Larry Jordan

Everyone is related, and everything is connected.

Zen Practice: Sesshin (silent retreat)

Dec 12, 2022 by Larry Jordan, in Eastern Religions
We just returned from a week-long sesshin, consisting of six- to eight-hours a day of zazen (seated meditation) and kinhin (walking meditation) interspersed with chanting, chores, and tea ceremonies, as well as dokusan (private meetings) and teisho (public talks) with a Zen teacher.

The sesshin is conducted in mindfulness and silence, and participants are asked to avoid eye contact and to limit communication with the outside world. There is a disciplined etiquette at meals, in the housing, and in the zendo (meditation hall) including bows and gasshos (pressing palms together.)

Sometimes, the monitor administers "Zen slaps" on the meditators' shoulders (with hands or sticks) to correct the posture and to focus the mind. Some of this might sound foreign or rigid or strange, but within a day or so, the combination of discipline and focus and reverence begins to take hold.

Zen practice is intended to provide a glimpse of true nature, characterized by an intimate connection or inter-relatedness to everyone and everything. The Buddha taught that the world of form is impermanent, that our sense of separation is illusory, and that suffering is caused by attachment.

Zen teachers emphasize experiential transmission, through meditation and koan practice, rather than proscribing doctrine or studying scripture. (Koans are perplexing phrases, such as "What is the sound of one hand?" that encourage students to rely on intuition, rather than abstraction or logic.)

The koan book is not like the Baltimore Catechism or the Book of Confessions. Zen does not require you to accept a particular thought, but to adopt a particular way of thinking.

There are hundreds of koans, it can take 20 years to consider them, and it can take another 10 years before someone is ready to teach them. Every teacher learned from his or her teacher, who learned from his or her teacher, and so on, stretching across continents and oceans, over the centuries.

In dokusan, the Zen teacher will urge the student to "Speak, don't think!!" or "Show me, don't tell me!!" to elicit intuitive responses. For Western minds, accustomed to repeating doctrine, studying scripture, and relying on abstraction and logic, Zen is a challenging, but refreshing, reorientation.

Imagine if Christian churches adopted koan practice:

Teacher: How is God a person?

(Our Western minds are off to the races -- What do we mean by "God?" What do we mean by "person?" How do we distinguish between the three persons? If we define what God is, then have we defined what God is not, and if we define what God is or is not, then is God really omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and if we cannot define or limit God in any way, then how can we say that God is a person?  Obviously, it is really easy to get tangled up in questions like this!!)

Student: Um, well, I think...
Teacher: (urgently) Speak, don't think!!
Student: OK, yes, three persons...
Teacher: (urgently) Are you sure?!
Student: Well, at least as sure as I can be...
Teacher: (urgently) Show me!!
Student: Ohh, I can't really show you...
Teacher: (calmly) Come back later. Focus on the breath. Go deep. Sit with the koan. Let it come to you.

In minutes or months, it will come to the student, not in a theological treatise, but in an intuitive understanding that seems obvious in retrospect. As the student focuses on the breath and sits with the koan and talks with the teacher, he or she learns something about this way of thinking.

"What is the sound of one hand?" is not really about hands or sounds, after all.