Monthly Sesshins at Gyobutsuji
At the heart of our practice is a monthly “sesshin without toys,” as Kosho Uchiyama Roshi called it, which is devoted almost solely to sitting zazen. There are neither chants, lectures, nor work periods during these sesshins, and strict silence is observed.
Uchiyama Roshi said that from the day we are born, we begin playing with “toys” that divert our attention and life energy from living out the true self in the fresh, unadorned immediacy of the present moment. As adults, we play with the toys of competition, social status, career achievement, political involvement, romance, material acquisition, spiritual attainment, etc, but in zazen we let go of our desires, aversions and preoccupations and simply sit. We settle down into the foundation of the true self that is one with the universe, by simply being, right here, right now.
Sitting itself is the practice of the Buddha. Sitting itself is non-doing. It is nothing but the true form of the Self. Apart from sitting, there is nothing to seek as the buddha-dharma.-- Dogen Zenji in Shobogenzo Zuimonki
We recommend you read Opening the Hand of Thought, by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi for a more detailed explanation of the meaning of zazen practice. The chapter of this book entitled The World of Intensive Practice is especially important to an understanding of the meaning of the sesshin style practiced at Gyobutsuji. (An exerpt from that chapter entitled "Sesshin Without Toys" is included below.)
Gyobutsuji Sesshin Daily Schedule
3:40 wake-up 1:10 zazen
4:10 zazen 2:00 kinhin
5:00 kinhin (walking meditation) 2:10 zazen
5:10 zazen 3:00 kinhin
6:00 serve-up/breakfast/break 3:10 zazen
7:10 zazen 4:00 kinhin
8:00 kinhin 4:10 zazen
8:10 zazen 5:00 kinhin
9:00 kinhin 5:10 zazen
9:10 zazen 6:00 dinner/break
10:00 kinhin 7:10 zazen
10:10 zazen 8:00 kinhin
11:00 kinhin 8:10 zazen
11:10 zazen 9:00 end of day
Sesshins Without Toys
(From Opening the Hand of Thought, by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi; Chapter 4: The World of Intensive Practice)
I want to clarify further the actuality of zazen and our life attitude in accord with zazen by looking at intensive Zen retreats, sesshins, and what is experienced through them. The word sesshin means “to touch or listen to the mind,” and sesshins consist of several days dedicated almost entirely to zazen.
After my teacher Sawaki Roshi’s death in 1965, I began to do sesshins at Antaiji for five days every month. There are no sesshins in February, however, due to the cold, nor in August, due to the heat, and the July and September sesshins are only three days long. In all of these sesshins the schedule consists simply of a repetition of fourteen periods of zazen interspersed with briefer periods of Zen walking meditation (kinhin), from four o’clock in the morning and nine in the evening. There are three meals a day and a half-hour break after each one, when everyone attends to personal needs. At Antaiji each period of zazen is fifty minutes long, while at many other monasteries and centers the periods are thirty or forty minutes. There are two unique characteristics of Antaiji sesshins. One is that there is absolutely no talking. There are no greetings or socializing, and not even any of the sutra-chanting that might happen at other times in a temple. Usually the head of a Soto Zen temple does not face the wall but rather faces the rest of the monks or practitioners to watch over them, but I always face the wall along with everyone else. These are the main characteristics of Antaiji sesshins. The only instruction added to these rules is that you apply yourself to your own practice regardless of anyone else. I began this style of sesshin after experiencing various types of sesshins, and I have continued this practice since 1965 because I believe it to be the purest way of putting into practice the words of Sawaki Roshi: “Zazen is the self doing itself by itself.”
The five days of absolute silence are to help everyone become their self that is nothing but universal self without socializing or diverting their attention to others. Moreover, this uninterrupted silence makes the five days into one continuous period of zazen. We don’t use kyosaku, a stick used in many Zen temples to wake up a sitter who might have dozed off. Since we set everything aside and face the wall, just being ourselves during zazen, we may feel a terrible boredom. If the kyosaku were carried around, it would become a toy to divert people from their boredom. For example, someone sitting quietly might hear a person carrying a kyosaku around and begin to think about how perfect their posture is and why there is no reason for them to get hit, or about how long the afternoon is and how they could arrange to get hit just to pass the time.
