What a Zen Retreat Is and What It Is Not

There’s a reason they built statues to a guy whose main talent was his ability to sit still.

The Angel City Zen Center will be holding a Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center April 5-7, 2019. Please sign up now!

While I was thinking about what to say to promote the retreat, I looked through my old blogs. I found a post from January, 2013, a few months before our first Mt. Baldy retreat. The way I described what I intended for the retreat to be is what our retreats ended up becoming.

So here is a little blast from the past:


This will be a full-on Zen retreat (also called a sesshin, which means “touching the heart/mind”). Participants will be required to maintain silence for most of the three days. There will be no cell phones or computer use allowed. The main activity will be zazen. There won’t be any workshops or games or weenie and marshmallow roasts. Drug and alcohol use will not be tolerated. But there will be a period of yoga each day, a chanting service each morning, a few talks by me followed by Q&A sessions, a work period each day and opportunities for dokusan (personal meetings with me) for all participants. There will be free time for hiking and exercise too.

After Nina Snow, our resident yoga instructor, and I returned from Mt. Baldy on Monday, a friend of mine started talking to me about ways he thought we could get more participants at our retreats and thereby make more money. He was saying we could add fun activities, more talks, less zazen, etc. And, of course, all of this would bring in more people. But then it wouldn’t be a Zen retreat. It would be something else. At best it would be a weekend in the mountains with a bit of zazen thrown in. Which, I admit, wouldn’t be the worst thing people could do.

But here’s the thing. People are always complaining that their minds are too busy to do meditation.

Your mind is not too busy to do meditation.

I don’t care who you are or how busy your mind is. Your mind is just as busy as everybody else’s. Your mind and Buddha’s mind are equally as busy. Meditation is hard for everyone who does it. Everyone. If it wasn’t difficult to sit still and be quiet they wouldn’t build giant statues commemorating people whose main claim to fame is that they could sit still and be quiet. It’s hard work. But you can do it.

One of the things that makes a person’s mind seem “too busy for meditation” is the way we are constantly agitating our brains with unnecessary information and stimulation. It’s like sitting there poking your eye with your finger over and over and then complaining that you can’t see clearly.

Retreats in which participants get to chat or play with their computers or go for trips to local sightseeing spots etc. rob those participants of the opportunity to go deeply into silence.

Retreats like that may offer people who are super busy and super stimulated a chance to be a little less busy and a little less stimulated. And that’s OK, I suppose.

But that’s not what a Zen retreat is about. A Zen retreat is about going deeply into silence for several days. And you can only go deeply into silence for several days by going deeply into silence for several days. You can’t half-ass it.


That’s what I said six years ago, and that’s still the kind of retreats we do now.

Let me give you an example of what kind of a retreat ours will not be, to give you some idea what other folks are doing these days in the name of “Zen.”

This week I got an email advertising a “Three Day Collective Self and Collective Karma Sesshin” at the Brooklyn Zen Center. Here is their description in part: “During this three-day sesshin, we will be considering the teachings of karma, emptiness and no harm with regard to collective constructions of self.”

Uh-huh. Go on… A couple sentences later they say, ”When we are asked to look at patriarchy or racial identities and whiteness, we are not pointing toward the individual or the personal, but toward the ways in which we manifest a collective self that has unconscious karmic effects beyond what we can possibly see through a personal lens.”

So that’s the Brooklyn Zen Center’s idea of the appropriate thing to do with a sesshin (here’s their full description). It’s not mine at all. It makes me sad to see how degraded the tradition has become.

To me, a Zen sesshin is a time to look deeply into oneself, not through the trendy lens of fashionable and divisive identity politics, but in accordance with the long established Zen tradition.

There are plenty of places to talk about race, and whiteness, and the patriarchy. More than enough. People are talking about those topics everywhere these days. On the other hand, it is rare and precious to be able to gather together a group of people willing not only to talk about Zen but to actually do it. 

To me, the idea of wasting a Zen sesshin by using it for discussing stuff like whiteness, race, and the patriarchy is utterly appalling. It’s a way of doing precisely what I promised I would not do six years ago, “agitating our brains with unnecessary information and stimulation” and metaphorically poking ourselves in the eye to make sure we won’t see anything clearly during the long periods of intensive zazen practice.

What the Brooklyn Zen Center is doing at this sesshin violates the entire purpose of doing a sesshin, in my not-so-humble opinion. I promise I won’t do that to you this April or at any retreat I lead.

I’ll be leading at least six sesshins this year (see below for the dates of the ones that are confirmed). When I give talks at those sesshins, I’ll be looking at the works of Dogen and other great teachers of this lineage. I know that it’s not very often people get a chance to be exposed to ideas like Dogen’s. It’s especially rare to hear Dogen’s philosophy while doing the very practice that he did and that he taught to others.

I’ll do a different talk at each lecture period at each of those sesshins. Even so, I am sure I will never run out of material from the established tradition and be forced to look to what’s trending on social media for something to say.

I have no time during a sesshin to talk about topics you could read about in any random article from Huffington Post or hear about in any number of shrill, noisy YouTube videos.


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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a JerkHardcore Zen,  Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!



May 30-June 2, 2019 RETREAT Hämmenlinna, Finland

June 3-5, 2019 TALK Vienna, Austria

June 7, 2019 TALK Prague, Czech Republic

June 8, 2019 RETREAT Prague, Czech Republic

June 10, 2019 Warsaw, Poland

June 12-16, 2019 DOMICILIUM RETREAT near Munich, Germany

June 19-23, 2019 BENEDIKTUSHOF RETREAT near Wurzburg, Germany

June 24/25, 2019 TALK Nijmegen, Netherlands

June 29-July 2, 2019 HEBDEN BRIDGE RETREAT, England

July 4, 2019 TALK in London, England

July 6, 2019 TALK AND ZAZEN in Paris, France




Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent StreetLos Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info

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