Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The 2006 Zazen Retreat in Shizuoka, Japan is over and done with. So here I am at work making an ad for our company's booth at this year's MIPCOM television and film market. The deadline is like three weeks ago and here I am blogging away. Gotta make this quick.

The retreat went OK. No big incidents. A very nice group, a few of whom (who?) travelled long distances just to be there. Our final lecture of the retreat is always a chnace for each participant to say what he or she thought of the thing. This time arround the majority view seemed to be that the retreat was too easy. Although there were a few dissenters who thought it was pretty tough. If you want to see the schedule for yourself, click on the word "link" at the bottom of this article or on the title of the article.

When I first started going to these retreats, that schedule seemed damned intense to me. These days, I think it's just fine. Not too little not too much. I am well aware that there are a great many retreats whose schedule is a lot more rigorous. But that's too easy for me. I prefer a tougher approach.

What's that, you say? How can a retreat with fewer Zazen periods and more free time be tougher than a retreat where you're forced to sit from sunrise to sunset with barely a break to pee, where half the people choose to sit all night long rather than take advantage of the three hours alotted for sleep? It's tougher because a schedule like we have forces the participants to make of the retreat what they make of it. Nothing is done for you. If you don't bring any intensity to the retreat yourself, none is there for you to take free of charge. If the retreat is too easy, maybe you're taking it too lightly. And perhaps that's why it was so intense for me the first few times, because I just threw myself into it completely. GWWWWAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!

The other reason for the schedule being as it is and not more strenuous is because it was designed by Master Kodo Sawaki and reflects his view of Zazen as something normal, to be done as part of a person's regular every day life, rather than a view of a Zazen retreat as some special event designed to supercharge your spiritual power. It's true that going to a more strenuous retreat can often have the effect of making you feel like a spiritual superhero afterwards, your head buzzing with lovely Emptiness. But that's just the thing we're trying to avoid.

It's good to appreciate silence and calm, it's good to face yourself for a few days without interuption. I highly recommend attending at least one retreat a year. But if the attitude you find in the retreat can't be carried over into your day to day life, what good is it? Or if a Zazen retreat produces a kind of spiritual high that makes you want to stay in the twilight zone for ever and ever amen, what good is that?

A zazen retreat ought to be a little bit special, but not too special. And -- hey -- if there's too much free time, you can do what I did when I first started attending and spend your breaks in the zendo.


MikeDoe said...

Easy, Hard, Too lightly, strenuous....

All these are words that are used to describe something that is done or has to be done.

These are not words used to describe something natural or something that is done with fullness of spirit.

Instead, it describes something where difficulty is expected or desired.

Zazen is natural the moment that you stop making it unnatural.

A retreat is nothing more than living.

Wildman said...

If I'm a Soto Zen Buddhist, should I only attend a Soto Zen retreat?

They seem pretty thin on the ground in the north west of england, so is it ok to go to any kind of zen retreat?

JustKeith said...

Hey wildman,

My two cents: When I began to practice, I had the same issue. I have taken the Precepts with a Soto teacher but, as with you, there really isn't a Soto group close by me. However, there is a small and informal Kwan Um School of Zen (Korean Zen organization founded by Seung Sahn) group close by and I regularly sit with them. I did a retreat with them as well and I found it very useful. I plan on attending another one with them in Oct.

While I am more attracted to the Soto approach, I find this other group really great with which to practice. So, I think if you find a group with which you feel comfortable, I don't think there's anything wrong with practicing with them.

Good luck.

3468 said...

First I want to say that I can understand the intent of Kodo Sawaki from my own experience. I do this kinkd of retreats on my own every two months. They are good. Please, try them yourself. But I seriously believe there is great benefit of sitting longer periods (seven days or more , alone or in the groups with 10-12 hours in day). In these retreats external dicipline that comes from strict schedule can help you. We all have breaking points and bad days.