It seems to me that we spend all our lives playing with toys. It begins as soon as we are born. The first toy is the nipple of the milk bottle. When we are a little older, we turn to dolls and teddy bears. After that, it’s do-it-yourself kits, cameras, and cars. At adolescence, we move on to sex, and then come study and research, competition and sports, along with earnestness in business and perhaps the search for fame. This is all just playing with toys! Right up to our death, we exchange one toy for another, and we end our lives having done nothing but play with toys.
Doing zazen means to actualize the reality of life. Zazen is the self which is only the self of the universe, without any playing with toys. Zazen is like the time just before our death when all the toys have been taken away. Yet, even then, we look around for something to play with, if only for an instant.
What do you do if you get sleepy during a sesshin at Antaiji? If the purpose of the kyosaku is to clear away your sleepiness, you can’t help but fall asleep when it isn’t being used. However, there is no need to worry – there is absolutely no one who sleeps through the entire seventy hours of zazen in a five-day sesshin! Inevitably, you wake up. Since it is your own practice, you just do zazen wholeheartedly. Zazen is not something a person should be forced to do. It’s a practice you do yourself, as the self which is only the self.
There may be an occasion when you are awake but very bored. In order to pass the time, you may think about one certain thing and entertain yourself with this idea. Even though this is your own practice, it is ridiculous to pass the time like this, but occasionally people do. If you are mentally normal, however, you will not be able to keep this fantasizing up indefinitely – at a sesshin where there is only silence and long continuous hours of zazen, you’d feel like you were going crazy. A healthy mind cannot bear to struggle with and relate to one deluded thought over a long period of time. In the end, you will realize by yourself that the most comfortable thing is to let go of delusions and aim at a solid zazen posture. In other words, these sesshins are just sitting as self which is only self, without any outside restrictions. Consequently, you cannot help but return to that self which is only self, only life happening here and now, and which is unmoved by delusive thoughts.
As I’ve said, I sit facing the wall, like everyone else in the zazen hall. This does away with a relationship between us based on a watcher and those watched. If I sat with the intention of keeping a watch on everyone else, then that is all I would be doing, and I would lose sight of my own zazen. Also, if everyone were conscious of being watched while doing zazen, it would become a zazen carried on within the dichotomy of “self” and “other” and would no longer be zazen that is truly the self which is only self. I have to carry on my own zazen practice, while everyone else has to practice his or her own zazen as self which is only true self..
There is no instruction given regarding zazen during sesshin, so to do sesshin like this properly you have to have already understood what your mental attitude should be. I hope people will sit sesshins after having read and understood this. If they still have questions, they can visit a Zen teacher and ask their questions at times other than during sesshin.
A person who decides to do zazen after reading my explanation has quite a different attitude from one who might just come and sit zazen unquestioningly. There are also many people who are concerned with intellectual understanding – that is they are full of argumentative theories. In order that these opinionated people may understand through their own experience that zazen is no theory—it is something that you actually do – I have them dive right into this totally silent zazen practice.
Before Time and “I” Effort
When we do this kind of sesshin, we become aware of various truths as personal experience, not theory. The first thing we can’t help but feel when sitting these sesshins is the tremendous drawing out of time. Of sesshin it is said that “A day is as long as eternity” and “A day is long as it seemed in one’s childhood.” How often in our day-to-day life do we share a joke with a friend or perhaps watch a bit of television and, before we know it, half the day or perhaps even the whole day has passed. But when we sit zazen the entire day, time just does not pass easily. Our legs hurt and we become filled with boredom, and there is nothing else to do but live out time as the reality of life, moment by moment.
