Frequently asked questions
Can I practice with you online?
I live in another time zone or another country.
Can you change the schedule to accommodate me?
We recognize that people from around the world have for a long time been interested in what's happening at Sanshin. However, for the most part Sanshin's virtual practice activities are not designed to accommodate a global audience across multiple time zones. They are simply meant to allow participants to "look through the window" and join in while Sanshin carries out its regular Bloomington practice schedule with those who are here. If you live outside of the Eastern time zone (US) and are struggling with timing, we encourage you to connect with one of the Sanshin Network sanghas that's closer to you geographically and temporally.
Can I meet virtually with a teacher for mentoring and guidance?
In general, Sanshin doesn't offer regular individual practice direction, either in person or online. We suggest participating in our virtual practice offerings for awhile to build relationships within the sangha. Discussion and Q&A opportunities might help answer your questions and sangha friendships may form that will provide support and encouragement for your practice.
You may also wish to contact one of the teachers within the Sanshin Network to see whether practice direction is available from him or her.
Reading and study
I'm new to Soto Zen. What should I read?
Opening the Hand of Thought is a good place to start; it's a classic book written by Kosho Uchiyama, our abbot's teacher. Living by Vow, written by our abbot, Shohaku Okumura, uses some of our most common chants to provide a broad introduction to basic teachings. For additional study materials, publications and audio and video recordings, please visit our education/publishing division, the Dogen Institute.
Sanshin practices in a particular style that's somewhat unusual in the world of Soto Zen. If you're interested in practicing with us, please download our free booklet Understanding Sanshin Style and become thoroughly familiar with it. Reading books by Uchiyama Roshi and Okumura Roshi is not enough to understand what we do here.
While reading and study are an important part of Zen, they're not enough by themselves. Engaging in regular zazen is the core of our practice. It's essential if one is to really understand and embody Buddha's teachings. Zen is not a philosophy or an intellectual exercise, it's an intimate and wholehearted practice -- something we do. It's necessary to learn to sit from a human teacher and to practice with others, even if only occasionally.
I can't make any sense of the shobogenzo.
What should I do?
Reading the Shobogenzo on your own without the guidance of a qualified teacher (or at least a good written commentary) is very difficult. Like all medieval Asian literature, it's highly allusive and embedded in its culture. Simply translating it into a Western language is not enough to make it accessible to a Western audience. Without a well-established zazen practice and knowledge of canonical languages, Buddhist history and the medieval Asian context, it's easy to find the text beautiful but impenetrable.
Fortunately, Okumura Roshi has made it his life's work to facilitate Western practice with and understanding of the Shobogenzo. Most of his writings and recordings are in some way an explanation of Dogen's thought. Visit our Dogen Institute for free study materials as well as books and audio available for purchase.
Sesshin and retreat
I don't live in Bloomington.
Can I come to retreat/sesshin at Sanshin?
Yes, practitioners outside of Bloomington are welcome to join us for sesshin and retreat.
Please note, however, that we typically open registration two weeks early for local and/or regularly participating practitioners before allowing public registration. We do this in order to ensure space for a stable core of practitioners with some experience of Sanshin style practice to participate in any given sesshin or retreat. Ultimately, this is aimed at everyone's benefit, including visiting practitioners and newcomers who can then fold in harmoniously to a stable practice environment.
After this two week window, there are typically plenty of spaces remaining for visiting practitioners. That said, if you do wish to travel here to participate in person, it is a good idea to sign up soon after registration opens to the public -- typically a month and a half before a given sesshin or retreat. Sign up for our monthly e-newsletter to receive the latest information on public registration for our practice activities.
A virtual look-in option is usually available as well; you can go to our virtual practice page and join as you please.
While sitting at or with Sanshin can be a useful and meaningful element of your practice, please also continue to engage with and support your local or regional dharma center. You need it and it needs you.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RETREAT AND SESSHIN AT SANSHIN?
Retreats are less intensive, are not silent, and offer activities other than zazen, such as lectures, work periods or study time. Sesshin are entirely silent and include only zazen, meals and sleep. Read more about sesshin here.
WHAT SHOULD I DO TO PREPARE FOR SESSHIN AT SANSHIN?
