Sesshin can be challenging in many ways, as it comprises fourteen 50-minute periods of zazen per day and complete silence. We ask that you attend a less intensive event such as Introduction to Sesshin, a one-day sitting, or a retreat before participating in our sesshin, or that you have experience with intensive retreats at other Zen centers or temples. If you have concerns about participating in sesshin at Sanshin, please contact us.
You may attend an entire sesshin or any part it. You may, for example, attend one or two full days, or you may chose to attend certain portions of all five days. However, in order to plan for meal attendance and zendo occupancy, we do ask that when you register you specify the portions of the sesshin you will attend.
Before the sesshin please read the following:
- the chapter entitled “The World of Intensive Practice” in the book Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama (Wisdom Publications). It will give you some context for our style of sesshin practice and help you prepare for your visit.
- the Sanshin Style and Spirit section of our website to familiarize yourself with our style of practice and the forms we use during sesshin.
- the guidelines for the place in which you’re staying. Dorm guidelines are posted in the hallway outside the kitchen in that building. Guidelines for camping and staying in the zendo are posted on the bulletin board outside the zendo.
- general zendo guidelines.
If you would be arriving with a communicable illness, please withdraw from the sesshin. Colds and flu spread rapidly through a community practicing at close quarters with a demanding schedule. In kindness to all participants, including teachers, please don’t bring an illness into the group even if you feel well enough to participate. No one wants to come down with something in the midst of sesshin and miss his or her opportunity to practice.
Meals during retreats and sesshin are served buffet style. There is no need to bring or borrow an oryoki set.
Wake-up is at 3:40 am. There is no wake-up bell; please set an alarm for yourself. If you get up early, please be respectful of others who may still be sleeping.
Zazen begins at 4:10 am; please be seated by 4:05 wearing your rakusu or okesa if you have one, in time for Hoko’s bows and zendo rounds. She should be the last one into the zendo and will close the door when she arrives. If you are late and the door has already closed, please wait until the next kinhin period to enter the zendo and take your place.
Work assignments are posted outside the zendo and on the bulletin board in the dorm. Each of us will have opportunities to do kitchen cleanup and empty the compost. If you are doing cleanup and you are not finished when zazen begins again, please finish your work, take a break, and come back in for the next period.
Meals will be taken in the dorm in informal, buffet style, maintaining silence. There are mugs in the dining area for your use; please take one, put your name on it with tape and marker and use it throughout the sesshin for your tea or coffee. It’s fine to make tea or coffee at any time during the day; if you’re doing it before others are awake please watch your noise levels. Half and half is in the refrigerator; please take responsibility for putting it back there before going off to the zendo. If you make coffee we implore you to check the coffeepot before you leave for home to make sure it’s been cleaned and grounds taken out. We frequently come along weeks later to find mouldy grounds and old coffee still in the machine.
There are showers near the zendo and in the dorm. If staying in the dorm, please note that your bed has a number; it corresponds to your peg in the bathroom, where you can keep your towel and your personal items on the shelf above. If you’re camping or staying in the zendo and using the shower there, you can leave things in the baskets above the toilet. Showers are taken during the breaks following meals and at no other time because of noise considerations; bathroom noise carries right down the hall into the zendo and through the walls of the dorm into sleeping areas.
Public spaces need to remain public spaces for the use of all participants, so please refrain from napping on sofas, leaving dishes or belongings about, or otherwise claiming sangha space as your own.
Practice during sesshin:
The particular kind of zazen we do at Sanshin is shikantaza (just sitting). We do only four things in shikantaza: keep the posture, breathe deeply through the nose, keep the eyes open and let go of thought. We do nothing else. The point of the sesshin container is to minimize distractions that pull us away from the mind of shikantaza, and we endeavor to keep this mind at all times, from the first zazen bell to cleanup and close. We might take a break from the zazen posture in order to take care of the body (kinhin, meals, sleep), but there is no break from the mind of shikantaza. We live from that place at all times during the sesshin.
We keep our forms simple so that we can understand what we’re doing and why. Learn and carry them out fully and completely as an important part of your practice. They are not optional exotic decoration. They communicate intentions and build community; for example, whether or not you bow after getting up from your seat at the meal table indicates whether you’re getting seconds and coming back or you’ve finished eating and are leaving the room. If you’re the last one on your feet after a zazen period, don’t skip steps—finish the process of taking care of your place, gassho and bow to your seat. No one is timing you and no one is grumbling about the few additional seconds it takes to practice thoroughly. If you think everyone is waiting and looking, consider what you’d rather have people see: you cutting corners and hurrying haphazardly along, or you completely doing your function. Entering the zendo, arriving at your seat, getting up from zazen—gassho and bow every time. Pay attention to what those around you are doing so that you’re prepared to respond to them as appropriate.
When getting up from zazen, take care if your feet have gone to sleep. Move slowly and carefully and avoid putting weight on numb legs or feet that might result in breaks or falls. It’s happened to everyone at some time; we’ll wait while you stand up safely.
