During the Zen Rohatsu Sesshin (7 ½ Day Zen Meditation Retreat in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment day) that I attended this past week, I began to notice some eerie similarities to my multiple experiences of Military Basic Training. Though this was my first Sesshin at the Zen temple where I study, I have been in a military basic training environment not less than five times in my life, and that does not include the UU Worship services I lead for the Basic Trainees at the Great Lakes Naval Station.
I am sharing these observations of similarities and surface differences between Sesshin and Military Basic Training, in the hopes that it might inspire thought… Sesshin was a wonderful experience, and I may write about it more in the future. But this is what I have to share right now… other than saying it is good to be home.
Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training:
You wake up at O’ Dark Thirty for no apparent reason.
There is a lot of “hurry up” so you can “sit down and wait”.
You must always be on time, but you don’t have a watch.
You spend a lot of time with people you are not supposed to talk to.
The simplest things become very important.
You are told by the teacher/drill instructor that you are wrong, a lot.
Your body is in pain much of the time.
You eat in silence, and there is a ritual for washing your own Oryoki bowls / mess kit.
You always seem to have kitchen clean-up duty.
Sleeping, eating, and a hot drink are more important than you ever thought they could be.
You stand, sit, walk, and eat in unison.
Every once in awhile someone shouts “ATTENTION!” even when you are already paying attention.
You are told that the self-identity that you have spent years crafting has issues, and sesshin/basic will help with this problem.
Cleaning becomes a ritual act.
There is little contact with the outside world.
When you leave, everything looks very different than when you arrived.
If you stick it out, it can change your life.
If there is ever a moment that you have nothing to do, you seem to fall immediately to sleep.
You realize you can and do sleep even when awake.
At some point during Sesshin/Basic, you notice that your perspective on who you are and the world around you has shifted.
In the worst of moments, something or someone reminds you that you volunteered for this.
Though its good to be home when you get home, you begin to miss Sesshin/Basic a little.
Ways that Zen Sesshin and Military Basic Training seem different, but are really the same (the Relative and Absolute):
In Sesshin you move by the bells. In Basic you move by the bugle.
In Sesshin you line up to see the Zen Teacher. In Basic you line up to see the Drill Sergeant.
In Sesshin you want to go home after the first day. In Basic you want to go home after the first hour.
In Sesshin you eat whatever is in your bowl. In Basic your buddy eats whatever is in your mess kit/MRE when you are not looking.
In Sesshin, you face the altar and bow. In Basic you face the flag and salute.
In Sesshin you keep your eyes down so as not to intrude on anyone. In Basic you keep your eyes down so as not to challenge anyone.
In Sesshin you try not to move while sitting Zazen. In Basic you better not move while standing at attention.
In Sesshin you try and let go of the constructed self. In Basic the government constructs a new self for you.
In Sesshin private moments are abundant. In Basic, private moments are scarce.
In Sesshin when gruel is served, it is called gruel. In Basic, when gruel is served it is usually called something in French.
In Sesshin, you pay a little money for the privilege. In Basic you are privileged the government pays you a little money.
In Sesshin, you try to limit your movements. In Basic your movements are limited by others.
In Sesshin, you get to go home when it is over. In Basic you go off to another controlled school when you graduate, and start over again.
For a deeper, less tongue-in-cheek reflection on the sesshin, follow the hyperlinked road to here.
Yours in faith,