Before sesshin, please familiarize yourself with Understanding Sanshin Style, the forms we use, and other logistical information provided on our sesshin webpage. Reading the chapter of Opening the Hand of Thought that explains "sesshin without toys" is also a very helpful preparation. If you're not used to sitting 50-minute periods, try a few before you arrive here for sesshin.
DO I NEED TO BRING THESE THINGS FOR SESSHIN OR RETREAT?
IF I'M TIRED, CAN I SKIP PARTS OF THE SESSHIN OR RETREAT DAY IN ORDER TO GET MORE SLEEP?
It's probably safe to say that nobody gets "enough" sleep during sesshin. A look at the daily schedule will show you that you will get six hours a night at most if you're staying on campus, and perhaps less if you're commuting. If your roommate snores, if you've traveled across time zones to get here, if you have sleep disorders or if you don't sleep well away from home, you will be additionally fatigued. The retreat day starts an hour later than the sesshin day, and there may be some personal time in the afternoon during which to take a short rest. In general, however, you can put aside any expectations about being "well-rested" during sesshin or retreat.
How much of the sesshin or retreat to miss in order to nap is your decision. However, unless you have a tent or a car, there is nowhere for you to sleep at Sanshin during the day. Also, please don't skip meals since 1) meals are practice and 2) the food we will have bought and prepared for you will be wasted.
I WANT TO LEAVE EARLY ON THE LAST DAY OF THE SESSHIN OR RETREAT. IS THAT OK?
Leaving early is strongly discouraged, and not just because you yourself will miss out on part of the event. It's important to consider the adverse impact on the sesshin or retreat and all the other participants.
Participating in a sesshin or retreat is not like going to the theatre, buying your ticket, taking your seat and enjoying something that is performed around you by others. No one minds if you sneak out of the show early; there's simply an empty seat in the audience and the show goes on. Sesshin and retreat are not like this at all. You are not a spectator or a consumer. Participants are the material of the retreat, and without them there is nothing going on. Sesshin and retreat are created by and out of their practitioners, so when one suddenly disappears, a vital element is missing and the integrity of the structure is weakened for everyone. A community is built on interdependence. No matter how quiet you are, it's not possible to leave early without disturbing others.
On a practical level, staying for all the juicy content and then leaving before the final cleanup and close means that all of the work lands on the people who remain for the duration. Also, temple resources are lost when we've purchased and prepared enough food for meals and suddenly practitioners aren't there to eat it. More importantly, as people begin to silently disappear one by one, the energy built up by the community over the course of the sesshin/retreat trickles away. The event goes flat and ends with a whimper for those who are still around rather than ending strong and together with attention and intention.
Of course, illness and emergencies do come up, and only you can decide what's necessary for your life and circumstances, However, we ask that you not decide casually to just slip away. The message you send is, "Now that I've gotten everything I want out of this event, I'll be on my way and leave it to the rest of you to wrap things up. I have better things to do."
Facing a long drive home is not a special circumstance; everyone coming from out of town has the same situation If you feel that you cannot get home at a reasonable time if you leave after the close of the sesshin/retreat, it's better to stay one more night, carry out your work assignments, finish strong with everyone, get some rest and leave the next morning. That will indeed require taking one more vacation day or one more day away from family obligations. It's part of the practice commitment of being at sesshin/retreat.
DO YOU OFFER FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE TO HELP COVER EVENT FEES?
Can you accommodate my special diet during sesshin or retreat?
Meals during sesshin and retreat are vegetarian; you may email us to indicate food allergies and medically necessary dietary needs. We do our best to honor reasonable requests but if your diet is quite limited we may suggest that you bring your own food so that you can be assured of having acceptable meals.
Are you recognized by the Soto Zen denomination?
We're pleased to say that Sanshin enjoys a very positive relationship with Sotoshu, the denomination of Soto Zen with headquarters in Tokyo (international) and Los Angeles (North America). Okumura Roshi and Hoko are recognized and authorized by Sotoshu, and Sanshin itself is recognized as an overseas temple. On that basis, the official ceremonies we do here, such as novice ordinations, and the angos we hold are recognized for the purposes of training and authorizing the next generation of dharma teachers.
