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

Realizations from Sesshin

Now that I have been home from my first Zen Sesshin for about a week, I feel I am able to write about the experience. I have tried to stay out of my discursive mind as much as possible this week, although that is challenging when you have final academic papers to finish. The Sesshin (both the cost and the time away) was my Christmas present from my wife. In particular, this was a Rohatsu Sesshin, in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment day often celebrated on December 8th.

I thought I would begin my article by some description about what it was like, and end with a few of the early observations that I have come to through the experience.

Our days would begin at 4:30 in the morning, and we would begin our first sitting session at 5am. From 5-6:30 there we would sit Zazen and have morning Dokkusan interviews with the teacher, Joshin Roshi, the Ven. Robert Althouse.

My time in dokkusan this sesshin was beginning the work of koan study. Koans are Zen riddles that lead one towards a deeper understanding of the experience of your enlightened self. I correctly answered two koans, and am working on a third. My current koan is “How do you stop the fighting across the river?”… one that has profound implications for me as a future military chaplain.

After the morning sitting, we would perform a chanting service in honor of the lineage and the Buddha, that included reciting the Heart Sutra in Japanese or English and the Identity of Relative and Absolute sutra in English. One of my profound realizations occurred during this service, as we were chanting the entire lineage of my school of Zen, tracing all the way back to the Buddha. More on that in a bit.

After the service, we would then eat breakfast in silence and ritual chanting, using Japanese Oriyoki bowls. All of our meals were in this style, with a ritual for opening and setting out our individual places, eating in silent unison, chanting, and washing our bowls and making an offering of the wash water. One of the answers to a koan came to me during one such meal.

After breakfast, we would then do some work practice, known as samu. I fixed some chairs, did some electrical work, some general cleaning, and some other repairs on bathrooms and windows. It was amazing how important samu became to me, almost the center of my day.

We would then sit some more, have a Dharma talk (sermon), another chanting service, and then the same meal ritual for lunch. After lunch would be an hour break, followed by more sitting, some practice of art (I did some story writing and played my recorder), and then a sutra reading, followed by a ritual dinner. Then more sitting and Dokkusan, and then bed by 9:30… only to be back up at 4:30 to do it all again. The sesshin was for 7 ½ days.

This leads to the first realization for me… in that the structure was somewhat like basic training, which I wrote about earlier this week. I have come to realize that the purpose for having such a structured environment when you are doing deep identity work is that you need this kind of container when you are intentionally working to question or re-form self-identity. As so much of pastoral counseling often centers around identity, this importance of having a ritual container is a profound realization for me.

My second realization generic sumatriptan succinate injection comes from an experience. During one Zazen period, I found myself with tears streaming down my cheeks. When I sat down to think about it afterward, I realized that the emotion I was feeling was not sadness, but yearning. In his comments at the end of the sesshin, Roshi spoke of how Zen has over the centuries always adapted to the cultural contexts in which it found itself, and that this was what was occurring in American Zen right now… and that this adaption sometimes leads to a form of Zen that may look almost nothing like its predecessor.

When he said that, it hit me that what I was yearning for was not a Japanese Zen spiritual practice, but rather an inherently Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. I want a deep and abiding spiritual practice that looks towards our own tradition, not those of another culture. One that learns from the wisdom of Buddhism, but is not inherently Buddhist, but rather Unitarian Universalist. As I was chanting the ancestors of my Zen school (all 87 of them in the male, and 40+ in the female lineages… some from India, some from China, some from Japan, and some from America), I realized that I did not see myself as standing in that line of succession, even though I deeply honor it. My line has Channing, and Parker, and Emerson, and Adams, and Brown, and so many others. I deeply respect the lives and teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, Bodidharma, Dogen Zengi, and Taizan Maezumi… but they are not the sum total of my spiritual lineage. I do not have a direct line, and that line includes many different traditions.

I don’t know what a Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice would look like… but I feel myself called to look for it. That does not mean I am going to stop studying Zen… only that the purpose of my study of Zen is to inform and deepen that search.

Though there were several other realizations from this practice (including the realization that eating vegetarian for a week wont actually kill me), there was one other one I want to share… and that was how profoundly intimate it is to get to know someone when you can not talk to them. For a week, I came to know several people, some I had met before and some I hadn’t, without words. We did not share our stories; we did not talk about our jobs or goals. All of the words we usually use to define our own self-image were missing. I came to know them by their movements, by their rhythms, by the way they walk, or how they breathe. I came to know how they eat, how they sleep, and their range of body language and facial expression.

Perhaps more profoundly, I was privileged to meet a new version of myself… one that comes out when the words I love so much are absent. I came to see that silent version of myself reflected in their reactions to me. I am still deepening what this means… but it is a profound experience.

This Sesshin has been on of the “marker” experiences of my spiritual life, one I will refer to as a bookmark in my development for years to come. I want to thank Joshin Roshi and all the Priests and members of the Empty Sound Temple for having me as a guest for your Rohatsu Sesshin this year. You are in my heart.

Yours in faith,


9 Thoughts on “Realizations from Sesshin

  1. I have two answers to the question, “How do you stop the fighting across the river?” I am not saying they are the only or right answers. Do you want me to share?

  2. David, thank you for sharing your experiences. These are truly profound for you and will shape you for years to come. Blessings,

  3. lovely reflection, David.

    And, I like John’s leaping in saying he thinks he has two answers to that difficult and powerful question of how do you stop the fighting across the river.

    Rather than speculating on the web, John, which does no one any particular good in this particular enterprise; perhaps you would do better to visit Joshin or another teacher of the koan way and present your understanding.