During sesshin all our activities are regulated by a bell. Two gongs sound, and we all stand up from zazen and begin walking. Doing kinhin, the thought arises of how fed up we already are with zazen, and then, discouragingly, we realize it is still the morning of the second day and less than half the sesshin is over. I’m sure that everyone doing sesshin has had this kind of thought.
How in the world do we get through the remaining time? Arriving at this point, we have to just transcend time. If we don’t forget this thing called time, it will be impossible for us to continue through all the rest of the hours of the sesshin.37
When we transcend time, or forget time, we actually meet the fresh reality of life. Time exists for us because we compare one moment with another, and in the welter of perception we feel time flowing swiftly. When we no longer compare, and just be that self which is nothing but the self, then we are able to transcend this swiftness or comparison that we call time. Those who continue sitting sesshin no longer recall time. Simple hearing three gongs, you begin zazen; if it’s two gongs, then kinhin. Another three gongs signal that it is time to sit again; then two gongs and it is back to kinhin. We just continue sesshin as it is., following the signals of the bell.38 No one thinks about whether it is a long time or a short time. Finally, without thinking about it, five days have passed and the sesshin is over. Only then do we notice we have completely forgotten time while doing zazen, though I’m afraid such an expression may invite serious misunderstanding. It may be more appropriate to say that, just applying ourselves to zazen, five days have passed all by themselves.39 Actually no matter what words we use, nothing is really appropriate. We simply have to experience a sesshin personally.
This kind of experience actually shows us just what time is, as well as what before time is. Ordinarily, we take it for granted that we live in time, but through sesshin we are able to experience directly that this is not so. Rather, it is the life of the self that creates the appearance of time.
When we do zazen, we fold our legs and sit without moving, keeping perfectly still. So you would have to say it is painful, compared with a self-indulgent way of life in which we are usually able to move around as we wish. However, if we begin to think during zazen about how painful it is and how we are persevering and bearing that pain, we will never be able to sit quietly throughout the whole five days. We might be able to do a couple of hours of zazen, or even four or five, strictly on our ability to persevere and endure pain, but there is no way we could ever sit a five-day sesshin simply by persevering. Furthermore, we could never sit through a sesshin every single month or lead a life of zazen practice by virtue of some egotistical idea about our ability to endure pain. And even if we were able to do so, it would be utterly meaningless! We would only be comparing our own ability to discipline ourselves and persevere with that of others, and zazen would become nothing but an extension of our disposition to compare ourselves with other people. The most important thing during sesshin is to throw away even these ideas of how painful it is or how we are persevering amid pain, and become submerged in zazen as it is, as the self doing itself by itself. Only by sitting still and leaving everything up to the posture will time pass of its own accord. Only when we throw away our ideas of pain and perseverance will we be able to sit a sesshin without anxiety.
Through sesshins, we are actually made to experience what it means to have the bottom fall out of our thoughts of persevering and suffering. This has an enormous influence on our daily lives. We meet many problems and misfortunes in our day to day affairs, but what usually happens is that in confronting a problem we begin to struggle. And by doing so we force ourselves into an even worse situation. This is easy to see when it concerns someone else. When others have fallen into unfortunate circumstances, as observers we say they should “just stop struggling” or “just calm down.” As observers, we can coolly say this, but when the trouble is our own, we suddenly lose our ability to stay calm. How can we make this self—which can’t help but struggle—stop struggling and settle down? There is no way unless the bottom of our thoughts about struggling and persevering falls out.40 During sesshins we are made to experience exactly that. Sesshin is the practice we carry on prior to the distinction of one’s own power and the power of others, prior to time, and prior to persevering.
The Scenery of Life
Satori and Zen seem to have such an intimate relationship in Japan that when somebody says “satori,” everybody immediately associates it with Zen, and vice versa. People who begin to sit sesshin often wonder, “When we do zazen, don’t we need to have a satori experience?” In the West, the word “enlightenment” has the same effect. Truly though, satori is inexplicable, and it would be safer not bringing it up at all. I say this because people usually speak of satori in contrast to delusion, and the distinction between satori and delusion is nothing but a comparison that we set up in our ordinary minds.
