One of the earliest Buddhist practices was what we now call in English a “retreat” or, if you’re from the San Francisco Zen Center or one of its offshoots, a “practice period.” In Japanese it’s called ango, which means “peaceful residing.” This is where you set aside a certain period of your life to devote yourself solely to meditation.
In ancient India, the rainy season lasted for around 90 days. In a society that was still largely agrarian, there wasn’t much productive work you could do during the rainy season. So it was a perfect time to seclude yourself in a hut and meditate all day for the duration.
The Japanese rainy season (tsuyu) isn’t as long as India’s. It generally lasts about 30 days, usually in June. Still, the Zen Buddhists of Dogen’s time stuck with the Indian tradition of 90-day retreats, starting in June and lasting through the Summer.
In our time, a 90-day retreat is a very difficult commitment. They still exist, but I’ve never been able to do one. And if someone as devoted to Zen practice as me can’t get it together to do a full 90 days, it’s unlikely people less committed are going to be able to manage it.
In order to do a 90-day meditation intensive or — God forbid! — devote years to monastic training, you’ve got to be either really convinced or truly crazy. Or else you could just be so desperate that you feel you need a very extreme solution to whatever is bugging you. I mean, how are you gonna pay the bills and prepare yourself for life in this world if you’re just hanging out on a mountain somewhere staring at the walls all day with a bunch of other damaged/crazy people?
Fortunately, there are now some easier options.
Once again we’re hosting a three-day (that’s 90 divided by 30) Zen and Yoga retreat at Mt Baldy Zen Center. This one is March 18-20, 2016.
Retreats are a vital part of Zen practice. While daily sitting is the core of Zen practice, it’s important to also do longer practice times whenever possible. There is a depth of practice that only happens when you engage with yourself over a long period of time. For those of us who can’t spare 90 days, one-day, three-day, five-day or seven-day retreats are all great ways to do this.
The idea of sitting and staring at a wall for a day or several days can seem like a depressing prospect if you’ve never done it before. Sometimes I overstate the boredom associated with Zen practice to try and counter some of the extravagantly romantic descriptions you get elsewhere.
But it’s actually not boring or depressing at all. You get to see yourself as you really are and you can often solve some of your deepest, most troubling problems just by looking at them carefully. Solutions just sort of pop out at you. It’s kind of amazing.
We also do a chanting service each morning and evening, work periods, and yoga led by my friend, yoga instructor Nina Snow. There will also be lectures and Q&A sessions, as well as the opportunity for dokusan (personal meetings) with me. And you’ll be able to take advantage of the beautiful location for hiking during free periods.
If you sign up for a “Zen and Yoga” or “Zen and Calligraphy” or “Zen and Lacrosse” or “Zen and whatever” retreat at some places I’ve spent time at, what you’ll get will be a lot of yoga or calligraphy or lacrosse and a small amount of (almost always optional) Zen. Meditation centers generally know that meditation is a tough sell and often minimize or very nearly eliminate actual sitting from the schedule. The idea of such retreats is to get you in the door with the hope that maybe 10% of those who sign up might come back some day.
On the other hand, some Zen places go to the opposite extreme. They expect even first-timers to sit for as much as ten hours a day and will, quite literally, hit you with a big wooden stick if you so much as scratch or sniffle.
What we offer is a genuine Zen retreat with the yoga added to soften the impact of so much sitting. We offer three and a half hours of seated meditation on the longest of the three days along with about two hours of yoga (split into two sessions) and lecture/discussion periods. Meals are eaten in silence as a way of continuing the meditation during the meals. There is also a Zen style work period of 40 minutes, which is yet another opportunity to practice meditation with movement.
During the sitting periods, I also offer personal consultations with all participants (dokusan). Just think of it, folks! You’ll be able to sit with me in a room and talk!
This is the perfect amount of sitting for both beginners and long-time practitioners. It’s not too much for beginners to deal with and it’s not so little that people who’ve practiced for a while feel cheated. And if they do, we offer free time in the schedule when you can go to the zendo and sit some more if you want. I used to do that when I attended Gudo Nishijima’s retreats, which had a similar schedule. You can also skip yoga and lectures to sit if you feel so inclined.
Three and a half hours of staring at a wall can seem like a lot to someone who has never done zazen at all. In fact, it is a lot. That’s the idea. One of the most effective ways to do Zen practice is to do it longer than you imagine you can endure. If ten minutes is your limit, do fifteen. If you’re too angry or too stressed or your mind is racing too much for you to do 40 minutes, then do 45 minutes.
That last bit, the part of your practice in which you feel like you can’t possibly go on any longer, is the best. It’s like exercising. You have to push a little. You’re bothered by your overactive mind because you give in too quickly to whatever it demands of you. This is true for me and for everybody else too. When you learn in practice not to give in so easily, you train the mind to be still when it doesn’t get exactly what it imagine it wants. By not scratching every single itch that comes up and not shifting around each time you feel like it, you learn something incredibly valuable. You learn how to be fine with the things that come up even when you don’t really like them. And you also learn how to enjoy the things you like that much more because you can stay with what’s actually going on.
