5 days in Zen – New Years Sesshin – A Beginners Guide
Jason S. Gorenstein
“Relax and Count Your Breath” – Nyogen Roshi
“Is that your ego mind talking again? Just simply watch your breath that is all.” – Nyogen Roshi
“You create stories about your breath. Just watch the breath. One (Proceed to exhale) One (Proceed to inhale)… Ten (Proceed to exhale) Ten (Proceed to inhale)…. Just watch your breathing that is all. – Nyogen Roshi
“As we practice together sincerely, we become increasingly aware that such terms as internal and external cannot be separated. This awareness is actually the growing realization of the real harmony which underlies everything.”– Taizan Maezumi Roshi
Author’s Note: It is important to note that the practice of Zen is an individual experience. While I will elaborate a bit on my personal experiences, I’d like to call to attention that the definition of Zen is to practice and watch. Over time, through practice, there will be a product of less mind and more space. The Hazy Moon monastery follows the tradition of Soto Zen, which has been practiced in a specific way for thousands of years. I will elaborate on many of the practices that were observed and how the practice deepened my understanding of Zen.
I spent my 2015 winter recess observing the nature of my mind at a silent Zen Meditation retreat in Korea Town called the Hazy Moon Monastery. I arrived at the monastery with some meditation experience from a well-practiced Zen and Self Inquiry Practitioner, Gary Weber PhD. I came to the Monastery looking for peace of mind. I had heard that Hazy Moon practiced meditation on a very traditional and highly structured discipline of Zen. Given that I was in the middle of working 40 hours weeks as a financial transplant coordinator for Keck Hospital of USC, training in a very rigorous yoga program and also practicing and teaching yoga at various locations across Los Angeles, I was in great need of Zen. All and all, I was experiencing very little stillness. It was time to reevaluate myself and my efforts.
Day 1 – Formalities of Zen
The first day began with a seated Zazen at 5:50 AM. Zazen means “to sit” in Japanese. Though the practice has been done for thousands of years, it only formally became known as Zen in the 5th century. In Zazen, one is to sit relaxed with their eyes open and watch. A Zazen period can vary in length dependent on the school of practice. At the Hazy Moon Monastery, a Zazen period was 30 minutes long. During this time, students were encouraged to use different techniques to focus their mind and eventually through unwavering focus, transcend it completely. As easy as this practice may sound, just watching your breathing for 5 minutes had proven extremely difficult for me to do. Following a 30-minute sitting period was a 10-minute walking meditation period referred to as Kinhin, walking meditation. Kinhin allows practitioners to take a break from the sitting period. Although the task performed by the body is different during this time, one should continue to focus the mind on the same practice used in the sitting period. Kinhin was also a time for the student to grab a small snack or use the restroom.
There was a total of 3 Zazen Periods and 2 Kinhin Periods in the morning block, lasting a total of 2 hours. The morning block concluded with a ceremony followed by an Oriyoki Style Meal. Oriyoki refers to the eating bowls used by Buddhist Monks. The Oriyoki style meal involved chanting, placing the utensils in a certain arrangement, being served, eating, and cleaning the utensils and eating bowls all in a very specific fashion. I learned very quickly that Oriyoki requires discipline and attentiveness. The process of eating without attachment is one where I have much to learn. While I carried out the different acts, I felt a certain sense of humility arise in my being. I was learning to eat free of thoughts and mind.
Following the morning block was a 10-minute break followed by Samu, physical work conducted in a mindful manner. During Samu, we were presented with different chores. I was assigned outdoor duty, which involved raking leaves, sweeping the outdoor carpet and patio and weeding the back garden. The period lasted 1.5 hrs. and was completed in silence. Samu turned out to be my favorite period of the retreat because I could mindfully watch the process of my body carrying out work with little to no mind involved.
