My first Zen retreat

Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 2000
Joined: Mon Apr 06, 2009 9:04 pm
Location: Europe

My first Zen retreat

Post by Luke » Wed Oct 05, 2016 10:23 pm

Hello everyone,
After a few years of cowardice, excuses, and obstacles, I finally attended my first Soto Zen retreat! :D
Although I only was able to be there for two nights, the entire day in between, and the half day after, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life!

The daily schedule was basically like this:
5:30 - wakeup
6:00-8:00 zazen followed by ceremony
8:00-8:30 temple cleaning
8:30-9:00 breakfast
9:00-10:30 work period
11:00-12:30 zazen
12:30-13:00 lunch
13:00-14:30 free time
14:30-16:30 work perid
17:00-18:30 zazen
18:30-19:00 dinner
20:00-21:00 zazen

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were all eaten using the oriyoki method (sort of a precise way of eating meals with a set of 3 bowls and utensils which are wrapped together with different placemats and cloths). This was the first time in my life I had ever eaten the oriyoki way, but the fact that I grew up eating Chinese food with chopsticks helped a lot.

At first, oriyoki was fun, but at the end of the retreat, I was so tired that I began to almost drop my bowls and bang some things together by accident, which was embarrassing. It was at this point that I realized how much continuous awareness is required to perform oriyoki well. Zen is about putting focused awareness on every action one does, and this gets exhausting when you try to do it all day!

Oriyoki was also kind of stressful because of the fact that you have to do everything action (whether eating or laying out the bowls and utensils) at approximately the same time as the others do it (which requires another level of awareness to coordinate with the people around you). Add to this the fact that my legs were already in pain from the zazen while sitting cross-legged again during oriyoki.

By the final oriyoki meal, I was close to snapping and getting up and leaving from the fatigue, accumulated stress, and pain in my legs! But I managed to keep my cool and I finished the ritual in a satisfactory way (although the way I laid out my oriyoki set was pretty ugly and far from perfect).

However, this Zen sangha didn't make every moment of the day ultra-hardcore and strict, thankfully. An hour or two after a meal, they put out leftovers on a table in the coatroom so that people who wanted a bit more to eat could snack on them. So it we weren't only limited to eating oriyoki-style all day long, which helped keep me sane! :P

What surprised me was that this Zen group told me that they usually don't shower during sesshins! I had thought that Zen Buddhists would bathe a lot because Zen is Japanese and the Japanese are usually pretty obsessed with bathing rituals and cleanliness, but these Soto Zen Buddhists told me that bathing "disturbs or changes the mind" in some way and that in Japan, Zen retreat participants bathe only once every 5 days.

The outdoor work (samu) was enjoyable since we were lucky enough to have very nice weather and I got to do some house painting, gardening, and cleaning. The work period was pretty much the same as in any Tibetan Buddhist retreat except that in this Zen retreat, the work period formally started and ended with the beating of big drums.

Now I will describe the heart of the Soto Zen retreat... zazen! :D

I learned much more about Shikantaza and about the attitude one should have while performing Shikantaza at this retreat.

In Soto Zen, it is really imperative not to move and not to change position in the middle of a meditation period (one can do so when it is really necessary, but it is extremely frowned upon). My Zen teacher considers Zen as almost a yogic discipline of holding the meditation posture and staying extremly still while keeping a rigid and totally erect back.

When you are positioning yourself at the beginning of a meditation session, this is like preparing for a sports competition: you should take a few minutes to get your position, cushion, etc. just right, because after you do the final "gassho," you should remain completely still for the remainder of the meditation period! Moving the body changes the mind and this is what Soto Zen tries to avoid. Soto Zen is all about making the mind still by making the body completely still.

Another interesting point my teacher made is that "Zen only has one samadhi: the samadhi of the mind of the Buddha"--meaning that all that matters in Zen is realizing the true nature of one's mind and other pleasant and blissful states of mind don't matter at all.

I fought through a lot of pain during the zazen periods because my legs aren't very flexible. At one point, I stopped caring about the pain and gave in to it, and it bothered me less, although at times, it was still quite a stressful experience to try to hang on until the bell was sounded to signal the end of the meditiaton period. But at other times, I got deeply into meditating, so the pain bothered me much less.