The true satori of Shakyamuni Buddha is not like this. It is said that Shakyamuni made the following statement upon attaining satori: “I attained they way simultaneously with the whole world and all sentient beings. Everything—mountains, rivers trees, grasses—all attained buddhahood.”
For Shakyamuni, satori wasn’t something peculiar only to himself. His was the satori of life inclusive of himself and all things. That is something that truly goes beyond the discrimination of our ordinary minds. In the Heart Sutra (Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra) it says, “There is no birth or death, no purity or impurity, no increase or decrease.” Satori is beyond birth and death, beyond increase (gain) and decrease (loss), beyond impurity (delusion) and purity (satori). How can satori be beyond satori? This is a very important point. Satori related to delusion is a limited kind of “satori” based on comparing one thing with another. True satori is not based on such discriminations in our mind, it belongs to the whole of life. This kind of satori means to be enlightened to the reality of life prior to the distinctions of self and other, or delusion and satori.
If we wish to say that we have gained satori as a result of our practice, we should remember well that such satori belongs to the realm of ego. It is nothing but a satori based on the distinction drawn between yourself and others. It is nothing but a discussion about the world created by the discrimination of our ordinary minds.
In Only Buddha Together with Buddha (Shobogenzo: Yuibutsu-yobutsu), Dogen Zenji writes, “If satori arises from any preconception of satori, that satori will not be reliable. True satori does not rely on concepts of satori, but comes from far beyond conceptualization. Satori is grounded in only satori itself and is assisted only by the power of itself. Know that delusion as some fixed thing does not exist. Know that satori is not an entity that exists.”
A student came to me and asked me this: “When we do zazen in sesshin, there are times when no matter how much we try to stop chasing thoughts and put our energy into the zazen posture, thoughts just keep coming one after another, and we can’t help but chase after them. But at other times, we can do zazen with a completely clear mind without any thoughts coming up. Wouldn’t you call this satori or kensho?”
I replied, “Certainly when we do sesshins, we often have this experience. But if you call those times we can’t help but chase the thoughts “delusion”, and call clear-minded zazen satori, then delusion and satori are essentially like conditions caused by changes in temperature and humidity.
“We have all kinds of weather throughout the year, and even during a single sesshin the weather may go through changes. If we continue doing sesshins over a long period of time, we naturally see that there is a causal relationship between the temperature and humidity and our own psychological condition. For the most part, we begin to sense when certain conditions will arise. For example, when it is hot and muggy, no matter how much effort we try to put into sitting zazen, our heads simmer as though they were fermenting; there is nothing we can do about it. But when the air is dry and a cool evening breeze is blowing, our heads clear and it certainly feels as if we have become one with zazen. However, both of these are conditions of our heads responding to temperature and humidity. Since doing zazen means to sit and aim at being one with zazen, naturally this kind of zazen is very fine, although this doesn’t mean that such zazen is good, and that zazen that isn’t like this is a failure.
“Regardless of conditions, what is essential in doing zazen is just to sit, aiming at zazen and waking up to zazen. In just sitting and waking up to zazen, the various conditions going on in our heads simply become the scenery of our zazen!”41 The student went off chuckling at my explanation that satori and delusion are conditions of temperature and humidity.
A few days later, the September sesshin began. As the early part of September is hot, the sesshin is only three days long. A usual, the first two days were very muggy and we were doing zazen soaked in sweat. But on the morning of the third day, it cooled off refreshingly and began to feel like fall. We were able to do zazen in comfort and on that note the sesshin ended. At the end of sesshin everyone relaxes and we have tea together. At this time my student came back to the issue of the weather and remarked that he had certainly experienced that satori and delusion are influenced by temperature and humidity.