My middle way is more middle than yours.
My experience with meditating with others comes from 4 and 7 days of more intense sesshins. What I find beneficial in these kind of hard and long retreats is that only after several days uninterrupted sitting you really face yourself the way you are supposed to face in Zen Buddhist tradition (Bodhidharma and Dogen trained this way and any other serious buddhist tradition that has lasted more than 200 years).

Lifting my own tail by putting down Brad
Frankly, I think Brad has seen only the outsiders viewpoint of the more intence way of zazen. By doing jus "Not too little not too much" means that you will never know what your really can do. I found my limit by doing once too much.

Personal theory of "spiritual high" after long retreat.
The "Spiritual high" afterwards is IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) mostly nothing but the side effect that comes from the fact that sesshin ends and you are free from not facing reality directly anymore (there is increased clarity too, but it's more subtle and shadowed by the "high state"). Its exhilarating to be able to fill your mind with wordly affairs.

Hard way is not fun
When you sit 7 days or more, most of the time is filled with your repeated attempts to escape from the possiblity to freedom that the sesshin gives to you. This may even increase towards the end. There are periods of clarity when the mind temporarily gives up trying and stays with emotional and physical pains without rejection, but they are promptly followed by good wibes and physical relaxation that tries to lull you away. Long continued periods of clarity during long sesshin is good and reduces those crude "high state" feelings, but it has subtle arrogance as side effect.

You should accept all mindstates, even high states, rapture and arrogance
I thik Brad is absolutely right when he writes that these "high states" have no spritual value whatsoever. But my experience is that they are natural phenomenons that are reactions to the fact that your mind has had clarity just before the "high feeling" emerged. Trying to keep your zazen as "normal" as possible is (IMHO again) overreaction to inner hubris that is part of human experience. Yes, peak experiences are rare and don't last. But labelling them unnatural is not zen way.

Importance of teacher in long retreats
Good zen teacher lifts you up when you are at the bottom and puts you down when you are at the top. When you possess absolute clarity and are unmoveable, he confuces and unbalances you. This way you can practise without being stuck in one mindstate. I tink hard retreats without private one-to-one contacts with teacers may not be not good thing. You may get stuck into the the bad effects of long retreats Brad wars you about.

Mark said...

As a Zen newbie, I went to a "hard" Soto Zen sesshin. Almost 11 hrs. of Zazen per day, with kinhin, oryoki, but NO meetings with the head priest. Each zazen period was 45 minutes. There was no chanting or other services, either. I intended to stay for 3 of the 7 days, but was only able to make it through two days! I just couldn't hack it, and almost turned away from Zen practice entirely after I left.
During my hurried orientation, the senior monastic student told me these types of sesshins were "insane" which I didn't really take to heart. Now I think these types of sesshins are best for experienced Zen students. So, looking at that schedule Brad provided, I say to myself, "I'm pretty sure I could complete it."

Wildman said...

hi justkeith,

thanks for the reply.

I have found one soto zen monastry which is about 4 hours drive away. they do retreats so I may make time after the winter to go hang out there for a few days. Oddly I would quicker consider (only for the cost) flying to Japan to go to the retreat that Brad just did, than to drive for 4 hours to one here. Not because Brad went but just because I can't be bothered driving for so long!

I also found a soto zen meditation group in my town but only to discover later that they had disbanded!

I've been using "e-monks" for my teachings, between this site and 2 podcasts off i-Tunes, Urban Dharma and Dharma Talks by Gil (sorry forget his last name). Also Brad's book and ZM, BM and one I just got called "Everyday Zen" by Charlotte Joko Beck.

I'm getting on ok this way but I think a retreat would be worth a visit, if only at least once.

Ken said...

Brad's schedule looks quite doable. For those longer "insane" the hell does one avoid damaging the body sitting still that long? I understand that there is kinhin in between, but I can just feel my back, neck, legs and feet all locking that healthy?! What's the trick?

Drunken Monkey said...

I personally can't sit for more than 5 hours a day anyway.

After the 4/5 hour mark, the muscles in my legs and butt(s) start to twitch and continues on for the rest of the day.

3468 said...

clarification for Ken and others:

There are long and intence retreats and then there are long and intence extreme sportmanlike "macho" retreats (especially in Japan).