Kinhin is not break time. It’s just another zazen period. If you really need to leave the zendo to attend to something in particular, it’s fine to do so. If you realize that you’re leaving in search of something more interesting to do or look at, it’s better to stay in the zendo and continue your practice of letting go of thought.
While reading and writing are not prohibited during sesshin, they are strongly discouraged. This is not the time to peruse our library and engage in dharma study. As Okumura Roshi says, “In our zazen we have to let go of any kind of thinking, even thinking about dharma.” Thus, filling our heads with reading material during breaks is counterproductive when we’re spending 14 periods a day letting go of thought. It goes without saying that engaging with devices during sesshin is also not optimal. If you’re looking for something to do during breaks, consider taking a walk, doing yard cleanup, mending or cleaning your belongings or undertaking other non-intellectual activities.
One of the things we hear from sesshin participants most frequently is that their practice here is only made possible by the efforts and contributions of the entire group. Your presence is important to everyone, and we plan on your attendance at all sesshin activities. If you aren’t around to carry out your work assignment, someone will need to cover for you. If you skip meals, we will have bought and prepared too much food. We realize that it may be necessary to take unscheduled breaks in order to take care of yourself, but please inform a practice leader as soon as possible if you will be taking significant time out, unable to do your work or missing meals.
It’s important for the group as a whole that participants stay together and finish strong because having the energy and spirit of fellow practitioners is a vital support to everyone’s practice. Please do everything you can to be here for the full duration of your planned stay. If your flight, train or bus departure would require you to leave on the last day before the official close of the sesshin, consider staying for another night, getting some good rest and leaving for home the next day. We recognize that health issues, family emergencies, bad weather, etc. do come up, but your decision to leave early affects more people than just you yourself. Ask for help if you’re struggling rather than casually throwing in the towel. The sesshin peters out with a whimper when participants trickle quietly away before cleanup and close—not to mention that all of the work period tasks fall to the few who remain.
Please observe complete silence during sesshin. If you need something or have a question after sesshin has begun, please write a note to a practice leader or take that conversation away from other practitioners. Do get help if and when you need it—just keep talking and discursive thinking to a minimum. For your own sake and the sake of others, stay silent and stay focused. Chatting and small talk can happen after sesshin.
Take care of your body as the ground of your practice. If you’re taking any kind of medication for body or mind, this is not the time to stop. Use extra cushions for support during zazen or move to a bench or chair as necessary. Drink enough water and get as much sleep as you can under the circumstances. If you’re staying on the Sanshin campus, that’s about 6 hours a night. If you commute, it’s less. If you’re driving back and forth to sesshin every day, please watch your fatigue level and don’t put yourself in a position to fall asleep at the wheel. If you need to leave just before the last zazen period of the day in order to get as much sleep as everyone else, do it.
With a number of people living and practicing in close quarters, handwashing and cough-covering protocols are vital to maintaining everyone’s health. Please manage your used tissues and generally do what you can to keep your germs to yourself. Because practitioners are arriving from all over the world, we’re exposing each other to new bugs with every event.
Watch your mindstate and tell a practice leader immediately if you feel yourself becoming confused or disoriented. It’s uncommon, but intensive, prolonged zazen or any intensive sitting practice can lead to letting go of the self in a way that allows for us to lose our bearings to a greater or lesser degree. Most of the time this is fine, we know what’s going on, and we can just observe. However, if you’re concerned at all with what’s happening, don’t tell yourself you just need to sit through it or that it’s just your mind wandering. Please find someone and we’ll talk about it.
Be aware that on Sunday mornings the public is invited to drop in for zazen between 7 and noon (in other words, between breakfast and lunch). The seats in the alcove are typically reserved for drop-in participants, so registrants are asked to sit in the main part of the zendo during sesshin.
After the sesshin:
After almost every event we find participants’ abandoned shoes, clothing, toiletries, camping gear or other things. Several times a year we have to make a run to the charity shop with a load of this stuff because we just don’t have the space to let it pile up. Before you leave for home, check all the places you’ve been in addition to your room: shoe shelves, zendo, cubbies and clothing rack outside the zendo, bathrooms, common room, picnic tables. Please don’t leave your stuff here, because unless you realize quickly and contact us it’s likely to be given away.
Likewise, check what you’re taking home to be sure it’s actually yours. Many robes, samu-e, pants, shoes and other items look similar. If you’re sharing a sleeping room or hanging things on the rack at the foot of the stairs outside the zendo, make sure you’re not leaving with someone else’s prized belongings.
When you leave Sanshin, take care with your reentry. After spending days in shikantaza with the barriers down, you may feel vulnerable or emotional. Plunging right back into the world of chatter, devices and friends and family can be jarring. If you’re headed to an airport, you may find the bright lights, loud monitors and strident advertising somewhat painful. The airport chapel is a safe and quiet alternative to the main seating areas.