The world we live in is not something that exists independently of our thoughts and ideas. Our world and these thoughts and ideas appear to us as a unified whole. Depending on what our thoughts and ideas are, our world may appear to us in completely different ways. These thoughts and feelings constitute our psychological condition. Moreover, our psychological condition is at the same time our physiological condition. When something breaks down inside us physically, our minds no longer remain clear. And if our minds are not clear, then the eyes with which we see the world and our views of life become dark. Our lives and the whole world take on a gloomy appearance. On the other hand, when we feel healthy our minds brighten, and consequently our outlook on everything becomes brighter.
Furthermore, our physiological conditions are tremendously influenced by the environment in which we live. The changes and conditions of climate and weather both affect us. This cause-and –effect relationship is particularly easy to see when you lead a life as unvaried and devoid of distractions as the sesshins at Antaiji.
The essential matter here is just striving to wake up regardless of the conditions you are in. It is not about arriving at some state where all thoughts have disappeared. To calmly sit amidst these cause-and-effect relationships without being carried away by them is shikantaza.
Like the weather, there are all sorts of conditions in our personal lives: clear days, cloudy days, rainy ones, and stormy ones. These are all waves produced by the power of nature and are not things over which we have control. No matter how much we fight against these waves, there is no way we can make a cloudy day clear up. Cloudy days are cloudy; clear days are clear. It is only natural that thoughts come and go and that psychological and physiological conditions fluctuate accordingly. All of this is the very reality and manifestation of life. Seeing all of this is as the scenery of life, without being pulled apart by it—this is the stability of human life, this is settling down in our life.
This is the same as the zazen we do. We always try to sit zazen aiming at being steadily awake here and now, aiming at the line ZZ’. Yet it’s not a matter of being able to adhere to ZZ’, since we inevitably slide away from it. So we move away from ZZ’ and then we wake up to ZZ’; we move away again and wake up to it again. Zazen is the very posture of forever waking up to ZZ’. As long has we have this attitude, all thoughts that occur to us when we move away from ZZ’ become the scenery of zazen. The times when we can strictly maintain the line ZZ’ are also the scenery of zazen. It is not that the cessation of thought is satori and good, and the arising of thoughts and the tendency to chase after them is delusion and bad. Just sitting, transcending good or evil, satori or delusion, is the zazen that transcends the sage and the ordinary man.
In The Record of Linji (Rinzai Roku), Linji Yixuan (Rinzai Gigen, d. 867) says:
The true practitioner of the Way completely transcends all things. Even if heaven and earth were to tumble down, I would have no misgivings. Even if all the buddhas in the ten directions were to appear before me, I would not rejoice. Even if the three hells were to appear before me, I would have no fear. Why is this so? Because there is nothing to dislike.
For Rinzai, the appearance of all the buddhas in the past, present and future was not something to rejoice over, nor was the appearance of the three hells something of which to be afraid. Of course, not being afraid of the appearance of some hell doesn’t mean that for Rinzai hell had no existence. For him, hell was a kind of scenery that was different from the scenery of the buddhas. The point is that whether some hell, all the buddhas, or anything else appeared before him, Rinzai saw all of these as the scenery of his life. For us this nothing but the scenery of our zazen.
I hope that people who practice zazen will continue regular sesshins and daily zazen for at least ten years. It’s a tremendous thing to be able to give oneself to this kind of practice and not be caught up in distractions. Our deepest mental suffering will come up during these years of zazen, and we will be able to continue our practice only if we have the ability to see this suffering as the scenery of our life and not be carried away by it. Working through these ten years, we develop a posture of living out the reality of our true self.
If we lead this sort of life and sit zazen, at whatever age, there is no doubt that we will come to have a commanding view of who we are. When we live in this way, not only zazen, but daily life itself, is such that we cannot find the value of our existence in what other people say or in things that we want. It is a life that is unbearable unless we discover the value of our existence within ourself.
What is essential is for us to live out the reality of our true self, whether we are doing one period of zazen, a five-day sesshin, or practicing for ten years or more.
© 2004 Jisho Warner. Reprinted from Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, courtesy of and with permission from Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 U.S.A., www.wisdompubs.org
 translated by Shohaku Okumura in Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji, Recorded by Koun Ejo