The second sitting period began at 11:00 AM and was identical to the first. Knowing what to expect, I felt more comfortable sitting and watching. At this point in my experience, I had no formal practice I was working on. I felt as though I was simply watching an ongoing movie of my entire life. As the movie went on, I watched all the stories and nonsense that arose – job, family, relationship, past and future. Sometimes, I would get distracted by a passing car or the sound of the breeze hitting the shutters. By the end of the second block, I was exhausted by all the thoughts and stories I had watched. I was relieved to be back in the moment. The block ended with an afternoon service followed by an afternoon Oriyoki style meal. This was like the morning session and I was beginning to learn the customary process.
Following the afternoon block, the Samu I practiced was tidying the kitchen. I swept, removed dirt and dust off kitchen mats, cleaned and dried the dishes, and mopped the floor. The chores were helpful for me, as they provided me with an opportunity to watch my mind as my body carried out different actions. After work, there was free time to stretch and shower.
The third sitting period block began at 3:30 PM. I found this to be the most difficult period of the day due to the light from the setting sun and the noises from outside. Although the sitting and walking periods were identical, the fluctuations of the mind can make the period either seemingly short period or incredibly long. As I sat, I remember being pulled into the discomfort in my body for sitting so long. My arms became so heavy that my shoulders felt like they were going to fall off. As I watched, I could see my mind go after anything that was not still. By the end of this block, I felt relieved to get up and move around.
Dinner began at 5:30PM, and was a less formal process of eating where we gathered communally. The meal consisted of soup and salad – all vegetarian. There were some variations from day to day but all and all the meal structure remained constant. It was interesting to eat in silence with these people I had just met and meditated with. The connection with everyone felt very strong as if it had always known them.
The evening block began at 7PM. At some point during this session, Roshi Nyogen (the teacher) gave a brief talk to introduce us to the retreat. He stated that the purpose of the Sesshin, or period of intensive meditation, was to practice. It was not important to measure how well the practice was carried out, as that would be the product of the mind. Through relaxing and coming back to the breath we would begin to see what the practice of Zen teaches. After he spoke, I felt somewhat uplifted and it became easier for me to deepen into the watchful space. The evening service ended at 8:50PM. By 9PM, I was in my quarters and off to sleep.
The following days proceeded in an identical manner as the first. Each sequential day, I elaborate on a specific account that occurred that day. Please note, the manner of Zen is not about labeling or trying to understand what had been experienced. Experience in the eyes of Zen is a misconception to the actual practice of Zen. The purpose of Zen is to allow awareness to be as it is.
Day 2 – A Visit with Roshi
It was time to see the Roshi (Teacher), Dokusan. Dokusan is a very formal process of discussing your practice with the teacher. Nyogen Roshi’s presence was very strong. He asked me if I had a practice, and I shared that I had practiced Vipasana. Vipasana is a form of meditation in which one simply observes what’s arising in the body and mind. He said that that was a fine practice, but suggested I do a bit more to narrow my focus. His technique was rather straightforward, one that I had practiced many times before. Instead of watching what arose (including my thoughts), I was to watch my breath. On the exhale, breath out over the rounded edge of the stomach until the stomach is empty. On the inhale, fill the base of the stomach until the stomach is full. Do this process 10 times, repeating the same number on the exhale and the inhale. If at any time the process is interrupted, simply begin counting again on the next exhalation. Most importantly remain calm and relaxed. Do not judge the process of your counting – simply count. After leaving Dokusan, I was ready to adopt my newly found practice.
Day 3 – Middle of the Road
Day 3 was difficult for me. I spent most of the day working through the practice Roshi provided me. While I found it easier to focus on counting my breath, my body was constantly fidgeting. Although I was focused on my breathing, my mind started to become consumed by a sensation that had arisen in the body. Instead of just counting my breath, I became fixated on the way I was counting my breath. It had been beneficial to narrow the focus of the mind to the breath, but also extremely difficult. By the end of the day, I could focus on counting the breath on a very basic level. In the evening, the Roshi discussed the importance of being able to relax and practice. He explained that we do not need to be perfect – just practice and notice what arises.
