My first retreat wasn’t a Zen sesshin, but an Insight Meditation Retreat led by the late Ruth Denison. As it was my first retreat, I was grateful Ruth gave us copious meditation instructions. In fact, she never stopped talking during our allegedly silent meditation retreat—silent for us, not for her—every meditation was at least somewhat guided—”now do this, now do that.” There was never a moment during the 10-day retreat where I had to question what I should be doing.
Zen instruction is a different kettle of fish. Dòngshān Liángjiè, the ninth century Tang Dynasty Chan Master who founded the Cáodòng school of Chan had a teaching strategy — “bù shōu pò“— don’t explain too clearly.”
“Don’t explain too clearly.” Zen beginners are instructed to assume the zazen position and count their breaths and are then pretty much left on their own. Every Zen student struggles with the question, “Am I doing this right?” “Am I doing this right?” becomes part of zazen. During sesshin we often try one approach to zazen after another: “Let me focus just on the breath;” “Let me focus just on the energy in my body;” “Let me openly monitor the whole phenomenal field;” “Wait, I’m not really concentrating—let me count my breaths; “Let me say ‘in and out’ as I breath in and out;” “Let me say a mantra along with my breathing;“ “Let me do full abdominal breathing;” “Let me follow my breath just as it is.” And none of these strategies really works in the long run. Sure, maybe they work for a sitting or two—we have what we consider a few “good” meditation sessions: “I was really concentrated that time;” “I was filled with bliss that time;” “I was really present that time” — whatever we value in terms of what Zen teacher Barry Magid calls our “secret practice” (more about that in a moment). But whatever strategy yields that initial success eventually becomes stale or counterproductive. In the end, we are forced to give up. We grow in zazen not because of what we are trying to do, but despite it.
“Don’t explain to clearly,” because, really, what can you say? It’s like giving instructions about how to look in a mirror: “Just sit in front of the mirror and look.” You don’t have to do anything—the minute one looks, the image in the mirror appears. It’s the same with zazen. We don’t have to do anything—our mind immediately appears. How many times and different ways can we say, “just look at your mind?”
“Yes, but what am I supposed to be doing with my mind? How should I go about improving it?” But the instructions don’t say anything about doing anything with your mind or improving it — only seeing your nature. Bodhidharma allegedly wrote, “jiàn xìng” — ”see your nature.” Jiàn xìng can mean seeing your nature, but also meeting your nature, or your nature making its appearance — and that’s what it does: we sit and it appears. Bodhidharma’s instruction — ‘jiàn xìng” —doesn’t say see your original nature (běn xìng) or your Buddha nature (fó xìng) — just your nature. It’s so simple it can hardly be talked about. What more is there to say?
But we all have our secret practice. The one the instructions don’t tell us to do, but our ego adopts for itself. This is our own private self-improvement project. We inevitably have one — after all, the real religion of America is self-improvement. Something is wrong with us that needs fixing. We want to become less anxious, depressed, confused, or selfish, or more compassionate, spiritual, disciplined, enlightened, or self-accepting — or whatever we think we need to become. And we think zazen will help us do that. Isn’t that why we’re here? Isn’t there something you hope will happen for you on this sesshin? Maybe you will become less stressed, or maybe experience satori?
Here are two bits of bad news: First, sesshin will defeat all your secret practices. Second, the minute you give up one self-improvement project, another will rise up to take its place. Just try sitting without a gaining idea. Good luck.
What happens in sesshin is we see all our gaining ideas, gross and subtle, again and again. We can’t make them go away—gaining ideas are the ego’s job, and we can’t get rid of the ego — ego may wax and wane, but not because of any effort on our part. What we can do, however, is see them over and over in all their various guises—and in the process, they doesn’t so much disappear, as we learn to take them less seriously as we become disillusioned with them—they’re there along with the breath and the bird song—but they’re no longer central to who we are. Those impulses to “make” something different happen are still there, but they exist in a vast open space.
So, that’s our job on sesshin. To see our life as it arises and passes away moment by moment. I would recommend, as you sit this sesshin, to abandon any idea of there being some brass ring you are supposed to reach out and grasp. If there is a mountain top called Enlightenment, it is a mountain top with many paths and approaches. Each of us is a different person, with different past histories, in the midst of different dilemmas, possessing different strengths and weaknesses, and at different stages of our life and along the path.
Therefore, what will be revealed to each of us during sesshin will be unique to us. You may be hoping for satori, but what you may get may be something else— the something else that is really the thing that you need in this moment, whether you realize it or not. For some it may be simply a greater appreciation for life — the taste of food, the colors of the sunrise. For some it may be a new acceptance of things that can’t be changed, or the putting down of a burden, or the loosing of a knot in one’s gut. For some it will be a brief vacation from the stress. For some it will be a realization of the persistence of ego in all its guises. For some it may be moments of great peace or bliss. For some it may be a falling away of the self and intimacy with everything. Whatever your gift, accept it gratefully. The gift you get will be the right one for you at this moment in your life. Don’t think it should have gotten something else. That is the ego’s idea of practice, but having no gaining idea and trusting in the practice is the Zen way. Satori might be the wrong thing for you at this moment and seeing the persistence of ego the right thing. What we need is not some special experience, but an awakening to life as it is—not some special perfect life, but the precious imperfect life we’ve been given.