All of the novices we ordain are registered with Sotoshu, as is their progress toward meeting the required milestones of their training. We also have the benefit of being included in visits made by specially dispatched Sotoshu teachers, participating in annual conferences and major ceremonies at Zenshuji in Los Angeles, and having access to the resources the denomination makes available to its temples and clergy.
Can my sangha become part of the sanshin network?
The Sanshin Network offers no means of affiliating teachers and sanghas from lineages outside of Okumura Roshi's. We do, however, encourage our dharma cousins to be in touch with the network sanghas closest to them (geographically or linguistically) to see whether there are opportunities to work together, offer joint events, etc.
The Sanshin Network is made up of direct dharma heirs of Okumura Roshi and their own direct dharma descendents. Network members share a commitment to teach and practice in the style of Okumura Roshi, Uchiyama Roshi and Sawaki Roshi and cooperate with and help each other as opportunities arise. Sanshin provides no direction, teachings, financial support or other resources to them; they function independently. The network is simply the family group that has arisen naturally from the direct teaching and transmission of Okumura Roshi and his descendants It's not a membership organization and provides no benefits.
Can you help me practice in Japan?
We can answer some basic questions, but we do not make contacts in Japan on your behalf or make travel or living arrangements. If you are a novice interested in training toward Sotoshu certification, please work with your own teacher.
Being at Sanshin
What should I wear at Sanshin?
Our zendo is not like a gym or an exercise studio; it's a place of spiritual practice. When coming to engage in practice at Sanshin, please wear modest, neutral-colored loose clothing that covers the shoulders and legs. We do not wear shorts in the zendo in order to keep our cushions clean and free from body oils, and we avoid jewelry or scents that others would find distracting. We leave shoes and hats at the door; socks are permissible but may be slippery on our wood floor. You may find it helpful to review our zendo guidelines.
No particular outfit is necessary in the zendo; our lay sangha simply wears everyday Western clothing. Please do not go out and buy practice robes or samu-e or shave your head in order to practice here. There is no need to add anything extra by trying to look like a "monk." Most of our practitioners are laypeople and we respect lay practice as a complete and sincere manifestation of the dharma.
If you routinely wear lay robes at your home temple and you'd like to wear them here, that's fine. Ordained sangha are welcome to wear their robes as they wish.
What should I call the teacher?
Hoko is now the senior dharma teacher, succeeding founder Shohaku Okumura, who was called the abbot. Just call her Hoko.
We used to call Okumura Roshi "Hojo-san" when he was at Sanshin itself; now we call him "Todo-san" when he's there. ("Todo" means Eastern Hall, and is the traditional name for a retired abbot.) "Okumura Roshi" is used in all other cases. We do not call our founder by his first name. In Japanese culture, the use of a first name indicates a close personal relationship.
Other than "Todo-san" we do not append -san to names when speaking English at Sanshin. Visitors sometimes believe that using it shows respect, but it's not a title and has nothing to do with Zen; it's simply a particle of Japanese grammar that has no use or meaning in English. For Americans speaking English to Americans in America, it's an unnecessary affectation.
how can I join your sangha or become a member?
Sanshin doesn't have a membership program and there is no process for "joining" the sangha. There are those who donate funds on a monthly basis, but they receive no benefits or special consideration. Anyone is welcome to practice in our style and to participate in our retreats, sesshin or day-to-day practice as their lives permit. No formal commitment is necessary. Those who are interested in what we're doing may wish to add themselves to our contact list and receive our monthly e-newsletter and occasional event promos.
Does Sanshin practice vegetarianism?
Food served at Sanshin itself is typically vegetarian. However, practitioners are not required to adopt any particular diet.
WHAT ABOUT covid-19 AND PUBLIC HEALTH?
See our public health protocols here. These precautions may limit, but do not eliminate, the risk of contracting an illness while practicing at Sanshin. Individuals must determine for themselves whether or not they feel comfortable living and practicing in a community which is not closed or cloistered, and in which they will frequently come into contact with the public, including people who are traveling to Sanshin from out of town.
Committing to practice
can I become Okumura Roshi's student?
Okumura Roshi has stepped back from day-to-day leadership of Sanshin and is no longer accepting requests to receive lay precepts; that function at Sanshin has shifted entirely to Hoko and other transmitted teachers here. Okumura Roshi is also no longer taking on new novices for ordination; his focus now will be to complete the process with those already underway.