Day 4 – Return to Dokusan
Day 4 began similarly to day 3. There were many thoughts in my mind and the practice was very undisciplined. During one of my breaks, it was briefly discussed by a fellow practitioner that I visit the Roshi again to discuss my current practice. I felt uneasy about doing so, as I had only practiced his suggested technique for a day and a half and did not feel it was appropriate for me to approach the teacher without working with the practice for more time. Despite my thoughts, I decided to meet with the Roshi because it was explained to me that when there is something you are working on, it may be beneficial to have someone with experience to assist.
In meeting with the teacher, he asked me how the practice was, and I shared that while I found it very beneficial to count my breath, I was constantly being pulled into my thoughts whenever a sensation arose. He explained that sensations will arise, but you must only focus on your breath counting. I quickly grasped what the teacher was advising, but practicing can be a different story. I spent the remainder of the day working on the new knowledge gained from the Roshi and found that I could relax and count my breath. It was very beneficial to receive wisdom of someone that has been working with this practice for so long.
Day 5 – A New Beginning
Day 5 was very smooth. I could focus solely on my breathing. Yes, thoughts arose but it was becoming easier to watch the breath. At around 2 PM, I attended a rehearsal for a New Year’s ceremony, which involved the Roshi discussing past stories about the practice and the tradition of a ceremony each New Year’s Eve. Later that evening, we had an opportunity to discuss our experience during the retreat and how important it was to have a consistent practice.
The Evening Ceremony
The evening ceremony was a tradition that was conducted for hundreds of years. It involved chanting, praying, and a very old tradition in which the Roshi danced with the scriptures of his teacher Maezumi Roshi. After the ceremony concluded, all the participants joined together and shared thoughts on the practice and other life happenings. At this point, we drank sake or sparkling cider as a commemoration to the practice and teachings. We also were provided a traditional Chinese noodle soup, a yearly tradition from one of the members of the Hazy Moon community.
By the midnight, most of the participants went to sleep. For those that stayed awake, we welcomed the New Year with a toast and shortly after retired as well.
Day 6 – New Year’s Day
At this point, the Sesshin had officially ended. For those who remained at the monastery, there was a morning breakfast. I chose to perform the customary sitting practice to continue my practice. At roughly 8:30 AM, the remaining individuals gathered to head to the Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles. This is a tradition that Roshi Nyogen has been practicing since his teacher Maezen Roshi’s days of teaching. We all gathered around different sites within the cemetery to commemorate all the Japanese Americans that gave their lives to support our country and/or passed without being recognized for their lives. Ultimately, we went to the gravesite of Nyogen Senzaki, one of the major pioneers of Zen in the 20th Century. It was very powerful to participate in the ceremonies that acknowledge the past and provided a reminder to remain in the present. After the Cemetery, we gathered back at the monastery and enjoyed a nice brunch.
During five days of disciplined practice, I was introduced to something very special. Zen is a very old practice dating back to 5th century C.E. The origin of Zen was derived from Dhyana, or absorption, from the Hindu tradition. My experience at the Hazy Moon was a very balanced introduction to Zen. Practices such as observing the breathing, Zen chanting, monastic eating and lay service were all practiced. I had the opportunity to meet with Nyogen Roshi who has dedicated the past 50 years of his bodily existence to practicing Zen Meditation. I learned the importance of both practice and discipline. I experienced the benefits of quieting the mind and how to relax the body. I strongly recommend the New Year’s Sesshin to anyone seeking both clarity of mind and peace within a very supportive community. We have much to learn from the old tradition of Zen and the Eastern ways. I am very grateful to have experienced the energy and teachings of the Hazy Moon Sangha.
About the Author
Jason Gorenstein, E-RYT 200 is a certified Meditation and Yoga Instructor in Los Angeles and a New Patient Coordinator for Keck Hospital of USC Cardiothoracic Transplant Program.
For more information check out: http://www.hazymoon.com/