Sesshin means “gathering the mind.” It is an intense, completely silent meditation retreat. We observe the basic sesshin precautions of silence and inward focus for the duration of the retreat. The Village Zendo’s summer sesshins are held at The Grail retreat center in upstate New York.
Please read through this set of guidelines that will make your retreat experience smoother. A silent Zen retreat may seem daunting at first, depending on your previous experience. We’ll be getting up very early and spending lots of time in silence and meditation. We will have some breaks and downtime, but not a lot—this is about sticking to the (somewhat rigorous) schedule as a practice, and working together to provide a space for intense meditation and introspection. Everyone will be observing what we call “noble silence” for the week. This really, truly, actually means we will not be speaking unless absolutely necessary, and this applies to time spent in your rooms and in common areas.
For newcomers the rules and rituals we follow may seem strange, but the schedule is time tested, and made to make the experience powerful and real. Our practice leaders and teachers may look stern in their black robes, (a few shaved heads too) but they are truly kind and focused on making the retreat beautiful and profound for everyone. They will answer any questions and help you to get comfortable in meditation and with the whole retreat schedule.
Here are some more specifics on what to do, what to expect, and what to pack.
- Be comfortable during meditation! Use a chair, stool, cushions, or whatever you need. You may have some discomfort, but meditation is a deep experience, not an endurance test.
- If you have a question, always ask for support or clarification. Roshi Enkyo O’Hara and all of the teachers are available to discuss any concerns.
- During sesshin there is no unnecessary talking or social courtesies.
- No unnecessary looking around (keep eyes down at a 45° angle). Walk mindfully with hands in shashu (folded with your right hand enveloping your left fist, held at waist level).
- No unassigned reading, cellphones, tablets, email, music devices, headphones, or other distractions.
Be On Time For All Activities
- Be very aware of time. There will be posted schedules, and they’re important to follow. You’ll need a watch—you won’t have your cellphone to tell you the time!
- Speaking of time, you’ll be getting up very early, usually around 5 a.m. The good news is you’ll be going to bed early after a long day of practice. Bring your own alarm clock. Earplugs are also good to have, to guarantee a night’s sleep despite snoring roommates.
- Be at your seat 10 minutes before dawn zazen, and 5 minutes before other sitting periods begin. Because zazen is a silent and orderly practice, you will be much happier if you’re settled in your seat early. It gets really awkward if you’re late!
- Be seated in the zendo by the end of the second round of the han (the click-clacking instrument used to signal the time for zazen).
- When the work leader begins hitting the moktok (another clacking instrument) it means you have 10 minutes before work period begins each morning; come to the work meeting at least 5 minutes before it starts.
- Clothes should be in good condition; in dark, subdued tones; with minimal patterns, logos, etc. The Grail retreat center has no air conditioning and can be very hot, so bring clothes that are light, while also modest and non-distracting. During actual meditation periods in the Zendo there are no sleeveless shirts or shorts allowed. Sitting robes are encouraged but not required.
- There will be a period of work practice each morning, so be prepared to do heavy cleaning in the clothes you wear to the work meeting.
- Bring slip-on shoes for walking outside.
- Bring clothes for yoga.
- Maintain personal hygiene.
- Do not wear perfumes or strong scents.
Other Items To Bring
- Your own toiletries, including soap.
- An alarm clock and watch.