Most people would agree that a Zen retreat trains us in zazen, the meditation and quality of meditation which brings life into reality. Having just returned from a sesshin, an intense period of practice, I would say that it also lays the foundation in us for social action, and inspires in us the basic quality of looking after others. Here’s how I have come to see that.
I have practised Zen for a number of years, and always saw it as a personal training which would allow me to see the stuff of my life in a clearer way. I saw no real difference between sitting alone at home, and sitting with the Zen group. While it is wonderful for people to sit alone, especially if they don’t have access to a group, I would suggest that sitting in this way we miss half of the practice. I certainly did. I have always been nervous of joining groups, as I think many of us are. When you read tales of the inspiring Zen characters like Ikkyu or Bankei, often they appear as lone operators, and if they didn’t need a group, why should we? Of course, this is the way spiritual biography is written, but I bet without the support of many unsung fellows, those famous Zen masters wouldn’t have got very far.
So, I always attended sesshin and group Zen practice days with a grudging attitude. I resented the outfits worn and the rules that governed everything: it was far too near to my experience of boarding school for my liking. This most recent sesshin was different. I was taking the Bodhisattva Vows, and immediately learned a valuable lesson: commit to people, and they commit right back. From having felt like the outsider, spiritually lurking on the edge of things and insisting on my own solid individuality, I was cast into a web of support, nurturing and encouragement. I began to observe, and this is what I saw.
If you’ve never been to a Zen sesshin, allow me just to make a quick sketch. It is quite a formal experience; it is quite a regimented experience. Early rising, lots of zazen, practical work periods and a fair amount of ritual at all points of the day all add up to an intense atmosphere. We might even say that to get through a sesshin is difficult. People might be reeling from the pain which can come out of practicing zazen; they may well be exhausted from lack of sleep or from working hard.
What this means is that there are many opportunities to care for and help people, and many opportunities to benefit from such care. I watched experienced monks sewing alongside ordainees to complete items necessary for the upcoming ceremonies. I watched teas and coffees being offered to those tired people who needed refreshment. I enjoyed the fruits of the kitchen brigade as they fuelled us with their delicious efforts, far above and beyond mere sustenance. Amidst the formal, crazy rhythm of sesshin, time was found to make birthday cake for someone’s fortieth, lifts were given to town for vital missions, and someone had positioned beautiful flower arrangements throughout the corridors.
Even in the relatively strict formal space in the zendo, the practice hall, small yet vital offerings of kindness were observed: a cushion slipped in behind someone at the right time, whispered help when things were forgotten, and adjustments made to help people sit with less pain. I quite literally had been blind to this tight little web of dependent existence that arises within each sesshin. Immediately I found that once I perceived it, I was part of it. I realised that so much of the ritual is about keeping the mind and heart open to others’ needs. At mealtimes, we serve others first. In zazen, we bow if we make a noise or movement that might distract. We look after objects and surroundings by keeping them clean, and by using them wholeheartedly but carefully, like closing doors without slamming, like arranging shoes neatly when they are removed.
There were times of course when things weren’t looked after as they should be, when there were disagreements, oversights or arguments. At these times, the clarity of zazen anchored people and helped to speed the process of letting go. Hours of sitting really open you to your suffering, and at the same time reveal the fact of other people’s suffering, if only because you can hear it in the breathing and rhythm of the zendo. In sitting zazen, which is very easy to see as a practise only for one’s self, even here we are supporting others by our presence and manner, and they in turn support us in the same way. The overarching vision of the sesshin is simply to practice together. Such a simple vision gives rise to a whole host of demands, goals, and relationships, as the sangha pulls together to feed itself, organise spaces to sit and to eat and to sleep, to pay its costs and gather necessary goods.
This marvellous sesshin activity helped me realise: practice is looking after whether looking after moments on the cushion, spreadsheets on the computer, pots and pans in the kitchen, or the suffering of another. Social action too is looking after, using our awareness to identify where action may be needed, then using our concentration to stay close to the heart of the suffering without bringing our own story in to clutter things. This was a revelation to me: it is so very easy to keep our own stories at the centre of things, and our culture causes us to excel at this kind of living. I have often fallen prey to this tendency. The decision to take the Bodhisattva Vows had a strange gravity to it, and pointed me in the direction away from the self-centred model. Taking the Vows also entails taking the Precepts: the Precepts themselves bring awareness to all the various junctures in our lives where there is the potential for blindness or a lack of wisdom, where there is potential for our relationship to the world to become narrow and self-serving. The Bodhisattva lives in the world from as big a vision as possible, yet this may manifest as the simplest, most mundane activity. It’s not really about saving so much as savouring, with each everyday encounter being an opportunity to open.
I had always thought myself to be above those who were part of the group, thinking them to be lacking in vision or bravery. The important thing is not to make “the group” simply another identity to toy with, but rather view it as a vehicle for bringing us into contact with the needs of others. The group, the sangha, is simply another face of society, in fact it is that aspect of society in which all beings possess Buddha nature, and it is a supreme place for practice. It may be that some people have the vision for the sweeping changes or the grand schemes.
They are like the Bodhisattva Manjusri, cutting through old conditions with his blade in a single slice. Social action needs these visionaries. But for someone just starting out like myself, the thousand tiny actions of awareness and care as exemplified by the Bodhisattva Kannon with her thousand arms which never cease, this may be the place to start. I saw on this sesshin a thousand acts of kindness, and with the help of the Bodhisattva Vows I feel ready to leap into this web and assume the place of one of those nodes through which positive action may flow. Maybe all beings can get through their tough sesshin of existence in this way. The leader of our sesshin said this in his closing speech: “When we come together, though we don’t know how, we achieve wonderful things.” So if we don’t know what else to do, let’s at least just come together.