Same Thing Again for the First Time

A Few Words About Sesshin

I wrote some time ago about my dread of an upcoming Rohatsu Sesshin, and my subsequent reaction to it.  I had no such feeling about our spring sesshin; this was probably the first time I hadn’t felt dread before a retreat (going back 23 years).  The spring retreat is only five days, compared to seven; the weather is usually nicer; the sun doesn’t go down as early in the day: the whole thing seems less lugubrious and dreadful.  My daily practice had been going well, and I looked forward to a chance to go deeper.  I thought I’d breeze right through it.

This expectation[1] was confounded spectacularly by a miserable first afternoon.  I was tired, hungry, and my usual samadhi (which has a lot of variation, but is usually within a certain range) had deserted me.  I kept trying to get into my sleepy aching body but couldn’t do it.  The first sitting of the afternoon seemed endless, and later there was a period of Open Zazen (sit or walk, as you wish) which lasted an hour, and which I always feel I should sit through, since I’m a “senior student” (who felt on that day more like a senior citizen).  I was utterly miserable.  What happened to the happy sesshin I’d been looking forward to?

On the second day, our teacher gave a talk on the precepts, but toward the end drifted a little from the topic and said that she thought sesshin involved 50% willing, or intention, and 75% (clever how she mixed up those percentages) letting go.  She often talks on sesshin about making effort and not making it.[2]  In the questions after the talk I said I thought that willing and letting go are in conflict, and asked her to speak about that.  She said some preliminary things she always mentions, then got to the meat of the question for me, saying something to the effect of: you practice for a certain amount of time, it might be one year, it might be thirty years, using techniques and trying to learn how to meditate.  But it’s possible after a certain point—and sesshin is a great time for this—to abandon all that.

She looked at me.  “You’ve been practicing for decades.[3]  You can keep sitting the way you always have.  But you can also come to sesshin, drop all that, and just sit down and see what happens.”

I felt bowled over by that statement.

People say casually that Rinzai Zen students practice with koans, while Soto students just sit zazen, or practice shikantaza, which translates at “just sitting.”  But life itself—as Dogen points out in the Genjokoan—is a formidable koan, and shikantaza is a koan in itself.  What is it to just sit?  You think you know that as you read this, but go off and do it.  You’ll soon have some doubts.  Does just sitting mean that all you’re doing is sitting, you’re not doing anything else (like thinking)?  Or is it simpler than that: you’re just sitting there thinking, listening to songs, having fantasies, seeing visions.  Are you actually doing anything as you sit there (some teachers say you’re doing nothing.  It’s kind of like doing dope), or are you not doing anything?  Who says?  And on what authority?[4]

This is not the first time in 26 years I’ve faced this question.  I had one notable exchange with Shohaku Okumura where he seemed to think I was an idiot for asking what he “did” as he sat, and I’ve sat two weekends with Issho Fujita, who says that sitting=zazen posture + 0.  You just enact the posture.  Nothing else.  But somehow the statement “sit down and see what happens” seemed even more radical.  That’s how it struck me at the time.

I didn’t have anything to lose.  My teacher had more or less stared me in the eye and told me to do it.  And I was pretty clear that, even if I shouldn’t give up effort altogether, I’d been trying too hard the day before (also for the past 26 years).

So I gave it a try.

My mind went absolutely apeshit.  Yahoo!  I’m free!  But I don’t think it went anymore apeshit than at times in the past when I’d tried to confine it.  And I was still hearing sounds in the room, seeing the wall in front of me, feeling sensations in my body.  In a way it wasn’t different from any other sitting, except that a noticeable feeling of tightness, of trying, was now missing, as if someone had uncinched a belt and let my (substantial) belly go free.  I was the same incredible nutcase I’ve always been on sesshin.  But I was more relaxed about it.

Everything I’ve just said here you can actually find in the Fukanzazenki, Dogen’s instructions on zazen.[5]  I’ve read or chanted that text several hundred times at least.  Somehow I managed to ignore what it said, though I didn’t think I was.  I thought I was following it.  I thought I was a great Zen student.

The afternoons got better.  They actually approximated the aforementioned “dharma gate of true repose and bliss.”  I didn’t dread them.  I didn’t get exhausted.  I wasn’t doing anything, of course.  (What did you do today? my wife often asks me when I come home at night to sleep.  “Nothing” is not that great an answer.  “Just sat there” is also not too scintillating.  And then there’s the famous question, which many people ask, What did you get out of your retreat?  How the hell do you answer that?  Talk about a koan.)

I think the process I’ve just described is what happens on every retreat.  I try too hard, get disappointed, get frustrated, give up, see that giving up is what I should have done in the first place.  At that point I think I’ve really given up.  This time I’ve done it.

It’s like that situation where you write in your journal what you think is the most profound insight you’ve ever had about life, it will change everything for you, then you leaf back and notice that you wrote the same insight three months ago.  Didn’t seem to make any difference at all.

At the end of our sesshin we have a shosan ceremony where we get to ask the teacher a direct public question that is somehow the central question of our sesshin.  I was planning to ask What is just sitting?  But in her introductory remarks she talked about knowing and not knowing, and how important it was to distinguish between the two, so I changed my question at the last moment.  I decided, as my wife and I sometimes say, to Zen it.

“Do you know how to do zazen?” I said.

“Sometimes,” she said.

“Can you teach me?” I said.

“Uh Uh,” she said.

I thought those answers were perfect.

Just what I didn’t want to hear.

[1] My first dharma teacher, Larry Rosenberg, told us there is a Dharmic Equation: Expectation=Suffering.  I seem to forget that on a regular basis.

[2] I used to think she alternated one sesshin where she talked about effort with another where she talked about no-effort, but I’m not sure it’s been that predictable.

[3] Two of them and change, to be exact.

[4] In Lawrence Shainberg’s excellent memoir Ambivalent Zen, there’s a teacher who says zazen should be such an intense experience of attention and concentration that you completely use yourself up in every sitting.  It’s like you’re sitting there sweating bullets.  Mel Weitsman, in his piece in The Art of Just Sitting, heartily disagrees, saying that is not the zazen of Suzuki Roshi.  And I must say, it hardly sounds like the “dharma gate of true repose and bliss” that Dogen mentions.

[5] “Do not think good or bad.  Do not judge right or wrong.  Stop conscious endeavor and analytic introspection.  Do not try to become a Buddha.”