Mount Baldy Retreat Report

2013MtBaldyOn April 26th, 18 brave souls ascended Mt. Baldy to join me in the first ever Dogen Sangha Los Angeles Zen Retreat.

I’ve led retreats before. But they were always someone else’s retreats. In Japan, I led a number of the Dogen Sangha retreats at Tokei-in temple in Shizuoka. But that was something my teacher, Nishijima Roshi, set up. I’ve led retreats in Germany, Finland, Scotland, Poland and England too. But these were also as a guest teacher in somebody else’s place.

But my peeps in LA were convinced this could work and they were right. The effort to make the retreat real was spearheaded mainly by John Graves and Rylend Grant with invaluable assistance from Nina Snow (who also led yoga practice at the retreat) and Craig French. If it had been all up to me I don’t know if it ever would have happened. But those guys worked hard and got people interested in sitting for three days up in the mountains.

About half the participants were from outside the Los Angeles area. Two guys flew in from Mississippi, one from New York, one from Montreal, one from Austin and one participant came all the way from the Netherlands. There were a few people from up in Ventura County, about 90 minutes drive north of LA and a couple from the San Francisco Bay area. I was pretty amazed that so many people came from so far away.

ZenScedThe schedule we used was a modification of the one Nishijima Roshi created for his English language retreats in Japan. It’s not as hard as some Zen retreats, but not as easy-peasy as others. Participants got up at a leisurely 5:20 AM, rather than the usual 4:30 or even 3:30, and sat seven periods of zazen per day. In the morning we did a standard Zen chanting service consisting of the Heart Sutra, Enmei Juku Kannon Gyo (praise to the Bodhisattva of Compassion), Harmony of Difference and Equality and the names of the male and female Buddhist ancestors.

This chanting service is kind of new to me. My first teacher Tim McCarthy never did them and neither did Nishijima at any of his retreats. But I started participating in these services in earnest when I started spending a month each summer at Tassajara, where they do one each morning. I hated them at first, but then eventually began to enjoy them. Last year I was even given the honor of being asked to lead the morning service a few times. That was scary/fun. I recently introduced them into our Saturday morning schedule at Hill Street Center (we’re there every Saturday from 10-Noon, including tomorrow, 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405) and began leading them at Against The Stream in Hollywood on Sundays (every Sunday at 10 AM, including the day after tomorrow, 4300 Melrose Avenue. Los Angeles CA 90029). It made sense to put a service in the schedule at the retreat.

The service sounded great accompanied by the big, professional type drums and bells they have at Mt. Baldy. The fact that none of us really knew what we were doing didn’t make that big of a difference. The “religious” overtones of chanting together bugged a few of the participants. I get that. I got into Zen to try to find a non-religious approach to spiritual practice. But I feel like the chanting we do isn’t really religious. It’s more of a social thing. We don’t believe the chants have magic powers or that Buddha will be displeased if we fail to do them. He’s dead. He doesn’t care. But it feels good to chant together with a group. Some people have tried to explain why scientifically. But most of that stuff goes right over my head. I just know that it’s really nice.

The chants are chosen to remind us of the essentials of practice. The Heart Sutra lays out the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo reminds us to practice with compassion. The Harmony of Difference and Equality lays out some more of the philosophy. And chanting the names of the ancestors connects us to those real flesh-and-blood human beings who have walked this path before us and found it just as hard and just as rewarding as we do. There’s no mumbo-jumbo involved.

Zen retreats are an important part of our practice. If you’re serious about practice you ought to try to do at least one a year. It’s kind of amazing what a difference it makes. These days you kids have it a lot better than I ever did. Back when I started practicing in Kent, Ohio, the nearest Zen retreat was a seven day sesshin at John Daido Loori’s place in upstate New York. It was too far away and too much time off school and work for me to even seriously contemplate going. So I practiced for the first decade of my Zen career without ever going on a multi-day retreat at all. These days they got retreats going on all over the gosh darned place! So go to one!

My experience of the retreat was mostly sitting in a room talking to people. I offered dokusan, personal meetings, to all participants. I’m pretty loose about how I do these. We just sit in the room and chat together. It’s supposed to be focused on issues relating to Zen practice, but that covers a very wide area. I don’t set time limits. Although maybe I should because it was difficult to get everybody an appointment.

Dokusan is interesting. It’s an opportunity to share experiences in Zen practice. It works both ways. I never know what people are going to bring to those meetings. Sometimes it’s a very casual chatting session. Sometimes it’s really heavy stuff. Mostly it’s somewhere in between.

I had a good time.

