Meditation is something you can do everywhere and only has something good to offer to you. You can do the same with a Zazen Sesshin Meditation retreat. This article derives from personal experience from our participation in two Sesshin Meditation events so far. Each Sesshin meditation event lasted 3 days.
We didn’t have to travel for these, but we clearly understood why many travel to different locations worldwide to participate in 3, 5, 10 days of Zazen meditation.
From my point of view, participating in a meditation Sesshin can be a life-changing event. This is because it can affect how you start perceiving things in and out of you.
It is not easy to transmit the whole things inside a person during meditation or a Sesshin. Words can’t describe it, as it is a direct experience case.
When things change all around us, becoming mindful may be the best gift we give to ourselves.
What does Zazen mean?
In a few words, it is sitting meditation. That is all if we like to describe it in short. It is considered the heart of Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhist practice. In some Zazen schools, they use koans, in others they don’t.
So, you sit by letting all things happening (thoughts included) to pass without distrcting you. Well, eventually that is what can happen.
What is Zen Sesshin Meditation?
Sesshin means “touching the heart-mind”. It is a period of intensive meditation, done in a Zen monastery, but also in a class or area where people can practice together, sleep and eat for a period of days. It can last from a few days to many.
So, Zazen (sitting meditation) happens in a Sesshin.
How Many Hours does Sesshin Meditation last?
The sitting meditation part lasts many hours per day. The only breaks are during breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sleeping at night. The sessions per sitting last as long as the head instructor sets. It can be 30 minutes or much more. Between sittings, there are walking parts (Kinhin) that are also done mindfully.
Those who can sit in the lotus position, others with half-lotus, others simply crossing the legs, and for those who can’t do any of these, they can even sit on a special chair or any chair with a back vertical to the ground.
They are part of the practice. In fact, everything happening in a Sesshin (sitting or not) is part of the Sesshin. So it is great when you notice and are aware of each step you take and what it includes.
For example a sitting session can start at 9:00 to 9:30, then doing Kinhin for 10 minutes, then sitting again for 30 minutes, then Kinhin, and so on.
It may sound “not too much” but doing one after the other is challenging for your mind and your body.
How do you Sit in a Sesshin for Meditation?
You sit on a zafu (pillow) that usually resides on another larger flat pillow base, named zabuton. In our Sesshin, I noticed that the head monk was using a traditional Zen low sitting bench. So I tried that, and it was a bit painful for sitting like that for hours.
I prefer to sit on a tall zafu.
This video shows much more information about proper sitting.
My Zazen Sesshin Experience
I had the pleasure to participate in a Sesshin that lasted 3 days. That was my second time.
I used to practice Ashtanga yoga back then and Zazen was part of the before/after yoga classes. However, I do practice Zazen at home. Yet, Sesshin is a very intense experience as it is not the “usual” 20-30 minutes sitting once per day.
You do that for hours and hours (with 10 minute and lunch/dinner breaks), every day.
Everything is done with specific rituals and there is a reason for that, that is not related to any religion stuff but with the mind and -one can say- with spirituality.
In this post I will try to transfer a part of the whole practice spirit and how this reflects in various parts of our daily life.
Each point mention here has a cumulative value to the other points. Thus, you can experience many things during a Sesshin, and the sum of them can be mind-blowing realization events.
How to Eat in a Sesshin?
It may sound paradoxical to start with eating, but mindful eating is one of the most neglected things in our daily lives. We can look at the ingredients, type, and time we allocate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and record or wonder if that is useful. Is eating making our life better as we eat?
Sessin Utensils You Need
Each participant brings 3 small (single color) plain bowls (Oryoki) and chopsticks (Japanese: Hashi, or Chinese: Kuàizi) or -if you can’t handle them- a spoon and a fork. A knife is not present, neither is needed. These bowls are stored inside the other, with the hashi, all packed inside a towel/cloth.
The bowl meaning of Oryoki is “the bowl that contains the appropriate amount or just enough.” This set was the only one we found online in the marketplace.
The whole set is present behind your zabuton. So, you eat, clean your bowl and place it there until the next lunch.
Sesshion Ritual Before Eating
A good reminder is that all in a Sesshin is best to happen with awareness of what you are actually doing, by being present.
All eat together on a large table. There is a designated cook or a tem that has the responsibility to prepare all emals, but also participates in Zazen meditation.
The sitting area and all areas are swiped and cleaned before every single meal.
When everything is ready, each moves their zafu pillow forward and sits. Each sits facing another.