There are various resources for studying Okumura Roshi's teachings available from our Dogen Institute. You may also watch and listen to some of his talks on Sanshin's YouTube channel.
Can I come to Sanshin to take the precepts?
Lay precepts are given annually during roughly the first week of July, though the process of meeting, sewing and preparation begins well beforehand. Please see this page.
If it's possible to take precepts with a teacher in or closer to your hometown, please engage with and support that group rather than traveling to Sanshin to do so. You need your local or regional sangha, and it needs you. Continuing your practice of living with the precepts is much more difficult without in-person practice with a sangha, even if it's only a few times a year.
CAN I TAKE THE PRECEPTS VIRTUALLY?
Precepts must be given and received in person; it can't be done virtually. Following an in-person meeting with a preceptor (and preferably having established a practice with the sangha), one must come for a week-long retreat in the spring during which one sews a rakusu, and return in the summer for another week-long retreat to study the precepts. The ceremony is conducted at the end of that retreat.
Can I ordain in Sanshin's lineage?
The worldwide Sanshin Network offers multiple opportunities to formally join our lineage as a novice by ordaining with one of its members. Sanshin Network members are usually transmitted disciples of Okumura Roshi or Hoko. Some have fulfilled the requirements for Sotoshu recognition and are authorized by the denomination as overseas (outside of Japan) teachers. You may begin by contacting the network member closest to your hometown or one who speaks your native language and starting a conversation about his or her requirements and expectations for ordination as a novice. Okumura Roshi himself is no longer taking on new novices.
How can I find a teacher?
Within our dharma family here at Sanshin, there are several important themes when it comes to considering teacher/student relationships. One is the more universal view that zazen is the true teacher, and whatever we may read or hear about the dharma, it's in zazen that that understanding is actually investigated and verified. If you've read our Understanding Sanshin Style booklet, you know that we're big on nonreliance -- the understanding that what drives our practice is not teachers and goals and ego but only bodhicitta itself.
Yes, and . . . Dogen says that a teacher is someone who you see and who sees you. In other words, real transmission of the dharma can only happen face to face, and not through books or over a distance. We have to practice in a room together and experience total dynamic functioning (jijuyu zammai) to really get what teachers are embodying and transmitting and to enter into a dialogue about the dharma. Dogen was clear that while our tradition includes teachings about mind to mind transmission and "transmission outside of words and letters," if we don't explain the dharma to people, they can't understand it.
We need to know for what we're looking to teachers. While dharma talks and writings are important, whether or not a teacher embodies and models practice in a way that encourages and inspires others to practice is more important. We may find it very helpful to read academic texts as part of our dharma study, but we would not look to those very accomplished scholars as models of practice. Again, Soto Zen is not a philosophy or a belief system, it's something we do.
It's not uncommon that folks write to Sanshin wanting to become Okumura Roshi's students based on having read his books and maybe watched some videos. Maybe they attended a talk in person somewhere during the years when he was travelling to teach. They see a person who's humble, soft-spoken and able to do exegesis of Dogen's writing, and they fall in love with his karmic attributes. They know nothing about his actual practice, and the things about which he feels strongly. This is one reason we make the Sanshin Style book available, and the content has surprised a number of readers. There's a difference between being a fan and being a student. The very charismatic Sawaki Roshi had the same problem as a teacher in his own time.
Okumura Roshi connected with his own teacher first by reading his book Jiko and then by actually going to Antaiji to practice as a young layperson. It was on the basis of his meeting and spending time with Uchiyama Roshi that he knew he wanted to practice like this teacher, and he has spent the rest of his life transmitting his teacher's practice.
There are myriad old Chinese stories that paint pictures of teachers with mystical powers who knew just what word to say to crack open the ordained disciple's understanding (in addition to making their bowls fly across the room or having midnight chats with Kannon). We may think that if we're really serious practitioners, even as laypeople, we can or should have some close magical connection with a teacher. Put that against the Western therapeutic story that casts dharma teachers as psychologists, counselors and parents, in front of whom we sit down, throw up our hands and say, "Just fix me!" Neither of those is a good measure.