*   *   *

Remember there’s zazen every Saturday at 10 AM at Hill St. Center, 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405

and there’s a Zen service every Sunday at 10 AM at Against The Stream, 4300 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029

And your donations to support this blog always help. Thanks!



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34 Responses

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  1. buzzard3000
    buzzard3000 May 3, 2013 at 1:04 pm |

    ZMM retreats could be then and still now entered for just the weekend. Too bad you missed out.

  2. buzzard3000
    buzzard3000 May 3, 2013 at 1:05 pm |

    Daido’s retreats could be then and still now entered for just the weekend. Too bad you missed out.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot May 4, 2013 at 8:14 am |

      “Daido’s retreats could be then and still now entered for just the weekend.”

      Umm, not really, anymore, since he’s dead. Though you can still do ZMM retreats that way.

      This seems like a good ace to plug another place in Upstate NY. Actually, the whole area up to Western Massachusetts is filthy with Dharma centers, and some Christian and Sufi places as well. But I just want to point out the existence of Darma Drum Retreat Cernter in the same county as ZMM. Though the practice is just a little different, the cultural background is Chinese rather than Japanese. Not that it’s superior, but if you spent a lot of time in the J. Lineages, it’s good to study in something else for a while, and vice versa.

  3. buzzard3000
    buzzard3000 May 3, 2013 at 1:06 pm |


  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm |

    Congratulations to Brad and the Mt. Baldy dokusan tag-team!

    I have to say, I never have mastered the art of growling at the same time I’m barking, and although I may wind up circumabulating a pillar with written words posted on it someday, for now it’s not so inviting.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I can physically do the 14 50-minute periods a day that they practice at Anteiji sesshins, even if I smoked cigarettes and drank three shots of whiskey to get the feeling back in my legs like Uchiyama. Without the chants and the sermons and the ceremonies, I guess the folks at Anteiji felt they had to prove themselves to the rest of Japan and the Soto order with that schedule; I don’t know.

    It’s all good. I’m still sitting. It’s actually the high light of my day, and avoiding chanting and robes and sesshins helps me to keep it that way, I’m afraid. Tch, tch. No hope for this guy.

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm |

    And now, because I’m hopeless, more fun:

    “Some say that Sasaki could speak from the unknowing”:

    “hello, emptiness here;”

    “But often he said show
    me your breast.”

    “hello, what have we here!”

    What he really said: “good morning! Where am I!”
    What he really meant: “how are you, all the best! There is somewhere here, is there somewhere here?”

  6. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 3, 2013 at 3:33 pm |

    Get ready to groan:

    Knock knock.
    Who’s there?
    Sasaki who?
    Sasaki your breast,
    that’s who!

    -All apologies.

  7. Ralph124C41
    Ralph124C41 May 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm |

    All the mountain tops are covered with snow –

    Why is this one bare ?

  8. King Kong
    King Kong May 3, 2013 at 7:28 pm |

    BEAR ?? WHERE ??

  9. AnneMH
    AnneMH May 4, 2013 at 6:18 am |

    Sounds like a great retreat. I have only been able to do some 1-3 day retreats in the last year and I have a little over 20 years of meditating. It can be a real challenge to get that time arranged depending on your type of work schedule.

    It sounds like you got a good crowd, hmm, how do you talk about sitting around and basically not talking after all?

  10. Ray James
    Ray James May 4, 2013 at 8:56 am |


    I sent you $5, not much I realize, but I am unfortunately a broke student with only a part-time job, I also buy your books (at full retail price) as they come out.

    In 2009, I was in a very rough point in my life, dealing with the impending death of a loved one, and generally just pondering existence and mortality. I stumbled across “Hardcore Zen” in a bookstore, and it really got my attention. Your confidence that one can still live a deeply meaningful life, even going through struggles and not expecting some glitzy afterlife on the ‘other side’ really inspired me and helped me.

    When I later read “Zen wrapped in Karma, dipped in Chocolate” I was struck by your honesty and your willingness to admit that you are a real person with flaws and struggles rather than some aloof and enlightened guru, it made me appreciate your insights as being rooted in “real life” as opposed to platitudes.

    Your work is valuable, and you deserve support for it. I look forward to meeting you in person at some point.

  11. sri_barence
    sri_barence May 4, 2013 at 9:06 am |

    I really enjoyed the retreat. I feel privileged to have met the nice people from all over who came to sit at Mt Baldy. Brad’s dokusan style is quite different from what I’m used to; actually the whole retreat was a new adventure for me. I suppose that is one of the reasons why I went there.

    I spent most of the retreat thinking about this story told by Genjo Marinello, Osho, a Rinzai priest from Seattle. Here is the URL for the podcast (I hope this works).

