards is a member of the Adelaide Zen Group and a frequent leader at our regular sittings. If you’d like to join us to learn more about Zen and meditation practice, please come and sit with us.