In the middle of longer meditation periods, we did walking meditation, which I found interesting, but a bit awkward: it seemed that no matter how slowly I tried to walk, the person in front of me always managed to walk even more slowly! lol So I kept having to hold back, so I wouldn't get too close to the person in front of me.

My zen teacher made his usual rounds in the meditation hall correcting our postures like a yoga teacher would. He tilted my head more forward, so this showed me that I have a tendency to tilt my head back a bit too much (which I had never noticed before!). His small adjustment made a big difference, and it put a bit less strain on my muscles to sit now that my head wasn't off-balance and leaning back anymore, so I was grateful for this information.

Before this retreat, I had the idea that "Zen is better for modern people than Tibetan Buddhism, because Zen is 'simpler'" but this retreat showed me that when Zen is done in a sincere and traditional way, that it is every bit as exhausting and demanding as any other Buddhist tradition. I guess the reality is that doing Buddhism seriously will never fit in well with fast-paced, materialistic cultures because Buddhism in all its forms represents the complete opposite of the desire to accumulate wealth and power.

And again, I was moved by how the attitude of gratitude seemed to underlie every activity in the Zen retreat: one bows upon entering and leaving the meditation hall, one bows before and after receiving food during oriyoki, one prostrates during some of the chants, one bows to one's Zen teacher, etc. Some people may think that Zen is only about wearing traditional Japanese clothes and looking serious, but any real Zen also contains a lot of gratitude as well as compassion. Sometimes in Zen, the compassion is not obvious because the system of rules can seem very strict and harsh, but at the end of the day, just like in the military, the main goal of one's instructor is to care for his students and to help them improve as much as they can.

Everyone was very kind to me at this Zen retreat, but what was stressful was the pressure not to let the others down by making mistakes or by not doing my best. It was very hard to maintain concentrated awareness on almost all tasks throughout the day. It was like being in the "meditation military" in some ways! hehe But I think it will get easier if I do another retreat, and I admire the other people in my Zen group and I want to be like them, so I will continue doing Zen training with them.

I recommend that anyone who is curious about Zen should try a Zen retreat, even if it is only for a day or two because the essence of Soto Zen comes out the most during a retreat, and one is more likely to receive more profound instruction about Shikantaza at a retreat.

User avatar
Johnny Dangerous
Global Moderator
Posts: 8346
Joined: Fri Nov 02, 2012 10:58 pm
Location: Olympia WA

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by Johnny Dangerous » Wed Oct 05, 2016 10:28 pm

Oriyoki was one of the things that made me realize Zen was not for me, lol. It's an amazing thing though, Thanks for sharing your experience, glad you were able to do this. The quietism and austerity of Soto is definitely a way to separate from worldly things, it didn't do the job for me, but it was quite powerful, and aesthetically off the charts;)

Kinhin was actually my favorite practice from retreats. There is something about the sound of the steps and lack of speech ....
"it must be coming from the mouthy mastermind of raunchy rapper, Johnny Dangerous”

-Jeff H.

User avatar
Posts: 6333
Joined: Sat May 28, 2011 10:50 pm

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by dzogchungpa » Wed Oct 05, 2016 11:15 pm

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Oriyoki was one of the things that made me realize Zen was not for me, lol.
It looks extremely painful. :smile:
There is not only nothingness because there is always, and always can manifest. - Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

User avatar
Posts: 108
Joined: Sat Feb 11, 2012 6:53 pm

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by CapNCrunch » Wed Oct 05, 2016 11:16 pm

Hey - thanks for posting. I really enjoyed reading about your experience. Makes me think of the tantrikas who spend their life in a box they can't quite lay down in, candles on the head while practicing, stories like that!

I grew up in an extremely strict fundamentalist tradition. When that all imploded at the age of 33, I pretty much gave in to my lazy nature. This post was a reminder that focus and exertion can provide a situation where circumstances favorable to real knowledge can manifest.