Each participant places their dining set in front of them, as it is (meaning all wrapped in the cloth). When all sit (that means promptly and quietly), the head of the Sesshin (usually a Zen monk), instructs to start reading a Sutra or another text, that its purpose is to bring the attention right to what is about to happen (meal).
It is a “reading” but if you do it in a conscious way it brings your attention to the present moment, as much as you allow it. After that, a type of Eucharist is read for what we about to enjoy.
When each meal ends, the same happens. We thank for the meal.
The before the meal ritual takes around 2 minutes. If your mind is not jumping around much, you may experience relatively calmness. In a non-Buddhist analogy, the whole process is like the common pray many do before their meals in the West. It seems to work as a phase where we left behind our thoughts for things we did or about to do and focus on the thing in front of us.
That alone, letting things go, has an actual calming effect.
Eating during a Sesshin
You may think “what is there to say about eating”? Well, read along.
The Zen monk unfolds his towel and his bowls while reciting a phrase. All others do the same. Each bowl you have, is placed next to each other, along with “cutlery”. Each bowl from the 3, is smaller than the other. That has more than a practical reason for the eating experience.
Anyway, the phrase chanting proceeds and food is about to come to the table.
The cooking and serving team place the platters with the food next to the head Zen monk. The platters are usually 3 with different food and are placed on a single cloth.
The Zen monk puts food in his bowl.
The first persons sitting at the left and right of him, drag the cloth (with the platters on them) in front of them and they too serve food on themselves.
Then, the ones next to them do the same, and so on until all are served up to the last one. Each person takes as much quantity they want from each food. Usually, the largest of the bowls, is used for the food you want to eat more from.
Nobody starts eating, before all put food on their bowls. The chanting continuous until all have food in their bowls.
When all have food in their bowls, the Zen monk starts eating and everyone starts. It is best that all are concentrated and eat with their mind on the eating process. When the Zen monk finishes eating, everyone must stop eating.
That may sound weird when you read it but in the context of all things happening right there, it is not a hasty process.
If the head Zen monk wants more to eat, he claps two pieces of wood together (hyōshigi). That means that the whole bowl-filling process starts all over, and if you are still hungry, you can take more from any food.
Typically, the monk is aware of the speed with participants eat and adjusts his own, so all have the time to eat. But that may not always be the norm.
A nice point here is that when you eat while being aware of the process (just eating), there is no “slow” or “fast” way of eating. It happens naturally. (Over) thinking on if you eat fast/slow, or being anxious about eating fast can happen, but the amazing thing is that due to the whole process, you have the opportunity to notice all that mind fuzz.
The whole thing is not aiming to make you nervous, but a good start is to see what makes you nervous. After that, more things can be revealed.
It works nicely if you put just the amount of food you want in the 1st round. After completing that and if the monk instructs a 2nd round of eating, you have the time to observe and decide if you want more or not.
Isn’t such an important thing in our times, where people may sit on a table and eat in an unconscious manner ending up overeating?
Anyway, all things top when the monk uses the hyōshigi clappers.
On each eating round, a small bowl is passed from one person to the other, where each places in a small portion of their food. That food is considered an offer to Buddha.
We are not going to open a discussion about Buddha or the nature of Buddha in the post, but the whole process of that offerring is way far to offer food to some deity. There is a different symbolism for the whole thing.
So, you ate and now is the time to do your dishes.
Cleaning the Zazen Dishes
That alone can be -for many- the most mind-intriguing thing they can encounter. We will explain the why and the process.
So, you finished eating and in front of you, you have 3 bowls and your chopsticks (or spoon and fork) that are “dirty” with food stains and residuals.
However, if you contemplate on that a bit, they are not dirty. What you see in the bowls and “cutlery” is part of the food you just ate, right? Here is how it goes.
The cook brings hot water in the same order and manner food was served.
Each person pours hot water in the largest of their own bowls and with their finger swipes everything from the bowl until is clean. So, here is another reason to have clean hands before sitting at the table.
The water from the 1st bowl is then poured ino the smaller one and the same process is followed. Then you do the same with the smallest one.
Then you drink the whole sum of water from your bowls!
Wait, what? Sounds disgusting? Why? Isn’t the water that contains the food you just ate? Was your food disgusting while you were eating it?
So, nothing is wasted. That is an important concept to understand from that ritual.
It is a fact that the first time I did that I was looking to the whole oily water with surprise. My mind was telling me that this was dirty, as we do use to throw away any food residuals from our plates, right? But it is not. It is just the food we ate but in another form.
Think of that for a while. The same food in another form. Our mind is accustomed to picture that as something not to consume, since that is how we grow up.
