Last weekend I attended a three-day sesshin at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. I drove up on a Thursday afternoon and checked into my room early. I stayed in Cloud Hall, a shared dorm space in a building attached to the main zendo. After dropping my things off I explored the property a bit, which is huge. They run their own organic farm, cook large meals in the kitchen, really interesting history. From what I learned most people who live on the property volunteer and do residency programs to deepen their Buddhist practice.
The first night we had dinner in the dining hall. Actually, I borrowed Oryoki bowls from my teacher and I was told over email that we would have formal eating in the zendo. But after dinner we relocated to the zendo for orientation where they told us there would be no Oryoki this weekend as so many new people had signed up. So instead we were to do formal tea as a way to learn the ropes and such. Throughout the weekend the Inno (head of practice) gave brief verbal instruction during zendo practice. For example, we were told we’d chant something X many times, or when to bow after receiving tea from a server. I actually liked it, as there were so many forms I was not familiar with (and Green Gulch, being run by SFZC, has lots of forms).
The daily schedule began with waking at 4:30AM and heading to the zendo for zazen by 5AM. Each sitting period was normally 30 minutes of zazen, 15 minutes kinhin, and another 30 minutes zazen (with an extended period of zazen plus fast kinhin each evening). Kinhin is normally done for 10 minutes, but because they aimed to make the weekend more beginner friendly we had extra time to stretch our legs. Oh, and the entire weekend was silent, so no talking!
So we did zazen, followed by service – chanting, prostrations (nine!), etc. And this was typically followed by a meal plus an hour break. Then basically rinse and repeat until bed. There was one dharma talk each day, plus formal tea served in the zendo.
I was definitely looking forward to lots and lots of zazen. However, when the time came I was feeling a bit grumpy. After a couple of sits and noticing my stubbornness coming up, I really pushed myself to let go completely and drop my personal preferences. Letting go, like really letting go, was an important lesson I learned over the sesshin.
In the last retreat I attended at Mt. Baldy, I had an intense experience during zazen that was queued by a ringing noise in my head. While the experience was a bit scary, it was mostly beautiful and possibly life changing. And midway during this sesshin I began to notice the ringing sound in my head again. So of course I start expecting something bizarre to happen. And while I felt a deep state of awareness, this next “life changing” event I expected was not popping up.
So after chasing this desired outcome for a bit, mostly running myself in circles, I let go even more. I completely let go and whatever came up at the retreat, I told myself to just do the thing – just sit, just bow, just eat, just brush my teeth, just this, just that. Don’t expect anything, but still do all these things completely and wholeheartedly. That was the important bit, wholeheartedness. I could have finished out the retreat while daydreaming in the zendo. But I really pushed myself to make an effort to do zazen wholeheartedly. Just sitting with no expectation, but keeping awareness the entire time. That’s hard I think – to do something with full effort while not expecting an outcome.
And what’s funny about all this is I did end up having a breakthrough of sorts. Except it wasn’t at all what I expected. I let go of the illusion of “I” and continued telling myself to just sit wholeheartedly . There were about 40 other people there, and we all did the same thing practically at the same time. We awoke at the same time, we brushed our teeth at the same time, we did zazen at the same time, we ate at the same time, etc, etc. And for me, when I did these things over and over with a large group of people my sense of self faded away – especially on the cushion.
So towards the end of the sesshin, during zazen, I started to become more aware of big self: the birds chirping outside, the stomachs of other practitioners gurgling, just the universe in general. At first it was unsettling and I had to shake myself a bit to remember what I habitually think is reality (or what “I” am). But what I experienced when just sitting, without expecting results, was indeed reality. And it carried on throughout the sesshin. I was riding a wave, moving from moment to moment. Just doing things without needing to really think – sitting, bowing, breathing, eating, walking, sleeping.
Looking back on the sesshin, and after discussing with my teacher, I think the primary lesson I learned can be summed up as every moment is different. Maybe that sounds obvious. I thought I knew that before the sesshin. But after letting go and just allowing each moment to happen – that helped me realize for sure. We really can’t do much else in life but meet each moment fully.
Anyway, that’s about all of the highlights I think are worth sharing from last weekend. So far every sesshin I’ve been to has deepened my practice. I really feel inspired to keep going, and also feel like this practice can never run out. While I’m motivated to keep sitting zazen, most of all I want to stay involved with my local Zen center and generally just be more available in other peoples’ lives.