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.
The 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.
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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
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