Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sesshin in Japan

Nobuko just sent this wonderful note about her experiences at sesshin in Japan.

Kind regards to all!

Kyoto life has been going well, and in fact, will be coming to an end in just five weeks! Much has happened though, about which I wanted to share.

From April 30-May 7th, I participated in a week-long sesshin at Bukkoku-ji, ... ..the temple in Obama, Japan (Fukui Prefecture) where Michael Pope has been doing sesshins for the past year that he has been living in Taiwan. Before I left for Japan, I contacted him about the temple and about sesshin, and luckily, the May sesshin happened to fall just at the time of Golden Week, a national holiday week in Japan during which I had a few days off of school!

With the help of the Toda family, the family of the Zen monk with whom I practice almost daily at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, I was able to telephone the temple, and make arrangements to come there for sesshin. They asked me to come in the morning, so I could get used to the temple, and have questions answered before jumping right into the sesshin. It?s a good thing I did, for I think I would have felt quite lost without the help and advice of the people living at the temple!

The temple is located on the Western coast of Japan, on the Japan sea. You can`t directly see the water, but apparently if you climb the nearby mountains (which are steep but not terribly tall, so one could do this in a couple hours) you can see the ocean.

The temple itself is a Soto temple, and differing from the major temples I am used to here in Kyoto, which I believe are partly funded by the government to keep up tourism, the temple is much smaller, humbler, but still beautiful, especially the main hall. The zendo is its own building, with the main sitting room on the second floor. In the Soto tradition, people sit facing the wall, so the room was divided with small partitions creating separate walls for each person to face. I found this interesting, and in some ways preferable (simply because it is less distracting).

I arrived at the temple around 11:00am, did the three bows to the altar which are always observed upon entering and leaving the temple, and settled in. At 11:30 was lunch, which was quite delicious with various types of foods and even a rice-bean sweet! Every meal, sesshin or not, is done sitting in seiza, usually in silence, with certain sutras chanted before breakfast and lunch. The sutras slightly differ from those we say back home; they are for the most part the same, though there were a couple I was unfamiliar with- and also one that we say at home in English was recited in Japanese. Because the people at the temple are roughly one half Japanese, and the other Westerners, the food reflected this mix. Meals are for the most part Japanese, but there were also some dishes like rosemary potatoes, Italian-style pasta salad and the like.

The actual sesshin started that night around 8pm. The first day I enjoyed myself, getting to know the people at the temple, Japanese and Westerners alike, and helping out with chores. When the actual sesshin started, it was a bit of a jolt, for I never had anticipated how being in a completely different environment would affect me. It was a bit of a culture shock, sitting with a completely different sangha (at that sesshin, there were probably around 45-50 people), most of them in robes, and a good amount of them monks. I was probably the youngest and most inexperienced person there, and the only one there at the temple for the first time. Even though I had done several sesshins at Murray Grove, in some ways it really felt like doing sesshin for the first time, all over again.

The Roshi was an 85-year-old Japanese man, who apparently had a daikensho experience in his late twenties, and has been teaching since then. Despite his age, he is certainly still very healthy and active, running the sesshin the way he did. Of course, the head monk takes care of most things, like the bell, making sure everyone gets in before sesshin and such (pretty much the way Gary does!), and in fact, I didn`t get to meet the Roshi until the second day of sesshin, during dokusan.

Dokusan was held in the afternoon, after lunch. Soon after the sit starts, a bell is rung, and people literally fly down the stairs to get in line for dokusan! It certainly shocked me a bit- in contrast with the grave silence of the sesshin, hearing people swamping down the stairs to line up behind the big bell outside of the dokusan room. Also, dokusan is held the way Kurt has told us about in teishos- the Roshi rings a bell which signals the start and end of dokusan, and most people stay in dokusan only for a minute or so. The Roshi, who has apparently become very tender-hearted in his old age, is willing to talk about anything during dokusan time, but probably because many people have been at the temple for years (and because it was quite a big sesshin!) most people went in and out pretty quickly. Also, in the Roshi`s old age, he has a hard time remembering names (and even people), so it was only by the end of the week that he understood that I was American, not Japanese, but could speak some Japanese, and had been doing zen before in America.

There is so much I could write about, but I suppose I will focus on the things about the experience which struck me most. The biggest difference was the strictness with which the rule of silence was followed- for the entire sesshin, with the exception of chanting sutras and dokusan, I literally said one word, which was ?hai? (yes) when one of the monks told me on the first day to not walk with my arms at my side, but folded in front of me. I did enjoy that aspect of the sesshin, but it certainly gave the experience a different feel than at Murray Grove. I suppose a major factor in this is the fact that during sesshin at Soto temples, there is no mandatory work period, probably to avoid talking- instead one can use the extra time to sit, take a walk, etc. There were a few people who worked in the kitchen, but even then, apparently they worked in nearly complete silence.

Getting used to these differences was certainly a challenge. The teacher didn`t speak English, gave teishos where he often would simply recite [drone out] sutras, and even one day, decided not to give a teisho. For the first few days, it felt almost as if there was no teacher. At least this was my impression, until the third day when the translator came, to assist in dokusan and give a translation of the teisho. Upon hearing the actual meaning of the teishos he gave, I was truly touched by his profundity and depth, and was a bit ashamed of my original feelings about the whole thing.

Lastly I should mention, I had my first encounter with the keisaku stick. Before the sesshin, I didn`t really understand the etiquette about how it was done (and even, why), but by the second day I soon found out. I was having trouble staying awake in those early morning hours (wake up is at 3:50, the first sit is at 4:30) and when the jiki-jitsu noticed I was starting move about, he stopped behind me, tapped me with the stick to signal I was receiving keisaku, and then commenced to hit my shoulders with the stick. I have to say though, that for all the fear that was welling up as I watched the jiki-jitsu`s shadow move past me, listening to his footsteps, wondering if he would stop behind me or not, that it truly wasn`t that bad, and that it seems to be a Western way of thinking that labels such a thing as punishment. In Japan, the keisaku (at least the way it was explained to me) is not seen as punishment, but rather as a way to induce greater concentration, release muscle tension in the back/shoulder area, and is seen symbolically as waking up the Buddha inside. (Of course, I am sure there are times that this has been abused, but in general, I think that this is the genuine intention.) During those first couple mornings that I was having trouble staying awake, I was actually grateful after getting hit with the keisaku because it really woke me up, and I felt I was able to sit better afterwards. Also, they hit specifically on an area of muscle between the shoulder blade and the spine, so it doesn`t hurt very much. (This is unrelated to Bukkoku-ji, but during a class trip to a temple, where we went to try zazen, a bunch of my classmates said that the keisaku actually felt good!) In general there are many different opinions on the matter though, so I suppose I shall leave it at that.

I hope everyone is doing well, and enjoyed the recent picnic! I am looking forward to the August sesshin!



  1. Hi Nobuko! Thank you for sharing your experience. It's really inspiring and informative to read about! When are you coming back to the states? I'm planning to go to Sogen-ji in Okayama in September. Where are you living in Japan?


  2. Hi Nobuko. Thanks for the post. It was really interesting. Felt like the first sesshin again? How refreshing! Happy that your experience is going well and happy that you'll be back soon.

    Joe Smalley

  3. Nob. Glad you are having a wonderful time in Japan. Please don't have too much fun though... We need you for august sash!