Sesshin: Presence rather than endurance Barry Magid February 2nd 2013

At dinner last night before sesshin officially started, some of us sat around swapping stories the way Zen students are wont to do, about sesshins in the past, how incredibly rigorous it was in this place or that place in the bad old days. We can tell stories about how long we sat, how little we slept, how often we got hit, all these stories of rigorous training often in the pursuit of some great experience of enlightenment. Now that we’ve all had that, I invite you to join me in a sesshin of post-enlightenment practice. Perhaps a few of you are thinking this is premature for yourselves if you don’t think you’ve got it, or if you have a particular image of the enlightened master you might think it’s a little premature for me. But I’ve wanted to set up this sesshin, which we’re calling No Pain and No Gain, in a particular way in contrast to some of those old sesshins, what we called boot-camp sesshins, and think about what actually is our motivation to practice now. How do we see it evolving after many, many years, many decades, sometimes, of practice?

Too often sesshin, for better or for worse, was built around virtues of endurance and mastery, enduring pain, mastering sitting through sleeplessness. But this week I’ve tried to structure things so that, if you want, you can get eight hours of sleep every night, and we won’t be sitting back-to-back periods very often. This morning will be the only block we have three in a row. Most of the time they will be broken up by services, by walking, by chanting. In the old days, if you wimped out, you were allowed to sit in a chair, often with a dunce cap on your head, but here we’re going to have mandatory sitting in chairs. Everybody’s going to do it a couple of periods a day. So we’re going to try to eliminate a whole mindset about making endurance a primary virtue of sesshin, and try to replace it with an emphasis on presence rather than endurance, simply being open to, aware of, experiencing, each moment of the day, whether it’s sitting on a cushion or sitting on a bench in the hall.

When I give beginners instruction, I try to start people off with the idea that zazen is something they can’t do right or wrong. It’s not a technique to master. Like looking in a mirror, your face immediately appears. There’s no right or wrong about that. You just sit and look. Yet it’s very hard for people to maintain that stance in practice. That’s the true difficulty of this practice. We do a disservice when we make the primary difficulty of sitting in pain as something we can master, because then it turns Zen into something we get good at, and it inevitably misses its deepest point. That’s the no gain side. No gain is actually a very deep and difficult concept because it speaks to the idea of absolute or intrinsic value of each moment of our lives and our lives as a whole. It goes against the grain of pretty much everything we do in our life, when pretty much everything is treated as a means to an end, something we do in order to be happy, rich, secure, calm, enlightened.

We live in a world that we experience as a world of material objects that have no meaning other than the meaning we give them, no value other than the use to which we put them, so the world is this dead place on which we impose our will and our values, and we try to transform that according to our desires. We do the same thing with our bodies and minds, and too often we do that in the name of a spiritual practice, where we’re going to transform ourselves into something better, purer, calmer. We think the state we’re in has something wrong with it and we’re always involved in trying to improve or fix it. What I call our secret practice, is the use that we privately want to put meditation to, what parts of our self, of our mind, we want to extirpate: our anxiety, our anger, our sexual desire; what part we want to build on or buff up: our calmness, our generosity, the kind of person we want to be. There can be value in doing that. There can be value in making certain efforts in becoming a certain kind of person, but there’s a whole other aspect, a whole other dimension to practice which I call the religious aspect, which is about putting an end to all those projects of self improvement and leaving everything just as it is so we can experience its intrinsic value, it’s value just as it is, without putting it to any use whatsoever.

The picture on the altar is a calligraphy of, I think you’d call it a puti, sort of a bodhisattva of prosperity. That big belly is a symbol of prosperity rather than indulgence, and the calligraphy inscription around the figure says, “Have a mind like tofu in a round bowl that’s round and a square bowl that’s square.” An image like tofu is the opposite of our usual picture of Zen as being hard and strong, disciplined. Tofu is completely formless. It takes any shape you put it in, without any effort whatsoever. It doesn’t have to work at being square. It doesn’t have to work at being round. It’s a very benign way of what the Heart Sutra calls, “No hindrance, therefore no fear,” just non-separation, no hindrance, simply allowing each moment to be itself, flow into the space of each moment. Of course, there are many moments we resist, and we have to watch that edge of resistance. We can say that the old style sesshin was about seeing how we resisted simply flowing into pain, flowing into sleeplessness, flowing into these extreme positions, but again those became opportunities for mastery rather than simply no hindrance, most of the time.

The challenge of a sesshin like this is to just stay present and aware without a big project, without doing something heroic, without being focussed by some sense of this great thing we’re doing here, but a form that is intended to flow more smoothly in and out of your daily life. Try to maintain the awareness of your sitting during the breaks. I recommend the long benches in the corridor. Let your zazen blur into the break time, so it’s hard to tell one from the other. Take a nap in your room if you want to, but try to avoid the temptation of distraction. You probably all have a little phone up there that you can play with or check your mail with, or something like that. Doing that is sort of the equivalent of moving in the middle of sitting. It’s squirming. It’s not giving yourself a chance to just be still in the midst of what’s happening.

So do yourself the favor of not distracting yourself, either privately or trying to have conversations with one another, or doing other little things as distractions. Try to maintain the silence and stillness for its own sake. Everything we do here this week is just for its own sake. It’s a very hard concept, and we’ll just keep coming back to it over and over again. The great temptation is to try to find some state of mind that you prefer and then maximize that. We want to turn everything into trying to get from here to there. When I speak of this being a kind of post-enlightenment sesshin, it’s doing away with that notion of getting from here to there. We’re already there. We did it -- whatever that means. Now what? Why do we keep sitting? Why do we sit if we’re not trying to change ourselves? What about sitting like we do simply for its own sake?

Sometimes there will be aspects of sesshin that people don’t like, and they’ll tell me, why do we do all that chanting in Japanese in service? What’s the point of that? There’s no point. It’s not for anything. But it’s something we do. We could turn it into an explanation and say, well, it’s a concentration practice. It’s really hard to focus on those syllables in a foreign language. It helps us concentrate. But really, that doesn’t matter so much. It’s more that it’s something we inherited and it’s something that is part of us. You may have parts of your past in terms of family, or memory, or just your own genetic make-up and the way your body is. All those things are in a sense just arbitrarily part of your history and part of who you are. They’re not for anything, but it’s part of saying, This is me. I have that past. And there’s a side of Zen where we maintain certain traditions or forms just because that’s part of who we are and what our past is, how we’ve come to be doing this at all. No reason. We just do that because that’s part of who we are.

We lose track so easily of the idea that things have intrinsic value. When we apply that to our life as a whole, we can feel like our life is meaningless, or we can ask, What’s it for? Why do anything? What does it add up to? We’ve lost the deep sense that life has its own intrinsic value, just in itself, not for anything else. It’s not measured in terms of what we accomplish with it, whether we succeeded or failed. Those dimensions can always be there. You can always evaluate a life in terms of how much good did you do, or how much money did you make or how many children did you have, how many sentient beings did you save. You can try to look at what you’ve done.

And yet in another dimension, all that is irrelevant. Life is valuable the same way a tree or a cloud is valuable. They just are. We don’t need to put them to some use. They don’t have to be quantified. They don’t have to be turned into anything else. Leaving everything alone, as you will feel in the course of the week, is hard to do. So watch what you try to do this week. Watch how hard it is to leave everything alone, and then just leave that alone too. Let us see if we can create a space together where we simply appreciate the fact of being present, practicing together, simply for its own sake.

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