Thursday, 26 January 2017

Hermitcraft: Solitary Sesshin, Pt. 1: Schedule

(For general tips on sesshin planning, see Part II. For meal planning, see Part III.)

I sat sesshin last Friday, and as one of my work tasks I reviewed the records of all the solitary sesshins I've sat since the first one, fifteen years ago.

Because I usually open that file only to add information, I hadn't read most of those entries since they were made. It was a bittersweet experience, mostly uplifting memories of the sesshins I've sat in various places and conditions, along with reminders of the difficulties that prompted them.

The point of this was to work up a list of step-by-step instructions for sesshin planning. Sure enough, I encountered a few mistakes that I'd made (and recorded) over and over, then forgotten in the interim. And also the odd success, similarly overlooked and unreplicated .

Sesshin, or meditation retreat, is the central ritual of Zen practice. The word, from Sino-Japanese, translates variously as "uniting the mind", "receiving the mind", "touching the heart", and "seeking the essence". But at ground level it means meditating for one or more straight days.

A more thorough description is: juxtaposing seated meditation with other experiences in a controlled environment for a defined period of time.

Of course we strive for a meditative state every day, yea though we're embedded in the Red Dust World (i.e., the caterwaul of humanity). But even monastery monks don't normally spend whole days in meditation, or maintain a state of formal meditation during chores.

Thus sesshin, where we renew our vows and burn off the crap that accrues in the corners of our minds in the course of our worldly lives. It can also reset one's head after a disequilibriating experience, or perform course corrections in one's monastic practice.

When I became a hermit monk in 2002, I often read about sesshin in my studies. I had no Zen centre near, but with that "beginner mind" we Zenners go on about, I figured what the hell, I'd just do one myself.

Accordingly I Googled "sesshin" and "schedule", downloaded examples from Zen centres around the world, and used them to work up a schedule of my own. I still use this template, adapted as necessary.

A few years later, when I was able to join a Zen centre, I was gratified to see that my bespoke sesshins were substantially the same as theirs.

It occurs to me that others might benefit from my experience in this matter, and also that some readers may not even realise that you can sit sesshin alone. (A few cœnobites have actually told me straight-up that it's impossible, that sesshin is necessarily a herd activity. For the record, not only are they wrong – and entirely lacking in experience – solitary sesshins can be more effective than group ones on several levels.)

Therefore I'm posting a series of how-to's on the subject, starting with this one. When it's finished, beginners who want to start a sesshin practice of their own will be able to build on my decade and a half of trail and error.

To kick it off, I'm sharing my schedule template below. This one is for a work sesshin, wherein accomplishing a specified task is given equal importance to zazen. I also sit meditation-intensive sesshins; just re-allot some work time to sitting.

You'll also detect unaccounted minutes in some blocks. That's because most activities require a 5- (or 10-) minute passing period. Zazen-to-kinhin is a salient exception, because you don't usually have to move very far, change clothes, or wash up between.

Anyway, this week I'll just leave you here. Next time I'll elaborate on the ins and outs of scheduled activities, and offer some pointers on efficient and effective solitary practice.

My sesshin schedule template (to modify to your own ends):

Stillness Sesshin, 20 February 2017
0600–0620  dress, light rushlight, feed animals
0620–0650  zazen
0650–0710  make pot of tea; kinhin
0710–0740  zazen
0740–0820  breakfast and clean-up
0825–0925  brush teeth; first work period
0930–1000  zazen
1000–1010  kinhin
1010–1040  zazen
1050–1130  walk dog
1135–1200  prepare lunch
1200–1245  lunch and clean up
1250–1350  bathe; shave head
1355–1425  zazen
1430–1500  nap; set timer
1505–1535  zazen
1540–1640  work period
1645–1705  prep for dinner
1705–1750  dinner and clean-up
1750–1850  work
1855–1920  zazen
1920–1940  kinhin
1945–2015  zazen
2020–2115  tea and study
2120–2125  brush teeth
2130–2200  zazen

Then sleep.
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