    I know most of you don’t do Rinzai; I actually practice in the Korean-based KwanUm tradition here in New York. But it is a really good koan-story, and I think it applied quite nicely to the retreat.

  12. Dionys
    Dionys May 4, 2013 at 9:11 am |

    Good to see you looking so happy, Brad. [Insert wise sounding important statements here]

  13. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 4, 2013 at 9:18 am |

    This morning I was reading Beyond Freedom, a col. of lost tapes w/Nisargadatta recorded by his main translator Mullarpattan, that came out in English a few years ago: I think it has the best “explanations” of what he meant by the “I Am” -a concept, as you know, though simple enough, that has caused much confusion IMHO…

    He talked about an incense stick, where the burning part is the I Am, what’s going on right now, like you reading this, and the part of the stick not burning as the Witness, that waits and watches the action, the Purusha, which is the hindu term for “Man” meaning both Tree and Seed. The Absolute is both the I Am and the Witness, making no distinction between the two together as One, as Everything. So you reading this right now contains both, but we typically just realize the I Am part, the activity, as in “I am reading.” -and rarely think about the sense of our own presence, “I Am”- But the witness is there, too, watching “you” read. He calls the I Am “binoculars” that are used to see the witness, and once both are seen together: the Absolute, or Oneness that obliterates both (all) concepts into the All Encompassing What-The Fuck (my translation!).

    Not even thinking about all of this and just letting things happen of their own accord without our (arbitrarily constructed identity) judgmental overlay or requirements of how it should be is what its all about of course (he said confidently). Let it be.

    Hope you are all having a relaxing day.

  14. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 4, 2013 at 9:21 am |

    Having said that, then, there is also this to consider:

    “To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying, and gives moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown — the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none…. The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear….” —Friedrich Nietzsche

    “Any explanation is better than none.” And the simpler, it seems in the investment game, the better. “The markets went up because oil went down,” we are told. Then the next day the opposite relationship occurs. Then there is another reason for the movement of the markets. But we all intuitively know that things are far more complicated than that. As Nietzsche notes, dealing with the unknown can be disturbing, so we look for the simple explanation.

    “Ah,” we tell ourselves, “I know why that happened.” With an explanation firmly in hand, we now feel we know something. And the behavioral psychologists note that this state actually releases chemicals in our brain that make us feel good. We literally become addicted to the simple explanation. The fact that what we “know” (the explanation for the unknowable) is irrelevant or even wrong is not important to the chemical release. And so we look for reasons.

    That is why some people get so angry when you challenge their beliefs. You are literally taking away the source of their good feeling, like drugs from a junkie or a boyfriend from a teenage girl.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot May 5, 2013 at 6:21 am |

      So that’s why the rest of you are such assholes! Thanks for giving me something to make sense of current politics. I was really confused and scared for a moment there, since about 1968.

  15. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel May 4, 2013 at 10:14 am |

    This morning being the first saturday of the month, I had the extra monthly sitting. One regular who is a student of Dokusho Villalba, a spanish bonze who is a successor to Narita roshi, told us a story of the latter: as he came back from Japan, from his training as a priest by Narita roshi, he directed his first sesshin in Spain, before a group of awestruck people, impressed by having in front of them an authentic master, Dharma heir in third generation to the famed Kodo Sawaki. So, at the first of his teishos, he told them, showing his kesa: “Now, this is the kesa of a Zen master,” and took it off.
    Then he showed his trousers, saying: “And these are the Samu-e trousers of a Zen master,” and took them off.
    Then he showed his vest, saying: “And this is the Samu-e top of a Zen master,” and took it off.
    Then he remained in his undies, and said, “And these are the undewear of a Zen master.”
    He turned around, took the underwear off, leaned and said, “And now, this is the arse hole of a Zen master.”

    Some will say, “How undignified!” but his point was made: a Zen master, outside of his trappings, is an arse-hole just like everyone…

  16. Fred
    Fred May 4, 2013 at 2:32 pm |

    Shinzen and Sasaki’s view of the Absolute Witness/ I amness/Zero:

  17. buddy
    buddy May 5, 2013 at 8:32 am |

    i don’t know, Shinzen seems to be creating a dualism of his own, by preferencing this special state of cessation where phenomena disappear. If one is able to realize that form is truly empty, then it shouldn’t matter if forms arise or disappear- they are all an expression of emptiness, as is the self previously identified with these forms or as the witness of them. Then there’s the matter of emptiness is form, which he doesn’t get to at all.

  18. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel May 5, 2013 at 8:39 am |

    buddy wrote:

    “i don’t know, …”

    I quite agree.

