I’ve a got a new lease on sesshin. Since we have a baby now, Lauren and Calliope leave Tassajara for the sesshins. My teacher suggested this, it’s what she did when she had children living here. It’s great for the three of us. Lauren doesn’t feel isolated out of the schedule, Calliope doesn’t have to interpret all our silent eyes cast down, and I’ve been getting to sit sesshin in whole hearted fashion. I feel young again!
We sat two sesshin this practice period, a 9 day and 7 day Rohatsu. Rohatsu is the celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment and most Zen temples sit from December 1st to December 8th. To think we’re taking our seats with thousands of others all over the world!
Our first 9 day was really “good” for me. It’s hard to talk about sesshin in conventional terms. I think they’re all good, eventually, when time has passed or I hold them as concept, like “Running is good for you” while acknowledging sometimes I have a good run and sometimes I have a bad run, get injured maybe. But the act as a practice always comes up “good.” Or as Suzuki Roshi would avoid the term, “A thing to do.”
Rohatsu was not quite a bad sesshin, but it was rough. The energy in the valley was quite charged. For many students, this was their last Tassajara sesshin and the emotions were raw around that. For some other students it’s a mandatory foray that they might not be up for. Moving into a Zen temple is like becoming a professional athlete; what you used to do for fun you now must do if want to continue sleeping and eating in your current abode. Football players most go through that, like, “Man, I just want to watch some football on Sunday.” I don’t really watch football, except for The Saints, because they need all the support they can get.
For senior staff, Rohatsu can get quite busy as we’re all headed out for vacation during the interim between practice periods. That came up for me. I’m sitting there thinking, “What if the pipes freeze while I’m gone, who will know how to turn off the propane if there’s a fire, and who will equalize the batteries for our solar array?” I had to sign out of zazen and go address those issues. A good storm blew through-a pine apple express- and we got 2.5” of rain or so. In our burn scarred terrain, flash flood warnings were in effect, so I spent a good 10 hours digging out culverts and making water bars. Afterward, cold and wet, I took a shower and passed out at 6pm, missing the last two periods of zazen. I stayed up the night before. That’s a tradition a lot of people observe during rohatsu to reenact Buddha’s night under the Bodhi tree. Usually, I’m just fine- the digging really whooped me.
But the hardest thing was the same hardest thing of my whole practice: What is shikantaza?
Shikantaza is the flagship of our Buddhist practice. Dogen wrote about it a bunch. Here are his instructions in Fukanzazengi, or his Universal Recommendation of Zazen.
But that’s not answering my question, which arises like a deep growl, what is shikantaza? WHAT is shikantaza!?
The night before sesshin I was reading Okamura’s Realizing Genjo Koan and he went on a little tirade, saying shikantaza is not this and not that, but the thing that stuck was, “Shikantaza is not counting our breaths.”
Suzuki Roshi taught both shikantaza and breath counting. Or you might say he didn’t distinguish between them, but I can’t say he said that. I do know he on occasion suggested that students count their breaths and admonished the students when they thought not counting the breaths was better. But I’m not mixed up like that. Here’s what I know: I love counting my breaths and I shudder at the thought of a whole sesshin of not counting my breaths. I also dabble heavily in Shamatha, which, whoa, IS LEARNING MEDITATION! So, inspired by Okamura, on I went determined not to count my breaths.
Mostly, I suffered more than usual. Thoughts that usually sound like distant waves were battering about. It was almost like a classroom where the teacher has left and someone cuts of ShiShiBodai’s head to see if milk will squirt out and Subu tears out her eye and many jeweled peaks start lazer beaming out of the middle of everyone’s forehead. But, there was at least 5 minutes where I thought okay:
Is the self
Of the self
Then enter Beyonce.
Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment, Y’all.