Getting Away & Coming Home: Zen Retreats and a Note on What to Do When You Can’t

Getting Away & Coming Home: Zen Retreats and a Note on What to Do When You Can’t February 16, 2023


Getting Away & Coming Home: Zen Retreats and a Note on What to Do When You Can’t

James Ishmael Ford

Above all things, love silence.”

Isaac of Nineveh

As an old Zen hand, I’m reluctant to tell non-Zen friends I’m off to a retreat. When I do, too often the response is something along the line of, “Boy, I could use some downtime myself.” Me, too. But that “down time” is far from a description of a Zen retreat.

Zen arose within a monastic context, and its disciplines follow monastic rhythms with hours a day dedicated to the core practice of zazen and koan. However, within the rhythms of the monastery there are also training periods and periods of intense practice. The longer training periods are based in the rainy season retreats of early Buddhist monasticism, and seem to be the rhythm of the historic Buddha and his companions. In China and East Asia these are ninety or one hundred-day periods.

But there are shorter periods of intensive meditation practice. In Zen traditions these are usually seven days, five days, or three days. Single day and half day retreats are also common, although these are more commonly called zazenkai or zenkai, “zazen group” or “zen group.” These shorter times from half a day to seven days for intensive practice have become a hallmark of a serious practice in North America and the West. And it is hard to see a serious transmission of the discipline without these retreats.

Sesshin is a Japanese Zen term. It literally means “to touch the heart mind.” As near as I can tell the idea of this intensive retreat outside of the context of regular monastic life arises in Japan. Although such practices have been adapted in Chan and Son communities of practice here in the West. The Kwan Um School of Zen a Korean derived Zen lineage fully embraces the practice, calling these retreats Yong Maeng Jong Jin, which roughly translates as “intrepid sitting.” One can hear echoes of that “touching the heart mind” in that. And I love the colloquial interpretation of YMJJ, as “leaping like a tiger while sitting.”

The day is usually are marked by liturgy and dharma talks. Interviews with teachers. There are ritualized meals. And usually some brief breaks. But the backbone of the practice is seven or eight or nine hours of meditation in a day. There is also a form of sesshin called “Zen without toys,” where it’s just sitting, and eating, and some sleeping, for the term of the retreat.

An ongoing Zen practice can be maintained with a daily commitment of an hour or two. Or really even half an hour a day. I have seen profit enormously from the Zen way supported solely by this regular meditation regime. But for most people in order to dig deep, there needs to be regular periods of intensive devotion to the discipline.

As Zen has evolved in North America and the West, the backbone of the practice has proven to be two-fold. A regular daily practice, which may or may not be at a center, temple, or monastery. And retreat. Many serious Zen practitioners in the West aim at twenty-eight days a year, four week long sesshin in that year.

And many serious practitioners who are not monastics or priests of the Japanese inheritance, in Taego order, or seniors within the Kwan Um school the two principle lineages from Korea, for whom regular retreat and actually some experience of the longer retreats as well are required, find that they cannot make that much of a time commitment. Family obligations, work, life.

The critical thing here is the call to the practice is a call to something hard. But like with sitting on the floor or on a chair, people need to find their own way. How can we be honest with ourselves and take on the practice in healthy ways for ourselves and those with whom we make our lives?

And a next question from that is how can someone find an authentic practice with little or no retreat as part of that practice? I feel there are two answers. One, is harsh and true. It is extremely hard to get to the nub, to encourage the doubt and faith necessary to the heart opening that is Zen’s promise without periods of retreat. So, if you can, retreat is a critical aspect of the discipline.

But, what about when one can’t? Not when it is inconvenient. That isn’t good enough. Not attending retreats because its inconvenient is like not sitting because of some odd ache or pain. Life hurts and is boring and has hard moments. And Zen retreats intensify the whole of life in those concentrated moments. Lukewarm practice won’t produce fruit. Not enough water, not enough fertilizer. Well, other than the fact the spirit does indeed rest where it will, and awakening happens. There is always that. And it is the truest thing.

And it speaks of genuine possibilities for those who cannot meet retreat schedules. There is a place as Zen practitioners for people who cannot do retreats, or only very lightly. They need not wait for some next life where life choices and opportunities are more propitious. We have minor children. Our work doesn’t allow anything vaguely resembling retreat. Health reasons. There are totally authentic reasons why someone can’t do retreats. And at the same time genuinely are pursuing the intimate way.

In those cases, and I’ve seen it, then one finds the depth of the practice in those periods when one can sit, and that energy is then thrown into the very matters that prevent a formal retreat. And, with that one can find what one needs.

And also, there are other ways than the intensive practice of single mindedly pursuing the intimate. Outside of Japan Zen is always paired with the Pure Land. Here the faith part of the practice takes the lead. Simple confidence in the unfolding mystery, and finding how we are not in control, and how there is a merciful hand in all this.

The paths of surrender reveal the doubt in different, but authentic ways. Even in Japan there are reasons why older practitioners, including teachers, and those called masters often turn to Pure Land practice. In North America and the West, we’re only at the beginning of seeing how this might manifest. As a birthright Christian, I find my own practice influenced by the Jesus Prayer, infused with the Jesus Prayer. Among those born and raised Jewish I’m seeing similar patterns emerge. These is not a turning away from the deep pointing of Zen, but allowing it to take the shapes that our hearts recognize.

Householder Zen brings the monastery home. Retreats can be much the same. It is harder. But that’s life, isn’t it? That said, the Zen way calls us to a full-hearted commitment. So, one hundred percent being a member of a family. And one hundred percent a person of the way.

Squaring the circle becomes the practice. Finding how it really is not one, nor is it precisely two becomes the koan.


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