According to Ecclesiastes 3:1, there is a time for every season and purpose under heaven. Sesshin, too, has a time for everything: a time for sitting, walking, eating, chanting, preparing meals and cleaning up. This time, right now, is the time for listening to someone speaking words.
In Zen, although we do many different things, we do all things in the same way—whether sitting, walking, eating, or listening; whether folding our clothes at night, placing a fork on our plate, or opening a door. We do it with a specific kind of attention called menmitsu no-kafu in Japanese. Men means “close, intimate, or densely woven,” mitsu means “cotton fabric,” Ka means “family,” and Fu means “wind” or “manner.” Together, they express the Zen family style of exquisite, careful, considerate, intimate, warm-hearted, continuous attention to detail—an attention both soft and subtle—that characterizes all of Zen practice. It’s similar to the Pali word sati—remembering, bearing in mind, or mindfulness–with the possible difference that sati emphasizes awareness of one’s heart/mind, whereas menmitsu emphasizes awareness during one’s actions-in-the-world. A good deal of Zen monastic training is learning to physically embody menmitsu as one goes about one’s daily activities—putting on one’s robe, sweeping the walkways, refolding one’s bowing cloth, assembling and disassembling one’s oryoki bowls, and so on. Our intention on sesshin is to maintain this continuous thread of awareness in all of our activities.
Insight Meditation Teacher Sharon Salzberg recounts a story that also exemplifies the quality of mind I’m pointing to. She was attending a retreat with the Burmese vipassana master Sayadaw U Pandita, and preparing for her teacher interview—the vipassana equivalent of our daisan or dokusan.
“I diligently wrote down brief notes after each period of sitting and walking meditation. I wanted to describe my experiences clearly in our interviews. When I began relating my experiences, U Pandita said, “Never mind that. Tell me everything you noticed when you put on your shoes.” I hadn’t really paid attention to putting on my shoes. He told me to try again. That was the end of the interview.
The next day I went into my interview ready to report on sitting meditation, walking meditation and my experience while putting on my shoes. U Pandita said, “Tell me everything you noticed when you washed your face.” I hadn’t really paid any attention to washing my face. My interview was over.”
So, how does one practice menmitsu while listening to a someone speaking words?
The Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, once wrote “Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
Yet here I am, staining the silence.
Here I am, speaking word after word doing the sixth day of sesshin, your minds perhaps considerably quieter than they were on day one. It feels, to me, like I’m throwing stones into a still pond. Each word creates ripples, like Basho’s frog—Ker-plop!
If I say something you agree with or like, you think, “I’m glad I came!” or “Tell me something I don’t know.” That’s one kind of ripple. If I say something you disagree with or don’t like, you think “I can’t believe he said that!” or “I used to think he was a good teacher!” That’s another kind of ripple.
Can you watch your mind’s reactivity moment by moment? Can you be aware of it without getting caught by it? Without getting caught in a train of thought that carries you out of the present into memory, planning, inventing speeches, and daydreaming? Just be here, listen and watch the ripples— and your breathing—and the sounds from outside. Everything is present, happening right now. This is how to practice menmitsu during a dharma talk. Listen to your mind, not the talk. No one ever learned anything from a dharma talk. We learn by observing our minds doing what minds do.
In my experience, there’s a pattern to what happens to my mind over the course of a sesshin. This is because our minds arise out of causes and conditions. When I first arrive, maybe I haven’t been getting enough sleep. Maybe I’ve been engrossed in work, or in worries or planning for the future, or arguing with a friend.
The first few days are hard. The mind is sluggish, distracted, occupied with whatever matters were affecting me before I arrived.
Midway though, my mind settles down. It becomes clear and lucid. It can stay with the breath without problem. My body feels light and transparent—illuminated by an inner awareness. Colors, sounds, and smells are vivid and alive.
As sesshin draws to a close, I get caught in the gravitational field of my returning home to my pre-sesshin life. Thoughts about the tasks ahead intrude, It gets harder to pay attention to the breath This is when we begin wondering how to best keep the spirit of sesshin alive once we return home.
I once read an account—my memory of this is fuzzy, and I can’t access the original source—of a young man on a month-long solitary retreat who asked Shunryu Suzuki Roshi how he could retain his peaceful state of mind once he left. Suzuki Roshi said something like, “Don’t worry, it will go away.”
That’s the way life is. Mind is affected by causes and conditions, and we can’t hold onto anything. You will not hold onto whatever peace and concentration you’ve obtained. But that doesn’t mean everything is lost. Your mind/body remembers what you’ve done here. At some future moment, when you’re feeling all stirred up or caught up in something, you will remember to breathe and let go. Having sat sesshin, you are already changed—not greatly changed, but changed a little—and you will carry that change forward into your life.
Your job, as sesshin nears its end, is to continue to be with everything that’s happening just as it is, and to do it with menmitsu-no-kafu—meticulous and exquisite attention.
If your mind is still and quiet, be aware of that. If your mind is drawing you back into the world, be aware of that. Notice where you place your shoes. Notice which foot you put forward when first entering a room.
Whatever is happening, give it your exquisite attention.
You can’t force this to happen. Just keep the intention in mind, returning to it over and over whenever it’s lost.
Our minds have minds of their own. We don’t control them. We can’t make a sitting be the way we want it to be. Whatever happens happens, and we try to be present for it in a warm-hearted way.
Sometimes we come to sesshin with goals or intentions for what we want to accomplish or see happen while on it. As author Anne Lamott says, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” But things happen to us in sesshin—things we really need to learn—if we’ve ears to hear and eyes to see. We can’t make things happen when sitting. Nevertheless, sitting changes us, as surely as rivers polish driftwood and stones over time.