Frequently asked questions
can i practice with you online?
Sanshin offers virtual practice six days a week at the moment; complete information is on our Schedules and calendars page in the English section. If you'd like to participate in the activities listed there, please email our office and we'll send you the Zoom information you'll need in order to connect.
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 have enough personnel to offer regular individual practice direction. 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.
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. Sanshin and DI also offer two genzo-e, or study retreats, each year that focus on fascicles of the Shobogenzo.
Sesshin and retreat
I don't live in Bloomington.
Can I come to retreat/sesshin at Sanshin?
When we're open for in-person practice, certainly. Nearly all retreat/sesshin participants at Sanshin are from out of town. You will not be joining a local community of practitioners who regularly practice together; you will be joining a pop-up community made up of practitioners from all over our global sangha who have gathered for the duration of the event. While local sangha members are of course welcome to participate in retreats/sesshin, they typically don't.
Do you offer scholarships to help cover event fees?
Information about scholarship funding is available here.
What's the difference between retreat and sesshin at Sanshin?
Retreats are less intensive, are not silent, and offer activities other than zazen. Genzo-e include lectures; one-day retreats may offer yoga, discussion, hands-on activities or mindful outdoor walks. You can see typical daily schedules for retreats and sesshin on the Schedules and calendars page.
What should I do to prepare for sesshin at Sanshin?
If you've been to sesshin at another dharma center, you will likely find Sanshin's style less complex and yet more intensive. The day consists solely of fourteen 50-minute periods of zazen, with three one-hour meal periods and about six hours of sleep (if you're staying on campus; less if you're commuting). There is no liturgy, no dokusan, no work period, no dharma talk, and meals are buffet-style. We don't attempt to recreate daily life in a Japanese training temple. We just sit shikantaza and let go of thought.
Before sesshin, please familiarize yourself with the sesshin guidelines as well as the forms we use. 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. You will probably discover that you can sit for a longer time than you thought you could. During the sesshin, you may certainly move from cushion to bench to chair and back as your body requires, and many people do. If it's necessary to take a period out to rest, you may do that. This style of sesshin is not designed to be harsh, intimidating or an ego-driven test of endurance -- as Okumura Roshi says, "Our practice is not a torture." It's designed to create a container that allows us to put absolutely everything else aside and focus solely on taking the zazen posture, breathing deeply, keeping the eyes open and letting go of thought. For that reason, it's a rare opportunity.
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 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 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."
Most of the people attending sesshin and retreat are coming from out of town; a long drive home is not a special circumstance. 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.
Can you accommodate my special diet during sesshin or retreat?
Meals during sesshin and retreat are vegetarian, and our registration form includes a section in which you can 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.
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.
Ordained sangha are welcome to wear their robes as they wish.
What should I call the abbot?
"Hojo-san" is appropriate when he's at Sanshin itself; "Okumura Roshi" is used in all other cases. We do not call our abbot by his first name. In Japanese culture, the use of a first name indicates a fairly close personal relationship.
On a related note, other than "Hojo-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 unnecessary.
how can I join your sangha or become a member?
Anyone is welcome to practice in our style and to visit Sanshin for 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.
As for becoming a member, Sanshin doesn't have a membership program. When he founded Sanshin, Okumura Roshi recognized that most of the people coming to participate in its intensive practice offerings would be out-of-town visitors affiliated with sanghas in their own hometowns. He didn't want to compete with those centers for loyalty and support or create any feelings of obligation on the part of practitioners. There are those who donate funds on a monthly basis, but they receive no benefits or special consideration.
Does Sanshin practice vegetarianism?
Food served at Sanshin itself is typically vegetarian. However, practitioners are not required to adopt any particular diet.
Committing to practice
How can I become Okumura Roshi's student?
Anyone is welcome to practice at Sanshin or in the style of our dharma family; a formal commitment is not necessary. There are various resources for studying Okumura Roshi's teachings available from our Dogen Institute, but it's more important to be committed to our practice than to be committed to our abbot.
Because of the pandemic closure, the schedule and plans for taking lay precepts with Okumura Roshi are unclear. There was a full complement for 2020 and those folks will all be pushed to some time in the future; in light of this the existing plan in which Okumura Roshi gives the precepts in even years and Hoko in odd years may change. Okumura Roshi will stop giving precepts himself after 2023.
Okumura Roshi is no longer taking on new novices for ordination as he is moving toward a founding teacher role in 2023, when he will be stepping back from day-to-day leadership of Sanshin to concentrate on his writing and translation work.
It's important to know that taking precepts with Okumura Roshi does not create a close and binding teacher/student relationship or give you access to special teachings. You remain free to practice anywhere and with anyone and are under no obligation to Sanshin or to Okumura Roshi. He will not be personally mentoring you or directing your studies. Your vows are between you and Buddha and your commitment is to the practice.
Can I come to Sanshin to take the precepts?
When Sanshin is open for in-person practice, lay precepts are given annually during roughly the first week of July, though the process of meeting, sewing and preparation begins well beforehand. In light of the pandemic shutdown, it's unclear when new precepts recipients will be taken on. All of those scheduled for 2020 still need to be accommodated. If you're anxious to get started, you may wish to contact another transmitted teacher in the Sanshin network as they are not all under the same pandemic constraints as Sanshin.
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 and starting a conversation about his or her requirements and expectations for ordination as a novice.
Okumura Roshi himself no longer ordains novices as he is moving toward a founding teacher role in 2023, when he will be stepping back from day-to-day leadership of Sanshin to concentrate on his writing and translation work.
Can I live and practice at Sanshin for an extended period of time?
Sanshin is developing a residential program, but complete information and applications are not yet available. Once the pandemic shutdown is over, more information should become available.
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 abbot and vice abbot do not travel during this time and the focus remains on the practice in Bloomington. The ango includes activities from each of the three areas of our practice: zazen (sesshin), work (sangha work day) 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 visit our center to teach?
Okumura Roshi's travel and teaching schedule is completely filled for the foreseeable future. He is not taking on virtual speaking engagements at this time.
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.
Can you provide guidance to our sitting group?
There are a number of small sitting groups within several hours of Sanshin, and we 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