We’re also very liberal at our retreats. If you have to miss part of it, nobody’s going to bug you about it. If you’d rather go hike up the mountain while the rest of us are sitting, we’re not gonna tell you not to. We may wonder why you signed up for a Zen retreat instead of just driving up Mt. Baldy and hiking on your own, but that’s about it.
So if you’re interested in taking your practice a step or two beyond what it already is, please click on the link below and sign up. Our discounted early-bird special rate is still available for a few more days. But hurry up!
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Registration is now OPEN for our Spring Zen & Yoga Retreat March 18-20, 2016 at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, California
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center
March 5-6, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center
March 9, 2016 El Paso, Texas Eloise Coffeeshop/Bar 7:00pm
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info
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One of the main ways I make money when I’m not leading retreats is through your donations to this blog. I won’t get any of the recent Angel City Zen Center fundraiser money. I appreciate your on-going support!
I went to the Mt Baldy retreat a couple of years ago, and I really enjoyed it. The sangha seemed to be very committed to practice, and the food was excellent.
“In our time, a 90-day retreat is a very difficult commitment. They still exist, but I’ve never been able to do one. And if someone as devoted to Zen practice as me can’t get it together to do a full 90 days, it’s unlikely people less committed are going to be able to manage it.”
You’ve never done an Ango…?
Totally weird and off the wall question, but how many sesshins have you sat? Not daily zazenkai’s or 3-day sesshins, but the full 5-7 day sesshins?
Who knows? A few. Probably not enough for someone who would ask that question.
Then again, I had a teacher who specifically said he thought that sesshins lasting longer than three days were not a good thing because they removed you too much from daily life. Nishijima Roshi was very committed to the idea of integrating Zen practice into a life in the world. So every time I did go to a longer sesshin I felt like I was dishonoring my teacher.
I’m just baffled at the variety of training in different lineages for the same title of “Zen Master”…
Which do you think is more important: retreats, taking your practice off the cushion, or neither?
By taking your practice off the cushion do you mean no one taking nothing into somewhere?
Because if no one is doing nothing, it seems that would be easy to do everywhere all day long.
My Dad is S.M.A.R.T. !!
All of them.
I like the schedule, wish I could attend, but alas!
Interesting to hear that Nishijima felt three days was enough, I know I heard Vanja Palmers say the same thing. Seven is based on Gautama’s statement in the Pali Canon, that anyone who sat at least seven would attain some result (enlightenment or never-returning, I believe- I’ll have to look it up).
Of course, my writing lately is about the way of living Gautama said was “perfect in itself”- the antithesis of sitting to attain enlightenment. A “way of living”, that was his before and after enlightenment, a pleasant way of living suited to the Rainy Season as well (to retreats).
I think one of my contentions in “Shikantaza and Gautama the Buddha’s ‘Pleasant Way of Living'” is that the way of living he described depends on the experience of the four rupa-jhana states (and on the excellence of the heart’s release through the mind of friendliness, etc.). The way of living Gautama described doesn’t depend on the attainments that Gautama said set him apart from the two teachers that preceded him– the last of which attainments appears to have been synonymous with his enlightenment (about the nature of suffering, as summarized in the four truths).
So he was prescribing a way of living, “the concentration on in-breathing and out-breathing”, that was his before enlightenment. Seven days not required; ok to just breathe in or out, thinking as necessary. The best of ways, perfect in itself, and a pleasant way of living, too.
Of course, it was his way of living in the Rainy Season too, 90 days.
If I go right ahead, I can’t move a muscle (like being awake when my body’s asleep– should be the other way around!).
“Bhikkhus, if anyone should develop these four foundations of mindfulness in such a way for seven years, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, non-return. Let alone seven years, bhikkhus. If anyone should develop these four foundations of mindfulness in such a way for six years… for five years… for four years… for three years… for two years… for one year… for seven months… for six months… for five months… for four months… for three months… for two months… for one month… for half a month, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, non-return.
Let alone half a month, bhikkhus. If anyone should develop these four foundations of mindfulness in such a way for SEVEN DAYS, one of two fruits could be expected for him: either final knowledge here and now, or if there is a trace of clinging left, non-return.”
So come on down to Crazy Buddha’s Vipassana Retreat! His requirements for enlightenment are so low, he’s practically giving it away!
(Not available in all areas. Terms and conditions may apply. Individual results may vary. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.)
So enlightenment has a no-return policy?
I must have done close to 150 retreats over the last 25 years, maybe even more, I have never counted them. The last one I did was last December, a 7 days sesshin, 14 hours of sitting per days. Half of the retreat that I have done were 7 days, the remaining were 3, 4 and 5 days. Our sesshin had no ‘gaps’, meaning, no time for our own selves, no hiking, no yoga, but we had a 30 minutes stretching period late in the afternoon, no talking at all except for dokusan (personal consultation) which we were ‘invited’ to twice a day. It was a very rigid time schedule, to which we were not allowed to deviated from, either you followed the schedule and participate fully or you were out. None of us were resident monks, we were all lay practitioners, all had a life of their own, most were working (yes had real jobs) , had a family of their own, etc. When sesshin were over, all of us returned home, returned to a life in the world.
