Before I get started, I still have three more events in the UK. The Hebden Bridge thing is actually two events, a lecture on Tuesday evening and a full day of zazen on† Wednesday. Write to them for details. There is still space left at all three of the events below:
Nov. 27-28 (Tues and Wed) Hebden Bridge Zen Group, UK contact Rebecca at email@example.com
Dec. 2 (Sun) London, England, The Vibast Community Centre, 163 Old Street, EC1V 9NH, for info firstname.lastname@example.org
This past weekend I was at a place called Fawcett Mill Fields in the Lake District of the UK. That’s a photo of the place at the top of this page. There I led a kind of “lite retreat.” It’s a new thing I’m experimenting with. Here’s why.
A few years ago I led a retreat at the Southern Dharma Retreat Center, an organization that used to like me and invite me to do things but seems to have changed its collective mind about me for reasons I have yet to learn. It was a standard Zen retreat in which participants pretty did pretty much nothing but zazen for the entire weekend. There were no fun activities planned, no sight-seeing, no games, no workshops, no team building exercises, etc. Just a lot of sitting and staring at the wall punctuated by a few talks by me.
One women who showed up took a look at the schedule and said, “I gave up tickets to see the Dalai Lama for THIS??” Then stormed out, got in her SUV and sped off down the road in a shower of gravel, never to be seen again. To her, the schedule sounded like a big rip-off. And I began to think, “Am I ripping people off? Am I being lazy, not preparing all sorts of fun and frolic for people who come to my retreats? Other teachers do that. They come up with ‘workshops’ and little get-together thingies and suchlike.”
Then I thought, no. That’s not really it. The thing about a Zen retreat is that it gives you the opportunity to go very deeply into practice. And the only way to do that is to do the practice continuously over an extended period of time. Whenever you interrupt that flow, you interrupt the participant’s ability to really go as deeply as they can into the practice. There’s no way around it.
On the other hand, not everyone is ready for four hours of zazen at a time. An easier schedule might be more attractive to them. And it’s better to sit for an hour or two a day than not to sit at all. So I’m trying to introduce retreats that are more user-friendly.
What I’ve found, though, is that my audience is divided between people who are pretty experienced with Zen and people who are new to it. The experienced people who come to one of these “lite retreats” are disappointed because it’s not a real Zen retreat. And the ones who are completely new to it are disappointed because there’s too much sitting and staring at walls for them. I have come up with a way to disappoint everyone! Hooray!
That being said, the retreat went pretty nicely, I think. No one stormed off in a huff at least. As is typical these days, I did not spend much time doing zazen. Instead, I was stuck in a little room most of the time chatting with people. This is a tradition called “dokusan.”
In Zen we understand that every person’s experience of the practice is a little different. So while there are generalized lectures and instructions given to the group, the real meat of the teaching goes on behind closed doors in a one-to-one setting. What gets said in that little room is often completely inappropriate for public consumption, much the way that what gets said in a doctor’s office is not appropriate for public consumption. Although Zen teachers are not doctors, nor is dokusan a kind of psychotherapy session.
My own experience of dokusan is interesting to me. I stay as fully present as I possibly can with the person I’m speaking to. And I try to drop myself completely and act as a conduit for whatever needs to be spoken in that room. I know that sounds a bit spooky. But it’s not. It’s still me sitting there talking. I’m not channeling anyone or any thing. And yet I try to step aside and let things just come forth as they do rather than putting my personal sense of self into it.
As a result I find I have a bit of amnesia. I can’t actually remember what was just said even if I try to jot down a few notes right afterward. I did that once, thinking maybe it could be useful in a book (after changing the names and eliminating anything too intensely personal or useful in trying to identify the person I was speaking with). But I couldn’t really do it. A few of those notes formed the basis for part of Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. But even there, I had to resort to generalizing because I simply couldn’t remember the actual details.
It’s odd I can’t recall these conversations. I can recall most of my conversations with friends. But when I’m talking with friends I’m doing something a bit different.
Fred posted an interesting video about Joshu Sasaki in the comments section of the previous piece. In the video a guy named Shinzen talks about his experiences in sanzen, which is what people in the Rinzai sect call dokusan, with Joshu Sasaki Roshi. It’s pretty neat. What he experienced with Sasaki is much like what I experienced in dokusan with Nishijima Roshi and with Tim. (This has nothing to do with the issue of Sasaki’s supposed sexual harassment, by the way.)
And yet now that I sit on the other side of the room I sometimes wonder what people experience when they talk to me. Surely it can’t be anything like what Shinzen describes. After all, it’s just me they’re talking to!
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