I didn’t attend Boundless Way Zen’s weeklong sesshin this year. It ended today.
I found myself “participating” sympathetically throughout the week, sometimes almost telepathically.
I was really missing our sesshin-attending sagha-mates at Tuesday night’s sit at the Greater Boston Zen Center. My legs became strangely tight and painful, much like they would after days on retreat, and not at all like I normally experience after 20+ years of 1-2 25-minute sits most days.
Sitting at home during the week, I sometimes felt like I was sitting in the zendo at the Boundless Way Temple, where our sesshins occur.
Lying in bed one night, I could almost hear the day’s closing chants, which end with this stark, ghostly reminder of how precious this life-time is:
“Let me respectfully remind you: Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken… awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life.”
Long sesshins are wonderful. I have benefitted immensely over the years from the many week+ retreats I’ve attended — intensive practice periods, during which one sits and meets with teachers from early morning until late at night. I look forward to attending more of them in the future.
And extended, leisurely periods of time with family and friends, or with oneself, also are wonderful. For many Zen practitioners, and perhaps mainly for those of us with younger children and/or spouses who are not Zen practitioners (sympathetic, like my wife, though they may be), devoting a full week to sesshin each year can be a real challenge.
Most people still in the workforce have limited vacation time, and vacations may need to be coordinated with school schedules and a spouse’s schedule. Even if one can arrange time for sesshin, a week at a Zen retreat may mean a week of family vacation lost.
This is my current reality. We have school-age kids. I have missed a week of family vacation time for the past several years by attending our weeklong sesshin. My family is truly supportive of my Zen practice, and yet this just feels like too much. It certainly feels like a huge loss from my perspective, even though I know there’s much to be gained from intensive periods of practice.
One of the big projects inherent in Zen’s migration west — one of the big opportunities we’re presented — is about adaptation of the traditional forms and practices to this new context-era. Numerous features distinguish this new context-era from those in which the traditional forms and practices evolved, but perhaps none is more prevalent and salient than the relative leveling of lay life/practice and the path of priestly and/or monastic life/practice.
This leveling has many causes and many implications. It is bound up with other progressive trends, like democratization and increasing gender equality, in ways that make them impossible to separate entirely.
The practice of sesshin developed in context-eras in which there were sharp distinctions between the laity and monastics, whether they be lifelong monks or young men spending some months or some small number of years in a monastery as a rite of passage.
And these monks were mostly childless men. If the monastic life was their permanent vocation, it was their livelihood, their work. They begged and contributed to the institution’s other income producing endeavors throughout their lives. If they were passing through, they begged and contributed to those same endeavors while they were there, knowing they would eventually return to lay (and likely family) life and some form of work less conducive to spending weeks or months on a cushion all day.
Fast forward to today . . .
On the one hand, a week isn’t a long period of time, particularly compared to the month+ retreats that are common in many Asian monasteries, even still.
On the other hand, see above.
From one perspective, perhaps there is something to be said for making a stoic effort to attend longer retreats, despite family and work obligations and opportunities, but I’m not much moved by that perspective.
These sorts of discussions and thoughtful experimentation are happening within BoWZ, and I’m very excited to be part of this organization and this project. In addition to our annual weeklong sesshins, we have several shorter sesshins each year and numerous daylong intensives.
The weeklong (or longer) retreats truly are wonderful. For some, “shifts happen” in these longer, intensive periods of practice, and perhaps would be less likely to happen for them in another context. Bonds develop.
And, I must say, in recent years I have found my most profound shifts happening, and my most transformative bonds developing, within the context of family life. Of course, Zen practice, including the weeklong sesshins I’ve attended, has been hugely supportive of this. That’s the point, as BoWZ’s teachers continually remind us.
One of the really exciting and heartening things about this BoWZ project is the community’s recognition that Zen practice needs to work in the context of people’s ordinary lives. Indeed, that Zen is our ordinary lives.
And, yet, there is a tradition that we have received, and that tradition transmits to us a treasure trove of forms and practices that people have found powerfully useful for awakening to the full richness of this ordinary life. The adaptation/experimentation project is tricky.
It’s important not to cling slavishly to traditional forms, holding up intensive practice — the longer and more frequent and more ardent, the better — as “real Zen.” And it’s important not to dilute the forms down to nothing. They’re nothing in one sense, of course, and yet most definitely not nothing.
At least until our youngest (who’s now four) goes to college, I suspect my rhythm will be marked by frequent short retreats and daylong sits, and only very occasional long sesshins. I settled down relatively late in life, and I am fortunate to have participated in many longer retreats before starting a family.
Every Zen practitioner should experience longer retreats. If one feels one benefits from them and can swing it, one definitely should participate in them regularly. Looking over the arc of my 20+ years of sitting practice, I now see them not as more valuable than other forms of practice, but as differently valuable — and as having been differently valuable particularly at specific points in my own journey.
For those who find that hard to do or otherwise legitimately undesirable, however, I’m very interested in seeing us continue to develop adapted forms of intensive and/or extended practice that offer folks some of the immense benefits of longer intensives in more flexible packages. Not as a substitute for sesshins, but as a complementary sort of opportunity. The wonderful, much westernized, “drop in and out freely” Ango practice period that’s occurred at the temple (and, simultaneously and by extension, at many of our homes) the past couple of years is a marvelous example of this.
I look forward to the time when longer sesshins fit more comfortably into the parameters of my life. And, in the meantime, I really look forward to those family vacations.
And to continuing to be a part of this living, communal project of ours . . .