    Could prove interesting…

    For those who find this question capturing their hearts and causing them to reflect; a small hint, if you want from one who has walked this way for a long time. Simple moralisms won’t do here. Ethics are very important, without a doubt, essential to a healthy life. But this koan, like all koans, cuts to the heart of the matter. Pointers include who are you? And, of course, where is that fight?

    Bows from the true East,


  4. 1) Do nothing:
    Pro 26:17 He that passeth by, [and] meddleth with strife [belonging] not to him, [is like] one that taketh a dog by the ears.

  5. John,

    Welcome to Celestial Lands! Sandy has told me alot about you. Please feel free to post anytime. I do agree with James though… I mentioned the koan specifically because it was a good example of something that was a deep part of my practice in the sesshin… and if you are interested in learning more about prajna wisdom I would suggest finding a teacher. One thing I have learned in koan study already is that it is much too intimate to be answered by words on the internet… and that it is often quite different from our western judeo-christian way of thinking. So far, my trying to “think” my way to an answer has only gotten in the way. I am very new to this aspect of Zen practice… but it is facinating.


    One of the great blessings of seminary is the time, the freedom, and the expectation that you will make the most of this “time cut out of time” to have such experiences, and to get in the practice of having such experiences. One of my concerns is that when I enter more-than-full-time active ministry it will be easy for me to bury myself in the work, and not remember the practice. Hopefully certain colleagues will remind me from time to time of the patterns I intentionally tried to set in seminary (hint hint).


    Roshi, you have been on my thoughts alot as of late. Joshin asked me to convey a gassho in your general direction on his behalf. There were many things that you taught about Zen that I did not grasp until the sesshin. One of them was the phrase “How Wonderful”… which I have heard you say at seemingly odd times. Now I get it. How wonderful. I hope I get to see you soon, my friend.

    Bows from the wintery west,

    Yours in faith,


  6. David,

    I am a practical seeker of wisdom. I consider how something will better my life or someone else’s before deciding it is worth much of my time.
    What are the practical benefits of Zen?
    From a practical stand point, the answer I suggested will keep you out of harm.
    Can you tell me how you have applied a specific Zen teaching to life and how that has helped?
    I am unfamiliar with Zen. Is it an attitude, collection of teachings, or something else?


    John Bruce

  7. John,

    I will consider writing an article on the practical benifits for having a Zen practice for me. It is a longer and deeper topic than I could do justice in a post. Different people will give you different answers as to what Zen is, and there is much on the internet. I will say that for me Zen is a spiritual practice that brings me to a deeper and more authentic relationship with all that is.

    I will recommend one of my sermons to look at, entitled “Living Monkey Mind”.


    It has some pointers towards the practicality of spiritual practices of awareness… a place to begin for you.

    Yours in Faith,


  8. How do you stop the fighting on the other side of the river? You can’t.

    I expect that answer would instantly be rejected by any Roshi.

    Yet let’s walk it together some, please: One must consider, Is the other side this side? Is there an other side? Or just this here? You see the fighting on the other side. What about the conflict within you? Besides any obvious inner turmoil, even the smallest discursive thought, separating this from that, generates a conflict.

    So serious work on the meditation cushion involves investigating thought. It cannot be squelched. Yet it is possible for it to settle, to quiet down, for there to be just silent openness. This may be brief or not so brief. Eventually this openness is realized to be always, eternally here, even underneath thought. This is the empty ground. Because thought hasn’t arisen in it yet, there are no sides, no self and other. The river, the flow, is everywhere. And there is love, real caring compassion, not sentimentality.

    Even if you have realized this down to your bones, you have not stopped wars in this world. The giant, destructive, horrible ones between nations and the daily ones between petty and even not so petty individuals. The zen master has not stopped wars. You and I have not stopped them.

    Even though nothing is in the empty ground, no violence, just still clear openness. Yet this is not different from the many, many things, including conflicting things.

    Therefore, you cannot stop the fighting on the other side of the river. But you can open up, quiet down and love and from that kindness can ripple out.

  9. Your wife must be a pretty special person to have given you such a gift.

    I loved your tongue-in-cheek piece about how sesshin is similar to military basic. I sent it around to my Sangha.

    As the previous posts point out, you cannot answer a koan with the ego mind — so there is no answer which can be brought forward by reading something and coming up with a clever answer. Cleverness makes you look good; the ego likes looking good.

    Someone asked about the practical benefits of zen practice. Zen is about taking responsibility for your life. Here are some of the practical benefits of zen practice I can share after 5 years of working with it:

    I am a kinder, more compassionate person and my friends and family appreciate this.
    I am less ready to judge, criticize or seize and defend opinions on almost any topic which floats across my radar – and my friends and family appreciate this, as do I.
    I take vitamins on a regular basis and eat better. I treat myself with more kindness.
    I do not get discouraged, depressed, anxious or frustrated easily. More likely I will recognize the impermanence of the situation at hand and breathe through it.
    My house is clean and orderly.
    I make my bed every day.
    I do not thoughtlessly waste food, resources or other people’s time to the extent that I used to.
    I am more truthful.
    I have slowed, and at some times even silenced, the internal, infernal chatter in my head.
    I rarely watch TV, or read a newspaper or follow the news online. I consider this to be a benefit to me.
    I listen to others instead of waiting for my turn to speak.
    I accept the facts of aging and death with more equanimity.
    There is much less fear in my life, more confidence and much more compassion.
    I could go on and on. But, you’ve got the picture, right?

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