December / January Journal » Urban Sesshin
An interview with Steven Kosho Theberge

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

True Expression: What is an Urban Sesshin? Besides taking place in the city, what makes it different from the Village Zendo's Summer and Winter retreats?

Steven Kosho Theberge: The idea of Urban Sesshin has been a part of our practice and our lineage for quite a few years. The format has its early roots in the "Street Retreats" that Roshi Bernie Glassman used to lead in Manhattan, but our current model draws on the work of the Zen Peacemakers, which for the past 25 years has been developing some really exciting ideas and projects looking at social action and Zen practice. Of course, the flavor and structure of the retreat has evolved over the years through Roshi Enkyo O'Hara's guidance and attention.

The location of Urban Sesshin actually makes a substantial difference in the experience – I would say that rooting our practice in the urban landscape is the defining element of Urban Sesshin. The week becomes a real process of submersion — we jump headfirst into our lives here in the city and that changes the whole dynamic and energy of the experience. The lines between our individual practice and our collective practice become very blurred.

The other defining characteristic is the format and schedule. It has looked different over the years, as the scale and emphasis changed. This past fall, we tried out a whole bunch of new ideas — centrally, we used the "Three Pure Precepts" of the Zen Peacemaker Order as our guiding principles, meaning that the theme and the format of each day was based on one of the pure precepts — Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Compassionate Action. These three precepts became the lens through which we collectively explored the theme of "Environmental Justice & Engaged Zen Practice".

So, for example, the first day's theme was "Not Knowing," which we used to study and discuss the ideas and concepts behind the idea of environmental justice and their relationship to Zen practice and the teachings of the Buddha.

TE: There was a time when it looked like we wouldn't have an Urban Sesshin this year; you were one of those most vocally in favor of it, and you led the effort to organize it. Why is Urban Sesshin so important?

Kosho: There are so many reasons why Urban Sesshin is an important part of our practice at Village Zendo, but to me I think the most exciting aspect is the opportunity to strengthen our sangha, and by extension, our sangha's relationship with the city at large. The highlight of this fall for me was the day we spent working on the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. There was something so tangibly clear and right about the act of working together, of getting wet and covered in cement that day. It really felt like we were moving our practice off the cushion.

Another one of the interesting outcomes of the retreat was that it helped spark a conversation within the sangha about the nature of "compassionate action" and what our community's relationship is to engaged practice. The last thing I would say is that the more relaxed and informal structure and the emphasis on group study allowed for the chance to get to know one another in a whole new way.

TE: I remember talking with you once about social action at the Zendo. You thought social action, besides being worthwhile in its own right, might make the Zendo more visible and attractive to young people. Did the Urban Sesshin accomplish that?

Kosho: In many ways, this fall was an experiment — we tried a number of new things, and on the whole I think we were pretty successful. Although this Urban Sesshin did not attract a large number of new or younger people, we did have very solid and engaged participation from our sangha. I think having the community involved and invested in the project helps build a sturdy foundation for this kind of work to continue at Village Zendo, and I'm really excited to see how we develop and expand the project over the next few years. I think that as we do, we will see many more opportunities to build bridges to new communities — I certainly still think that this is a great way to bring new people into the Zendo.

TE: What's next for you?

Kosho: In February, I'll be leaving my job at the War Resisters League, and heading out to California for about 6 months. I'm be taking part in the Farm Apprenticeship Program at Green Gulch Zen Center right outside San Francisco. The apprenticeship is a residential program that's a combination of practice, study, and training in organic farming.

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