Sesshin at Sanshin is an opportunity to practice without distraction. We set aside the usual activities -- or entertainments -- of temple life, like work periods, meetings with teachers and dharma talks, and focus completely on zazen. We practice in complete silence following a 4 am to 8 pm daily schedule that consists simply of thirteen 50-minute periods of zazen with one-hour periods for meals and a bit of personal time. This sesshin-without-toys style of practice was created by our founder's teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, and practiced at Antaji in Kyoto, Japan. We carry on and offer this tradition of our lineage here at Sanshin.
While sesshin at Sanshin is intensive and participants are serious about maintaining silence and focus, it is not harsh or unsympathetic. Practitioners are encouraged to take care of themselves while at the same time fully entering into the challenge and opportunity of the sesshin. It's helpful to have read Uchiyama Roshi's Opening the Hand of Thought for background information about this style of sesshin and to have had some prior experience of intensive practice.
Read More about sesshin at sanshin
An experienced practitioner recently asked me, "What is the purpose of sesshin?" It's an important question, one we continue to ask even after we've completed many sesshin. It's not hard to look up the definition of the word and the meaning of the kanji (接心). 接 means to touch or bring together and 心 is the heart/mind, and we know that we're talking about a retreat that increases the intensity of our daily practice to some degree. However, we need some context to understand why we do this kind of practice at Sanshin and what part it plays in our practice life so we understand the attitude we need to take.
In the training temple (senmon sodo) in Japan, there are two patterns of intensifying and relaxing our practice. One is in the two practice periods (ango) held each summer and winter. These are three-month periods in which we remain in the temple and focus on our practice by carrying out a more intensive schedule. During the spring and fall quarters our schedule is a bit more relaxed and we can enter and leave the temple as necessary. Thus periods of more intensive practice are alternated with periods of more relaxed practice. The other pattern is in the monthly sesshin. For three, five or seven days each month we shorten our liturgy, put aside work periods and other activities and increase the number of zazen periods on the daily schedule. Taken together, the regular inward intensive focus alternated with the more relaxed approach are like breathing in and out, creating a practice life that is neither too strict nor too loose. This is the regular rhythm of life for a community of practitioners who already live and practice together every day.
In many Western dharma centers, sesshin is a sort of re-creation of the average day in the training temple. It includes liturgy, formal meals, work periods, dharma talks, dokusan and other things. Although this would be an unremarkable day to someone living in a training temple, it becomes a special event for householders who don't usually spend all day at the dharma center engaged in practice. It's an opportunity to participate in many kinds of activities during a short space of time, so rather than reducing the number of daily activities, it can feel like the increased intensity comes from the full and busy schedule.
Sanshin style sesshin is not like this. We do only three things during sesshin: eat, sleep and sit. Since our sesshin is completely silent, there's no liturgy or other chanting, no dharma talks and no dokusan. Uchiyama Roshi calls this style "sesshin without toys." We don't get to play with anticipating a beautiful service, getting the work assignment we want or putting our dharma questions to a teacher. We've got only the cushion, the wall, the bell, and our own hearts and minds, without the distraction of the elements of the life we would be living in the training temple.
I say during orientation that there are no "breaks" during sesshin. That doesn't mean that we ignore the needs of the body or that we need to be tough and harsh with ourselves. Sesshin is not a test of endurance for people with something to prove. "No breaks" means that there is no time during the sesshin at which we let go of zazen mind. Zazen is not always very interesting, and it's natural that after awhile, we want to do something else. It would be nice to step outside for a few minutes to look at something prettier than the wall, or to go see what's available in the library or on our phones. We're either chasing after something to play with or running away from thoughts we don't like. The problem is that we've just spent 50 minutes letting go of thought, and now we're just replacing one set of thoughts with another that we're going to spend the next 50 minutes trying not to grasp. One set of thoughts isn't better or worse than another. We've put ourselves into a container designed to help us let go of all thinking, even thinking about the dharma, and the idea that we need to "take a break" works against the very situation into which we've chosen to enter. Instead, we just immerse ourselves in the practice of letting thoughts come and go, hour after hour, without searching for anything else to do.
At the moment, we're not encouraging practitioners to travel to Sanshin from out of town because of continuing public heath concerns. When we reopen to visitors and you decide to come to Sanshin for sesshin, please take care of your practice by refraining from making the sesshin a special event in your life. It's simply the intensification for now of a practice you're already doing, not something at which you need to "succeed" or from which you need to wring all the benefits before your time is up. While there are certainly advantages to sitting sesshin in a zendo with a community that can provide leadership and support, you can also sit at home on your own following the daily schedule.
So what's the purpose of sesshin? I think it's the chance to remember what's at the core of our practice: clearly manifesting our Buddha nature. Yes, we do that no matter the activity of the moment, but zazen is where we really settle into it. We do only four things in our zazen: take the posture, keep the eyes open, breathe deeply through the nose and let go of thought. Taking care of just those four things hour after hour, we get really quiet and our vision clears. We return to the reality of this moment and we don't need to make anything out of it. Sesshin is challenging, but in the midst of it we find a deep rest.
Helpful information about sesshin
Practitioners who live in town and have been fully vaccinated may register for full days with communal meals, or may drop in for one or more periods of zazen as they wish (no registration or fee). At the moment, masks are required in accordance with Monroe County public health policy; if you don't have a mask we can provide one for you. This policy is subject to change as conditions change.
Some events offer a limited number of non-local practitioners the chance to participate in person depending on availability. If open seats remain once local practitioners have finished their own registration, those seats may be offered to non-locals who have placed themselves on a standby list and whose names are drawn by lot. Non-locals must be fully vaccinated, prepared to travel and participate on short notice (likely about two weeks), and to function as commuters while they're here. Sanshin can provide neither housing nor transportation to and from the temple each day. We'll contact those remaining on standby when all seats are filled.
A virtual look-in option is available during the sesshin. If you already have access to the links page for our regular virtual practice, you don't need to register; you'll find the retreat links there and may join virtually as you please. If you're new to our virtual practice, please email here for the links you'll need.
Please note that virtual participation begins with the first zazen period on the opening evening.