7 Days sesshin were the ‘best’, they were the best because just after being there for a few hours, you deeply regret being there, ‘why did I registered for a whole week’, you simply cannot see the end of it, and let go right at the beginning of the sesshin. In a three or four days sesshin, you know you will be out of there quite fast, but not in a 7 days sesshin.
Boredom, despair, darkness, are sure sign that you are involved fully in your practice, if not, then you are daydreaming your practice. I do not think that you get to see yourself as you really are, after all whatever self who shows up, being delusional to start with, will eventually fade away, until you have no-self to cling to at all. That is the time of total panic for many, and bliss for others. Whatever pop up as problems or solutions will eventually be seen as illusory and also fade away. The amazing ‘thing’ have never been solutions, but seeing into that there were no ‘real’ problems to start with, only the appearance of a problem and/or the illusory appearance of a solution. Manjushri sword cuts in one, not in two. When both problems and solutions or seeking for those solutions vanishes, there is a tremendous release of tensions, you let go and then feel at ease, you are home.
When you come out of those sesshin, you are very happy, happy to be finally out of there, the hellish condition is now over. As you drive back home, everything is silent, still, the whole world kind of bathe into this silence, this peace, joy and stillness. But there is also something ‘wrong’ with this ‘state’ of bliss; you cannot allowed this ‘state’ to be disrupted, and can be very nasty if someone comes around disrupting you, quite fast you can burst into anger. The creative tension is at its maximum strength when coming out of a 7 day sesshin, and I did a lot of mistake and highly delusional thinking because of this inner creative tension. Once you went thru those a few time, you get to be very careful when coming out of sesshin. As the years passes, you learn something very real, real right into your flesh and bones, there is no such thing as practice or Zen, and it is all useless, but I would not have known this if I would not have done all those 7 days sesshin. One word of advice, abandon all hope right from the beginning, there is actually nothing at all to gain from this practice.
Have a nice and cozy retreat!
Interesting description. Thank you.
My experiences with 7-day sesshins have been similar but not quite the same. I feel like every time I’ve sat even a 3-day sesshin at least one real world thing has been resolved. Some are pretty minor, but occasionally it’s something big.
The other weird thing for me was that after many years of doing only sesshins lasting 3-days or less (well, a couple lasted 4 because some of N’s students demanded it), I went to my first 7-day sesshin. I felt like I was cheating on my teacher, but I did it anyway.
ANYHOW, the weird thing was that it was almost exactly like a 3-day sesshin only longer. If that makes any sense. It was just more, rather than being qualitatively different. Every other 7-day sesshin I’ve done has felt like that too.
What Nishijima Roshi referred to as the matter of removing oneself from the world is, I think, what you expressed when you said, “But there is also something ‘wrong’ with this ‘state’ of bliss; you cannot allowed this ‘state’ to be disrupted, and can be very nasty if someone comes around disrupting you, quite fast you can burst into anger.” The longer you cloister yourself the harder it is to make the transition back. And you have to transition back. Even people who try to maintain lifelong monastic commitments can’t completely avoid encountering to so-called “real world.”
To me, this is highly significant. I mean spiritually significant. Cosmically significant. To me, it says that my real work is in that so-called “real world” (false and deluded as it so often is).
What I see with people who spend too much time in monastic settings is that they can get really blissed out and seem kind of cosmic and spacey, maybe happy even in a sort of goofy, glassy-eyed way. But at the same time they get very weak in the areas of dealing with normal life. It’s like what happens to our feet in modern cultures.
When I lived in Africa as a child I knew lots of Africans who went shoeless pretty much all the time. Their feet were tougher than shoe leather. We more modern folks (for want of a better term), on the other hand, have very sensitive soft feet. Whereas those Africans I knew could walk across broken glass without much real trouble, we can’t even stand to step on a pebble because we’re too sensitive.
This is fine as long as you can always wear shoes. And we’ve built up a society where that’s possible. So it’s not a major issue.
But we have not built up a world yet where the kind of overall super sensitivity (both physical and emotional) one develops in a cloistered monastic setting is possible outside the confines of a monastery (or sometimes even inside). So people who spend too much time in such settings become too weak to survive without tremendous help from the rest of us.
That, I think, becomes a serious problem. The monastic can end up being a burden on society. Perhaps s/he can also contribute. But not everyone who becomes a monastic is also able to translate that experience into anything useful to others. If they can’t, they may become just a very blissed out drain on the rest of us. In which case I don’t see it as that much more beneficial to society as a whole than being a strung-out heroin addict surviving on public assistance while refusing to give up smack.
Sure, such a person is a little bit more beneficial, but not by much as far as I can see.
I guess that’s a pretty harsh assessment. But it’s hard for me to see it any other way.
So…too much is too much, but not enough is not enough?
I sit as I feel. My world never changes.
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