Meditation training is a training in becoming more fully human, but to undergo it we have to let go of what we have believed and experienced our human-ness to be
1. Sesshin is hard. After decades of doing them, it’s easy to forget this. But on this sesshin we were blessed by the presence of seven first-timers. One of the great things about having newcomers in a sesshin is that they remind us of just what it is we’re actually doing, and how hard it can be. Our legs, hips and backs hurt. Meanwhile our minds rattle around their hamster-wheels, generating more and more regret, anxiety, frustration, disappointment – and all other shades of misery –as whatever ground we thought we had gained in our meditation practice is summarily ripped out from under our seats. We find ourselves back at square one – the very same square one that drove us to take up meditation practice in the first place!
I remember my own very first sesshin, at a monastery in upstate New York. I arrived at the zendo four minutes ahead of schedule on the first morning, quite pleased with myself for being in good time. I knew the timetable said to be there five minutes before, but I assumed that was figurative, not precise.
Too late! the monitor barked at me as I stepped into the zendo. Sit outside!
I couldn’t believe it. My first day of sesshin, and I wasn’t even going to be allowed in! I was going to miss part of the day! I had already messed up before I had even started. It was bitterly disappointing.
I sat on a rock-hard bench in the hallway as directed, smarting from the monitor’s tone of rebuke, and from being excluded, knowing all the other sitters were gathered happily and communally in the zendo just the other side of the wall.
At the first break for kinhin I tried to slip in to my place. The monitor must have been looking out for me.
Go back! the monitor snapped.
For a moment I wondered hopefully if perhaps they might not have been addressing me. I took a second step.
Back! came the stern voice.
So I wasn’t going to be allowed in even now – I was going to miss the whole first block of sitting. Not until hours later, after breakfast, after samu, would I even get to really join the actual sesshin.
It seemed dreadful. I had gone through a lot of angst just to get myself to take the momentous decision to attend a sesshin at all. And now look at me – I wasn’t even being allowed to do all of it. The rest of the day, even once I was allowed into the zendo, I seethed in a pot of simmering disappointment and frustration.
Newcomers remind us of how hard this practice is. We should never get complacent.
Meditation training is a training in becoming more fully human, but to undergo it we have to let go of what we have believed and experienced our human-ness to be.
This is not going to be easy, on any level. Only tremendous compassion toward all putting themselves through this practice is appropriate. Everyone is to be congratulated, sympathized with, empathized with and welcomed.
2. Zen really is a path to resolution of our life. Some people doubt that. I want to state unequivocally on behalf of the Zen tradition and lineage in which I practice, that it is nothing less than that. And this is why we still do it as it has long been done. This is why we put ourselves through sesshin, and don’t seek to adjust it, or bring in extraneous elements. This is why we follow the old way of koan study – because it works. So long as we pursue it to the end, and let the koans root out all our doubts, anxieties and unease in the depth of our meditation, the training will lead us to a great liberation.
If anyone doubts this, please read Yamada Koun’s newly published book, Zen: The Authentic Gate, and attend to the stories of the old masters. This way is precisely as old as the hills, and as old as the mountains and rivers and the great earth. It is infinitely compassionate. Its compassion literally knows no bounds. It takes fortitude and constancy to follow it, and just a little courage. But it will help us to find these qualities in ourselves. And then it will show us the “wish-fulfilling jewel,” the treasure “hidden inside the mountain of form,” as Master Unmon puts it. And not just show it to us, but more.
As the French say, Courage!
With thanks and love,
Message from Henry is taken from our September 22 Newsletter.
Image Credit: Chrysanthemum, by TCartdesign, CC0 Public Domain, from Pixabay.com