I’m currently on the plane back home from London (this will be posted when I land). I booked a two week vacation around my first Zen retreat, which was held in Hebden Bridge, England. The retreat was held by some really nice people, and Brad Warner led the retreat. I attended the retreat on a whim, and the only reason I found out about it was through Brad’s YouTube channel.
I started this blog about nine months ago, and while I haven’t posted in a while, I am happy to say I’ve been mediating nearly every day since then. My current routine is 30 minutes zazen in the morning, 30 minutes zazen in the evening. I’ve been reading a bunch of Zen-related books, but before this retreat I was kind of all over the place. I felt like I had a good grasp on what Zen was, but I didn’t realize how misconceived I was about practice before this retreat.
Firstly, the retreat was held at the Hebden Bridge Zen Center, and most of us stayed at a hostel owned by the same group. The hostel and Zendo are literally 5-10 feet apart. The Zendo is an old church that was used in the early 1900s. There’s even a memorial in the front yard for church members who had been killed during WW1. I believe the people running the Zen center have been practicing there for a little over ten years, maybe more. The owner met Brad in Manchester ten years ago and since then he’s been leading their retreats as part of his annual tour in Europe.
Located in Yorkshire, Hebden Bridge has rolling green hills, beautiful livestock, and the town center itself is a cute and small. I met Brad and a few others for dinner the night before in Hebden Bridge’s old town center at a country pub. I took the train from Leeds, and hopped on the only local bus (I was the only passenger), which took me up a big hill and provided a wonderful view.
I got to the pub about an hour early. Since this retreat was going to involve a lot of zazen each day, I figured I’d warm up and find a comfortable spot to sit along a cobblestone fence. I sat for about 30-40 minutes, enjoyed the good view and fresh air, then texted the organizer that I had arrived for dinner.
I had no idea what to expect of the retreat organizer (she is also the head of Hebden Bridge Zen Center) and Brad. For the organizer, my gut was telling me she’d be bald, wearing robes to dinner, and overall a quiet person. For Brad, I expected him to speak with me in riddles or something silly like that. Thankfully I was completely wrong, and we had a nice dinner with fantastic conversation. The organizer was completely down to Earth, as was Brad. There were six of us total, and it was one of the most chill groups of people I’ve ever spent time with. What makes this statement even funnier to me is that we all ordered water to drink and veggie pies to eat – a “boring” crowd indeed. After dinner we parted ways and I left for Leeds that night. I planned to return the following day at the start of the retreat.
The first day of the retreat started around 14:00. Everyone met at the hostel, we drank tea, and got to chat for a bit. I got to know a few people and almost everyone lived in the surrounding area. I was the only one (besides Brad) who flew in from USA. Though, my roommate came all the way from Moscow. There were a little over 20 people total. At this point we had already put our things away in our room, claimed a spot in the Zendo with our cushions, and were waiting for orientation to begin.
Orientation was held in the Zendo. We sat on our cushions, in a square shape, facing each other. Brad greeted us, gave us the basics on zazen (which I think most people knew), and we did some zazen. Brad was giving a talk later that night, and we were told to keep a period of silence for the rest of the retreat after the talk had ended. So basically, no talking unless you really have to. And if you really have to talk, whisper – no yapping.
Brad’s talk was held in the hostel lobby and open to the public. It lasted for 30 minutes or so, followed by Q&A. After the talk ended, we had a break to wash up and prepare for dinner. At this point the period of silence began, and a group (mostly made of the organizers) was put in charge of preparing dinner.
At dinner time a bell rang, we assembled in the hall, and sheets of paper were passed out with words printed on them. Brad hit two wood blocks together, which initiated a chant we read from the papers. I forget the chant exactly, but basically it was us giving thanks for the food, how the food was for our body’s nourishment, and how we should not be greedy. After the chant, we silently lined up, served ourselves, sat down, and ate together in silence.
After dinner we had some free time, then rejoined in the Zendo to begin the first evening sit. We did three sit periods a day: 30 minutes of zazen, followed by 10 minutes of kinhin (walking meditation), followed by another 30 minutes of zazen. There was no speaking, and the start and end of each activity was queued by someone hitting a bell. Three bells began zazen, two bells began kinhin. One bell at the end of zazen. There were some more bells to transition between each activity, which involved bowing. It was really cool, and totally different from just doing zazen at home in my bedroom.