When considering practicing with a teacher, we may start with questions like: Does this teacher inspire me to practice? Communicate in a way I can understand? Have thorough grounding in the history and context of the tradition as well as the "spiritual technologies?" Seem to understand how to lead a healthy community? If so, we may be able to receive some guidance, recognizing that ultimately we're responsible for our own practice.
Can I live and practice at Sanshin for an extended period of time?
It may be possible to come to Sanshin for 30-day periods of temporary residential practice, living in the zendo with your own bedding or camping on the grounds. However, there is no residential community at Sanshin and you will be on your own for much of every day. There is usually no one on campus to give you direction or assignments, discuss teachings or practice, or share meals. Please contact us if you'd still like to discuss the possibility.
What is a practice period (ango) like at Sanshin?
Ango is the busiest time of year at Sanshin, with various retreats, ceremonies and events happening over the three month period between the first week of April and the first week of July. The ango includes activities from each of the three areas of our practice: zazen (sesshin), work (sangha work days) and study (genzo-e retreat). A head novice (shuso) is appointed by the abbot and as part of his or her clerical development takes on various leadership responsibilities such as giving dharma talks and officiating at services. Toward the end of the ango, official ceremonies are held to mark the completion of the shuso's term. Outside of sesshin and retreats the day to day schedule remains as usual.
Can Okumura Roshi participate in my event, class or research project?
Okumura Roshi has stepped back from day to day leadership at Sanshin and his travel and teaching schedule is completely filled for the foreseeable future. He is not taking requests for virtual talks except for those from within the Sanshin Network or from Sotoshu.
He may occasionally give interviews on topics directly related to Soto Zen Buddhist practice as it's carried out at Sanshin. He is unlikely to agree to interviews that seek to intersect Zen with something -- Zen and productivity, Zen and psychic phenomena, Zen and technology, etc.
Can you provide guidance to our sitting group?
There are a number of small sitting groups within several hours of Sanshin, and we are happy to make resources available to them to help support their practice. Formal affiliation with Sanshin or Soto Zen is not necessary; we simply want to offer what we can to these small groups of wholehearted practitioners, which may be practicing without a teacher, a formal organization or a dedicated facility. LEARN MORE
I want to become an exotic superhero. Can you help me?
This question sometimes takes a form like Last weekend I [read a book, saw a movie, looked at the internet] and now I want to become a [ninja, samurai, warrior monk, wizard]. Can you help me?
The answer is no. We don't know anything about that stuff. If you're looking for something romantic or magical, you won't find it here. We just sit zazen.
I want to become a renunciant or mendicant. Can you help me?
No. All practitioners here work to support themselves and their families. We're just normal folks living normal lives.
Uchiyama Roshi wrote, "The sixth type (of six-realms zen) is heavenly zen. The people who practice this want to be hermits or saints. Lots of Americans seem drawn to this type of zen. I guess they want to escape from the noisy, materialistic society of America and live in remote mountains enjoying the silence. This is zen undertaken as a hobby or a fad. It has absolutely nothing to do with the buddhadharma." [Opening the Hand of Thought, p. 155]
Occasionally, someone finds himself homeless and decides to reposition that situation as a special holy Buddhist calling, expecting that on that basis Sanshin or our practitioners will provide him with material support. We will not. Our practice does not require us to step outside of the economic structures of our society, and "Buddhism" is not an excuse for panhandling. Alms rounds as they are practiced in Asia are done with and on behalf of the sangha or practice community and whatever is collected goes to the temple, not to individuals. There is nothing personal about it.
In short, Sanshin is not a human services agency and is not an alternative to homeless shelters or other resources available in Bloomington.
DO YOU OFFER THE POPULAR SOCIAL OR CULTURAL PROGRAMS?
In general, Sanshin offers only zazen, work and study in the style of our immediate Soto Zen ancestors. If you're looking for programs on racial justice, social change, self-improvement, addiction recovery or other things, please seek out organizations better equipped to offer them.
Although our founder and immediate ancestors are Japanese, we do not offer programs in Japanese cultural activities such as flower arranging, tea ceremony, cooking, taiko drumming, sumi-e painting, calligraphy, martial arts or anime. You may be able to find such programs at your local chapter of the Japan-America Society.