Gone sitting

Gone sitting

A few words on going to a Zen retreat.

James Ishmael Ford
oryoki bowl ink illustration

© floating ink (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

© floating ink (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


I don’t usually broadcast that I’m going to a Zen retreat. As an old Zen hand I’m reluctant to tell non-Zen friends, because when I do, too often the response is something along the line of, “Boy, I could use some downtime myself.” Me, too. But that is far from a description of a Zen retreat.

My spouse Jan begins preparing a couple of days ahead, picking out suitable clothing, cleaning the oriyoki, traditional ritual bowls and instruments for meals, and perhaps upping her regular sitting practice a little bit. Me, I wait until it’s time to go, throw some underwear and my Zen robes into a bag, hope I remember my oriyoki, and go. After forty years, it isn’t a big deal; it’s just what I do.

In my Zen community a retreat features nine hours of holding still, sitting perched on a small black pillow resting on a larger flat pillow on the floor, with my back as straight as possible, my hands in my lap, and my eyes falling to the floor a foot or two ahead. We don’t traditionally close our eyes in Zen. As one teacher once said, we like to see where we’re going. That nine hours is broken into half-hour segments separated by ten-minute follow-the-leader walking meditations, and two- to three-hour blocks broken by meals, liturgy, and brief breaks. Talking is held to a bare minimum, and people are asked not to read or write or use social media. These retreats run on for three or five or seven days.

We call these sesshin, a Japanese word that roughly translates as “to touch the heart/mind.” The Korean term for this kind of retreat is Yong Maeng Jong Jin, which I gather literally means something like “intrepid sitting,” but is colloquially translated as “leaping like a tiger while sitting.” The whole thing is designed to rub our noses in reality. And it can hurt. Physically. And, worse, mentally.

Since I was appointed a spiritual director in the Zen traditions, a large part of my retreat is spent sitting in a small room, still sitting on pillows on the floor, but with a series of people coming in, sitting on a pillow facing me, and visiting briefly: a minute or two, rarely five. It is all focused. It is intense. Sometimes we discuss the practice. Sometimes a person brings a koan, a difficult question drawn out of Zen’s Chinese heritage that points to the fundamental matter of life and death, of form and emptiness, of who we really are in our lived lives. Always people bring in their hearts. It used to be, when sitting in the main meditation hall with my friends, if my mind wandered it was my problem. Now, when my mind detours into those places my mind likes to visit and revisit, I’m stealing attention from someone who has committed some serious time to the matter of heart, of their heart, and so I feel pushed to hold my attention even more focused than in past years.

So, why do this? What possible reason is there to block out three or five or seven days, usually vacation time, to sit crowded with thirty or forty people in a tightly regimented schedule of meditation and liturgy and meals, with no private time and more physical discomfort or actual pain than one encounters pretty much in the whole of the rest of the year?

The word Zen ultimately means “meditation.” And Zen is a school of Buddhism dedicated to a certain style of meditation. The technical term in Japanese is shikantaza, which roughly translates as “just sitting.” For me it can be summarized as “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.” Koans push one toward that same place of paying attention.

The underlying premise is that this ordinary world, when we really attend, presents everything we need to heal our broken hearts and to find a moral compass and to live lives. But we don’t. There is too much distracting us from the present moment, too much going on, too much noise rising in our hearts, and instead we live distracted lives, never fully noticing.

The universe is always offering a gift: a moment of presence, where in fact, everything is presented. All I have to do is stop and notice.

Somehow, among all the stupid things I’ve done in and with my life, I’ve learned that one small lesson: to accept the gift. So, a couple of times a year, I pack it in, I stop what I’m doing, and I join with friends dedicated to some serious practice of presence.

Some could even call it a practice of the presence of God. Certainly true, if like me, you find the sacred as the ordinary.

Nothing less.

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