That can be a very challenging moment for many.
Each own uses the cloth to take the remaining moist from their bowls.
Then a wet cloth passes across the table where everyone uses it to clean their eating spot on the table. In that way, the whole table cleans up, everyone packs their bowls and cutlery away, zafu’s go back to their place.
A one-hour break follows each meal, and in some Sesshin that take days to complete, some works are also done in a silent and mindful (as much as possible) manner.
What do you Learn During Eating in Sesshin?
Well, one can say, that you learn the same things as in not-eating in Sesshin. The whole dining process envelopes the same points one experiences during the whole sitting practice of Zazen in the Sesshin.
Each person realizes X or Z things. There is no “must.” Here are some of the things I noticed while eating in such a manner.
Enjoy what you do: Be there for what you do each moment. That is very relaxing and a very pleasant experience on its own. Small rituals have their role in getting you “in the zone.” Notice when you have drifted away from thoughts others than related with the thing you do right now.
With respect to all things: Start from the food. Whatever we took from its natural environment and we use it to fill in with energy, is good to be respected. Doing that thing with the bowls can provide many insights on how we deal with nature, resources, even recycling, or how we deal with ourselves and prefabricated conditions of our mind.
Offer & Gratitude: Giving back to others from what was given to you not only cultivate non-attachment. It can cultivate gratitude by recognizing that we are all connected in some way, and we receive and pass something to others anyway in every aspect of our life. Having gratitude for nature or the universe or God or whatever someone can call can cultivate connectedness, tolerance, and compassion. The gratitude can also be understood in the food preparation process, where specific people allocate their time and resources so others can eat. There is a ring that connects all things happening every single moment.
Balance and Measure: One -through mindful eating- can understand the meaning of balance in life. How excess can cause issues, in the same way, less causes issues to everyone and everything. One of the most popular things known from ancient Greeks is “Pan Metron Ariston”, which -in free translation- means “to have balance in all things”. That and “Know Thyself” are the most prominent ones and really close to the Buddhist teachings.
Allow Time For…: Allocating time to i.e. digestion, is important. We can ponder on that during our fast and furious times. Do we allow time to digest, to heal properly, to enjoy, or even to mourn, or do we simply cover things up and resist things happening and to the natural rhythm of things as they happen?
One can ask, do I have to attend a Sesshin for experiencing all such? Well, maybe no, but such an event brings all these things in one place to live and experience them in a way that gives a range of results.
If you reread the whole eating process, you will notice that what we actually describe in terms of actions was no more than sitting and eating in a -as much as possible for each one- mindful manner. However, small rituals help with that.
What are the Benefits of Meditation?
I don’t know how to describe that. But, I am sure that you’ve read plenty of information online or in books about that. Serious academic and clinical research started quite some time ago.
I am sure that some of that information can provide details but nothing (even the biggest book or website) can give you the understanding you get by practicing meditation.
For some, it is a mind-blowing experience that opens up their inner world to their understanding and the understanding of the world around them.
For others, seeing what they are may not be of their like, but seeing what we are seems to lead to loving us and others, and as such, it may lead to compassion towards others, at least.
Some Great Books I Read on Meditation
This is just a small suggestion list. Most of the books may have something “meaningful” to say, kind of repeat the same things with different words. That is not bad, as all people don’t understand things in the same way. Many variables influence that. I got these books from Amazon and read them, and each link is an affiliate one.
By the way, I am not a Buddhist (if that has any value for anyone).
- Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through The Storm, by Thich Nhat Hanh
- How To Fight, by Thich Nhat Hanh
- The Book of Joy, by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
- How To Practise: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by Dalai Lama
- The Little Book Of Buddhism, by Dalai Lama
Should Beginners Participate in a Sesshin Meditation Retreat?
I am not sure what “beginners” means. Maybe for someone who has never practiced something similar before, it can be challenging. But challenging doesn’t necessarily mean something “bad”.
Each person perceives challenges in a different way and all perceptions are acceptable in the process of learning.
For some that can’t sit for long, it may involve some discomfort too, but that is part of the process of an experience. For example, you can’t eat only chocolate cake, right? Some lemons are needed too. Eating only cake will cause discomfort after some point.
So, it is not easy to put a label on something experiential.
I would suggest that people who want to explore a Sesshin experience take a 2-3 days Sesshin meditation. Maybe in a retreat in a nice place if they can or in their city.
In Sesshin events, the rule is no-calls, no-internet. It is something you do for yourself and not as part of work holidays or something similar.
I hope you liked this post. If you have Sesshin meditation experiences, we would love to hear about them.