Japanese and some Koreans tend to put emphasis on spirit and unhumanlike efforts and there is many times lots of huffing and puffing. This looks great and may even work (especially for young males). You will suffer lot in these places.

You can also find places to sit long retreats, where everything is quite normal. Daily yoga exercises help to keep your body in shape. Some people sit in a chair at least some time. You can even rest couple of hours in daytime get enough sleep (still not as much as in home) and still get solid 10 hours of zazen. It's still hard, but hardness comes mainly from your mind.

Element said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Element said...

For Yoga exercises look at:

It helps

Erik said...


There's a Soto Zen monastery near you even. You can retreat at least one time a month!

Jordan & The Tortoise said...

element, Thanks for that link. I have tried to follow my wifes yoga videos and I had a hard time keeping up. This looks more my speed.

Lone Wolf said...

Brad- I'm interested in what you mean by bringing INTENSITY to sitting zazen?

Lone Wolf said...

So it's my second week of college, and we have about how memory works. In my first class we got on the subject of left brain/right brian. Left being the more logical side, and the right being the creative side. I was wondering if these parts of the brain were connected to the parasymthetic and symthetic nervous systems. Logical Left would be materialistic and Creative right would be the idealistic side. The instructor said the more we use both the better are ability to learn and remember. This ability to use or sythesize both would be what happens when one experiences balance in Zazen. One is not seeing from the extreme left or extreme right, but seeing reality with a balanced mind of truth. Body and mind fall off when one ceases to see from the extreme of right and left and touches the middle path of buddhism.

Drunken Monkey said...

"Brad- I'm interested in what you mean by bringing INTENSITY to sitting zazen?"

Look at Bodhidharma in this picture;

I can't speak for Brad but my personal interpretation is the personal seriousness about the practice. You can only practice for your self and its because of this reason that you must give it your all.
Any less than that and you lose out on the time allotted to the retreat.

Wildman said...

Thanks Erik,

Thats the one I was talking about that is 4 hours away. I guess I'm kinda scared that I wont like it or enjoy it while I'm there.

I suppose thats not very beginners mind of me and I should just give it a try.

Thanks for looking that up for me though, much appreciated :)

Gareth said...

Wildman - I went up to Throssel in May for one of thier introductory retreats.

Everyone was very supportive, and the paces wasn't insane at all. I think it's an ideal place to begin if you've not been to a retreat before.

And it's a beatiful location.

All the best

Erik said...

I'm going to Throssel next week for the introductory retreat (and I live in Holland :-)).

Seriously, there's a temple run by a monk from over there near where I live.
I've done a few weekend retreats there and it's pretty wonderful.

Strict, yet none of the Japanese militarism...

I think you'll like it over there.
All the people I know who went there say the same thing Gareth says.

Jinzang said...

I have to laugh when Brad talks about intensity, because every teacher I've studied with has told me to relax.

Jinzang said...

Just to clarify, I'm not laughing at Brad, I'm laughing at myself.

Drunken Monkey said...

"I have to laugh when Brad talks about intensity, because every teacher I've studied with has told me to relax. "

By relaxing the posture, zazen becomes no different to sitting on a chair. There is no benefit to relaxing the posture.

Jinzang said...

By relaxing the posture, zazen becomes no different to sitting on a chair. There is no benefit to relaxing the posture.

I'm not talking about relaxing the posture. I'm talking about relaxing the mind. There may be a difference in how they explain things in Zen and mahamudra. In mahamudra they use the example of a sheaf of grass tied together by a string. When you cut the string the grass just lays where it falls.

Jules said...

When you sit with correct posture, it allows many muscles to relax that otherwise would stay tight. For example, if you slouch just a little while sitting, your shoulders and mid-upper back muscles will get very tight. In correct zazen posture, your shoulder and upper back muscles can relax.

Wildman said...

Thanks guys for both your replies,

I feel a lot more confident about going now. Might venture a trip in the new year some time cos I'm pretty busy from now til christmas.

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