Why do we come here on sesshin to sit in silence? What do we hope we’ll get out of it? We must suspect that in some way all this sitting might be good for us or else we’d never do it. But what is our reason for sitting? Each of us has his or her own reasons, and the different Buddhist traditions have differing explanations about what we are supposed to experience or what we might get out if it.
On my first few silent retreats there was the hope that I would become Enlightened, whatever I thought Enlightenment might be. The hope was that I would have something like the same kind of experience I imagined the Buddha had. I remember on one early retreat thinking, after the bell ending the session had rung and I was on my way to lunch: “Damn, I was almost there, a hair’s breadth away from enlightenment. If only I hadn’t gotten up for lunch!”
Let me assure you that none of you will achieve anything like what you imagine the Buddha’s Enlightenment to have been on this sesshin. If you’ve been on lots of retreats or sesshins, you already know this.
This isn’t to say that you might not have some remarkable experiences. Maybe, for example, entering the first jhana or meditative absorption, when you are one with the breath accompanied by a profound sense of happiness and wellbeing. Maybe an experience of kensho. If you’ve ever had one of these experiences, you may be hoping to experience it again. Intending to repeat a past experience is a sure way to ruin sesshin. You can never step into the same river twice.
I’ve had a number of remarkable experiences on retreat and on sesshin and I’m happy I had them. But they didn’t make me Enlightened. Just someone whose had some remarkable experiences. There are people who have had many remarkable experiences, yet they remain assholes. There are others who’ve had none, but through sitting over time, they’ve become a locus of enlightened activity in the world.
But of course, by saying you will not become Enlightened on sesshin, I’ve already fallen into error. Dogen says zazen is an expression of our enlightenment, not an attempt to obtain it.
This is clear from the following koan in Dogen’s compendium of three-hundred koans:
Nanyue went to Mazu to ask, “ Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?” Mazu said, “I am intending to be a Buddha.” Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.
Mazu said, “What are you doing?”
Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”
Mazu said, “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”
Nanyue said, “How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?”
And as Dogen says in his Bendowa:
“If even for a short time one sits erect in meditative absorption and impresses the buddha seal upon the three sources of karma, everything in the world of things will become the buddha seal and all space will become enlightenment.”
Some of us aren’t hoping we’ll become Enlightened or have remarkable experiences. Some of us are only looking for a kind of therapy. We want to become calmer, less anxious, less neurotic. And sitting can do that. If we focus on our breathing, our body relaxes, and to the extent that we can let go of all the thoughts that stir us up—self-critical thoughts, cravings, fears about the future, regrets about the past—we come to see these thoughts as “just thoughts,” and we grow calmer.
But is becoming calmer all there is?
In the Theravada tradition, after making ourselves calm, we are instructed to move beyond calmness to develop insight. What kind of insight? First, insight into impermanence—an awareness of how everything is continually coming to be and passing away.
Second, insight into unsatisfactoriness—how no experience, attainment, or possession is unalloyedly pleasant or capable of making us permanently happy. Every good has some bad associated with it, even if it is only its being subject to change and being capable of passing away. The things that make us happy also have the capacity to cease making us happy, and even worse, the capacity to cause trouble for us.
The third insight is that nothing is “I, me or mine.” I can’t control how I think or feel, so my mind isn’t mine. My body isn’t mine. It doesn’t always listen to me, and eventually will grow sick and die. The idea that there is some inner Self in control of our mind and body is a pure fiction.
These are the insights that the Theravada tradition says lead to liberation and happiness.
When we turn to the Mahayana tradition, there are other insights that are the ultimate fruit of meditation—specifically the insight into emptiness—the all-togetherness-of-things, the fact that things aren’t things at all but processes or energy—that the energetic process that we are is part of the wholeness of the universe.
These are insights and experiences you may or may not have while sitting. I want to suggest, however, that you don’t strive for any of these insights.
I want to suggest that you sit without expectation with just one intention. That’s the intention of simply being present. When you try sitting without any other intentions, the first thing you’ll notice is all the other intentions you have—the intentions to be more alert, less distracted, calmer, happier, more comfortable, and so on. You can’t make them go away, but you can just watch them come and go. You can, as Uchiyama Roshi says, “open the hand of thought.” Let go of them as you become aware of them, and remind yourself to just be present for whatever shows up. Whatever it is, welcome it in. Treat it like an honored guest. Let it abide as long as it wishes, but don’t invite it to stay longer.
As Ajahn Chah said:
“Try to be mindful. And let things take their natural course.
Then your mind will become still in any surroundings – like a clear forest pool.
All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool – and you will clearly see the nature of all things.
You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still.
This is the happiness of the Buddha.”
Your body—and by your body I mean your psychophysiological energetic being acting in concert with the universe—knows more than your conscious mind knows. If you just sit quietly, that whole process unfolds and reveals itself. Your fullness of being expresses itself in ways your conscious mind couldn’t possibly anticipate. Allow it to do just that. In doing so, become more fully yourself. In so doing, you can discover the path you’re meant to be on, or what the next step on that journey is. Whatever it is, it’s unique to you.
There’s such a thing as Father Zen and such a thing as Grandmother Zen. Father Zen says, “Practice like your hair is on fire.” It says, “Shut up and sit up straight.” It says “Break on through to the other side.”
Grandmother Zen says, “Sit down, relax, make yourself at home.” It sees zazen as similar to water that slowly wears away rock. You don’t need to do anything except continuously show up. Zazen itself does the work. You don’t make enlightenment happen; enlightenment is what zazen does to you.
There’s a place for Father Zen and a place for Grandmother Zen. But I have to admit, I’m partial to Grandmother Zen.
And speaking of Grandmotherly types, there’s a story allegedly about Mother Teresa. I have no idea if its true.
In the story, someone asks Mother Teresa what she says during her prayers. She answers, “I don’t say anything; I just listen.” She’s then asked, “Well then, what does God say?” She answers, “He just listens too.”
If you sit in this way, you will not attain Enlightenment. There is no Enlightenment to attain. There is just endless awakening and realization. You will not have the Buddha’s experience. That experience was his. But you can have your own.