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm |

    “If you’re serious about practice you ought to try to do at least one a year.”

    I very much appreciate that viewpoint, but I have done several and I feel that getting a full night sleep is more important that doing a meditation retreat. I have always, without fail, come out of retreats feeling beaten down and dog-tired, strictly owing to lack of adequate sleep.

    Just about the only thing in life that I value more than sitting is getting enough quality sleep. Sufficient quality sleep is the missing link for many or most people, in my opinion.

  20. AnneMH
    AnneMH May 5, 2013 at 3:40 pm |

    on the sleep issue, well I almost always take the afternoon break to take a nap, after a couple days I don’t seem to need it as much. However coming from the high speed week and work often we are exhausted when we show up. I take the week before to wean off my high caffeine levels so I am more functional on much less caffeine. That is why I don’t mind a little softer schedule than I read here. I have not seen an issue with people letting the retreat teacher know they need some extra rest, Not sure if that has been your experience.

  21. sri_barence
    sri_barence May 5, 2013 at 4:08 pm |

    More importantly, Brad forgot to wear his bunny ears to the retreat. This was a serious oversight; I hope he remembers next time…

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm |

    “Shinzen seems to be creating a dualism of his own, by preferencing this special state of cessation where phenomena disappear.”

    on the side panel was a video titled, “Nondual awareness- how did you do it?”

    I couldn’t get past the part of that video where Mr. Young starts to explain the terminology. The grace is in letting go of doing anything at all, isn’t it?

    The heart sutra reminds me that there is nothing in form or in emptiness that can guide me:

    “Passing by, it falls into a ditch;
    Coming back, all the worse, it is lost.”
    (Mumon, part of his poem on 38)

    well, good morning; tell me, how long, do I have to wait: well, can I get here now, or must I hesitate?

  23. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 5, 2013 at 8:58 pm |

    Case 38, A Buffalo Passes The Window

    Goso said, ‘A buffalo passes by the window. His head, horns, and four legs all go past. But why can’t the tail pass too?’

    Mumon’s Comment

    If you make a complete about-face, open your eye, and give a turning word on this point, you will be able to repay the four kinds of love that have favored you and help the sentient beings in the three realms who follow you.

    If you are still unable to do this, return to this tail and reflect upon it, and then for the first time you will realize something.

    Mumon’s Verse

    Passing by, it falls into a ditch;
    Coming back, all the worse, it is lost.
    This tiny little tail,
    What a strange thing it is!”

    (Katsuki Sekida, “Two Zen Classics”)

  24. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 5, 2013 at 9:06 pm |

    “No ignorance and also no extinction of it,
    and so forth until no old age and death
    and also no extinction of them.

    No suffering, no origination,
    no stopping, no path, no cognition,
    also no attainment with nothing to attain.”

    Always here.

  25. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel May 6, 2013 at 2:53 am |

    sri_barence wrote:

    “More importantly, Brad forgot to wear his bunny ears to the retreat. This was a serious oversight; I hope he remembers next time…”

    Well, I made him a dunce’s bonnet once, and he ought to wear it in sesshins!

  26. dwise100
    dwise100 May 6, 2013 at 10:36 am |

    Thanks to all who worked to put the retreat on. If my opinion mattered in the least, I’d say it went quite well. 😉

  27. mtto
    mtto May 9, 2013 at 11:38 pm |

    The schedule was lights out at 9pm, wake up at 5:20am. That’s 8 hours of sleep. I didn’t experience the crazy tiredness that I’ve had sitting a Rohatsu sesshin or at other retreats in different traditions.

    From Brad’s descriptions, Nishijima’s idea about retreats is that they shouldn’t be TOO different from your daily life. I can understand the point of waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning if you are going to live at a monastery for 3 months, but if a retreat is just 3-7 days, the crazy schedule is just going to fuck with your sleep patterns.

  28. Ralph124C41
    Ralph124C41 May 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm |

    The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

  29. boubi
    boubi May 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm |

    “the crazy schedule” could be meant to disrupt whatever pattern, not only sleep, beyond the fact that people can get used to crazy schedules.

    It can also disrupt “usual” mental process, helping in whatever meditation is aimed to.

    One of the side effects being to help “dropping the BS”, somehow the mind gets too tired to produce, feed and prop up all that bull.

    It also lengthen the time dedicated to meditation, which has a cumulative effect too, which is the goal of the long sesshins, to push the envelope, to push you down the cliff.

    In those sesshins you should get a brief nap after lunch, during which you fall in deep sleep and you get rested as of you slept longer, i don’t know how you call it, “fractionated sleep” (?).

  30. robert
    robert May 23, 2013 at 5:30 am |


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