Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training

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 https://www.mcmedicalnj.com/ambien-online 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,


6 Thoughts on “Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training

  1. I remember seeing a documentary about a Zen Sesshin in Japan.

    Unlike the North American Zen variant, students were hit with sticks when they gave wrong answers to the teacher (hard enough to hurt, gently enough not to leave a mark).

  2. welcome back! It sounds like you had an interesting time, and I thought your post was very humorous! It does however, not inspired me to rush off to enlist, or to become a Buddhist 😉

  3. Fun blog. Perhaps you have to have been there to get the humor.

    The serious question is while the deconstruction methods are similar, the two projects — military brainwashing and zen rebooting — are very different in their goals. The military wants to deconstruct the self image we inhabit like a house in order to convert the recruit to a new government sponsored and approved self image. The Buddha project is to deconstruct the self image over and over again until the person can say along with Buddha, “I see you, oh House-builder; the rafters are broken the ridge beam is shattered, You will build no more.”

  4. Gregory,

    You got what I was trying to subtly imply… both environments create a ritual “container” in which deep identity work can occur… but the object of that identity work is radically different between the two…

    Thank you!

  5. I’ve never been to a Sesshin but I have been in Basic Training and to a Christian retreat. I notice commonalities amongst all three. The item “You must always be on time, but you don’t have a watch.” especially brought back memories of both Basic and the retreat.

  6. I really enjoyed this post. It’s funny how reading things about BCT provides moments when I miss BCT just a little. While I’ve not experienced Sesshin, I do agree with your BCT comments, and now feel as though I’m somewhat familiar with the surface procedures of Sesshin experience (although I do realize I truly know nothing about it).

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