After the first evening’s sit we had free time until bed. I made some tea, and the next day we all awoke at 5:50am to a bell. Each morning we were given about 20 minutes to wash up, drink more tea, then it was back to the Zendo for sitting – 30 minutes zazen, 10 minutes kinhin, 30 minutes zazen. After sitting we had time to freshen up a bit more before breakfast.
Each meal was preceded by the same chant as described earlier. And each meal was taken in silence. One thing I noticed was that people bowed to each other before sitting at a table, then again before leaving. Bowing is a big thing in Zen practice, both inside and outside the Zendo. This is especially true when no one is able to talk to each other.
Before each afternoon sit we did an hour of work. Everyone was assigned to a team which was responsible for some type of task. For myself, I was on general labour. And so I scrubbed toliets and sinks, and mopped and swept floors. Even if something wasn’t necessarily dirty, I was asked to do it anyway. The point being that we should consider this part of our Zen practice and be fully involved in the work.
After work, we sat again in the Zendo. And one thing I learned from being at a Zen retreat is that it’s crucial to wear a wristwatch. Otherwise you may be late to the Zendo. And since Brad was our teacher for the retreat, it is considered impolite to arrive at the Zendo after the teacher. So it was suggested we arrive 5-10 minutes early for each sit.
Another thing I learned is that there’s Zendo etiquette. Before stepping into the Zendo, it’s expected that you bow. I was also told by someone that it’s common to step into the Zendo starting with your left foot. This way you become present right as you enter. Then, when walking to your cushion, don’t walk in a straight line. Rather, walk along the other cushions, in the shape of the square, until you reach your own (sort of like following a maze). Before sitting, it’s also expected to bow once towards your cushion, then once away from the cushion (towards the Zendo/others).
So I normally arrived 5-10 minutes early, did my bows, and waited for the bell the ring. I basically travelled all the way to England just to sit and stare at a wall. And it was amazing.
What’s cool about zazen, which separates it from meditation, is that there is no goal. And even if you do come up with a goal, when you reach that goal it does not mean anything. This is due to the goal being created out of whatever confusion brought you to Zen practice in the first place. So it’s best to just treat zazen like another sit, and don’t consider the results good or bad. Just sit.
On the last full day, I got to have Dokusan with Brad, which is basically a private interview between a student and teacher. Think of the scene from The Matrix where Neo goes to see The Oracle. Brad is very casual during Dokusan, and I got to spend 10 minutes or so asking him a few questions. It was beneficial, and reaffirmed my opinion that he is a genuine, down-to-Earth guy. I wouldn’t have considered coming to a Zen retreat if it weren’t for him, much less fly all the way to England for one. And the retreat felt totally unique because of his presence.
So I spent nearly four days sitting for hours, not talking, doing some exercise (we did Qi Gong and went for walks around the hillside each afternoon), eating amazing vegetarian food, fully invested in the current moment. And when it was over, I was amazed. The usual noise in my head had quieted down, little things that I had considered big before didn’t set me off, and I felt really connected with the others at the retreat despite us not talking. And while this is completely amazing, it also felt so ordinary.
That’s my bit on my first Zen retreat. If you haven’t tried one before, you should definitely consider. It’s boosted my own practice, and I’ve realized now I need to visit my local Zendo every now and then. Doing zazen at home is great, but it’s just not the same when you get the share the experience with others.
Lastly, I will circle back to one of the misconceptions I had before attending this retreat. I mentioned I had done a lot of reading on Zen, and even though I felt like I had a good grasp on what Zen is, I really did not have any clue at all until doing the practice with others. It’s one thing to read about Zen, but it’s another to actually live the Zen philosophy through practice. It’s that simple, and I really just overthought a lot of this before. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people can get together, shut up, and sit down.
Alright, I’m pretty jet lagged. I’ve cleaned up what I wrote on the plane just a bit. Will revisit later to fix typos and such after I’ve caught up on sleep. Until then, keep practicing.