I'm reminded of the adage of the bow being neither too tight, nor too loose. Also of Ayu Khandro's advice "when tightening, tighten really tight (fixation) and when loosening, become very loose. :)

Again, thanks for taking the time. I enjoyed reading that a lot.
“I say good-bye to hope, but I also say goodbye to hope's disappointment.”

David Levithan

User avatar
Posts: 1334
Joined: Sat Mar 17, 2012 2:50 pm
Location: South Florida, USA

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by seeker242 » Thu Oct 06, 2016 10:16 am

So they didn't hit you with a stick? Aww, that's too bad! :smile:
One should not kill any living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite any other to kill. Do never injure any being, whether strong or weak, in this entire universe!

User avatar
Posts: 2000
Joined: Mon Apr 06, 2009 9:04 pm
Location: Europe

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by Luke » Fri Oct 07, 2016 5:49 am

seeker242 wrote:So they didn't hit you with a stick? Aww, that's too bad! :smile:
No, they didn't. My Zen teacher walked around with the kyosaku only once during one morning meditation session.

In Soto Zen, it is often difficult for a new person to know what is going on because we all sit facing away from each other for the most part and we aren't supposed to move, so I wasn't always turning around to see what was going on.

So my teacher had already walked past me before I even knew what was going on. Maybe next time I'll try it... :)

User avatar
Posts: 2000
Joined: Mon Apr 06, 2009 9:04 pm
Location: Europe

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by Luke » Sun Oct 09, 2016 11:41 am

Another thing my Zen teacher said is that there are 3 essential things to do at any Zen retreat:
1) to maintain the posture (keep a straight spine whenever possible, not just when doing zazen)
2) to follow the rules
3) to be totally free
(on the surface, this seems to contradict #2, but perhaps he meant to do activities which don't violate the rules in a totally free way...)

It seems that this style of Soto Zen uses the posture as a tool to focus the mind's awareness at all times, just like focusing on the image of one's guru or yidam can be used to maintain awareness throughout the day in Vajrayana.

User avatar
Posts: 2000
Joined: Mon Apr 06, 2009 9:04 pm
Location: Europe

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by Luke » Sun Oct 09, 2016 11:51 am

This was also the first Buddhist retreat I had done in years where I also slept there. (I had done other retreats in the past where I drove there early in the morning and went back home at night because the centers in question didn't have enough space for people to sleep there.)

It was really a beautiful feeling sleeping at this Zen center under the watchful gaze of a giant Bodhidharma painting on the wall which was gently illuminated by the soft glow of light coming up from downstairs. Perhaps this is how young devoutly Christian children feel the night before Christmas... :D hehe

Even though I didn't know most of the people at the retreat, I trusted them and felt totally safe, even when they walked back and forth past my sleeping bag at night. It was the first time in a long time where I had slept somewhere where I felt totally safe. My apartment is near a bar, so there are frequently drunks yelling at night and sometimes even confused drunks come and knock on my door, so I was free from all that nonsense here. :)

The peaceful, joyful feeling I had sleeping at this Zen center made me think of this verse from the Dhammapada:

"Whether in a forest,
a town, or open country,
delightful is the dwelling place
of one now fully free."

(verse 98)

User avatar
Former staff member
Posts: 6175
Joined: Mon Jan 18, 2010 5:29 pm
Location: Baltimore, MD

Re: My first Zen retreat

Post by kirtu » Mon Oct 10, 2016 4:48 am

Luke wrote:Another thing my Zen teacher said is that there are 3 essential things to do at any Zen retreat:
1) to maintain the posture (keep a straight spine whenever possible, not just when doing zazen)
2) to follow the rules
3) to be totally free
(on the surface, this seems to contradict #2, but perhaps he meant to do activities which don't violate the rules in a totally free way...)
Congratulations on your retreat.

#3 doesn't contradict #2.

Kirt's Tibetan Translation Notes

"Even if you practice only for an hour a day with faith and inspiration, good qualities will steadily increase. Regular practice makes it easy to transform your mind. From seeing only relative truth, you will eventually reach a profound certainty in the meaning of absolute truth."
Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

"Only you can make your mind beautiful."
HH Chetsang Rinpoche

Post Reply

Return to “Zen”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 21 guests