“I feel like no matter where I am this week, I’m in the way of something,” I whispered across the table.
“That’s the way it always is when you’re not in sesshin,” whispered back one of my breakfast companions.
Three of us were sharing a table in the otherwise empty dining hall, a small contingent of residents who were still “working outside” this week instead of sitting in the Rohatsu sesshin (a week-long meditation retreat) here at City Center. We were whispering because the building is in silence no matter whether you’re in sesshin or not, and there was oryoki happening in the zendo directly beneath us. But it’s hard to just stop talking altogether, and sometimes the commentary comes out. So there’s a dance we do, exchanging meaningful glances, maybe starting with a whispered “good morning” to see how strictly the other is observing these rules and whether a stolen conversation might be up for grabs. It’s not unlike negotiating a first kiss on a date, but perhaps without the romance.
I love Rohatsu sesshin and this is the first time in four years that I haven’t been a participant. The sesshin always coincides with a particularly intense time of year at my day job when we are preparing for our year-end Board meeting. In the past I have foisted my duties onto colleagues while I stayed home to sit in a dimly lit zendo for seven days, but this year I decided that was not quite fair so I sat a long sesshin earlier in the year instead. As I wrestled with the 380-page docket into the wee hours of the night it felt like a successful friendship between the two practices: sesshin is an artificial container for arranging an intimate meeting with your own personal responses and habits, and a complicated board docket seemed to have much the same effect. I confronted document footers and corrupted files and revisions and deadlines in the particular way that I do and thought of the people at home sitting majestically and steadfastly through the day and into the night, and it all just seemed to weave together perfectly.
The difference between ‘sesshin’ and ‘not-sesshin’ is not only in the silence. The sesshin participants are all in muted dark clothing, eyes cast down, and over the course of the week under the influence of hours of meditation their minds settle in and their movements become more economical, their attention more open. They glide through the building like Neo in the Matrix, knowing what is ahead because their ears and eyes are receptive, even if they are not looking around. By contrast, it feels as though even my clothing is loud and distracting and that my incoherent thoughts must be noticeable as if I am carrying myself around muttering out loud. I feel clumsy and apt to trip over every thing and every one. It’s not that sesshin gives a person an increased sense of vigilance; rather, it creates an enhanced, relaxed awareness in comparison with everyday life. This week they had it and I didn’t.
The three of us at breakfast whispered about how not being in sesshin creates a practice of “slinking” for the week, trying to avoid running into ceremonial processions or people engaged in official sesshin business by timing one’s movements through the building and using back staircases when necessary. This is not out of a feeling that we are doing something wrong that needs to be hidden. For me it’s two things: first, to support the sesshin participants in creating that environment that is free from distraction, and second, because frankly I just love a good ballet. To run into the doshi while he’s moving from one altar to the other offering incense is kind of like being a stage hand who bumbles onto the stage and knocks over a few props. It happens to me more than I want to admit, and it’s not ideal.
Sometimes this choreography of slinking does work out well, such as Wednesday morning when I was heading into work a bit early and was coming out of the bathroom just when the morning service was starting. I heard two hits on the han in the ‘holy hall’ signaling that the doshi was making his way down to the Buddha Hall, so I halted on the other side of the doorway, waiting for him and his jisha to pass.
At that moment my friend Daigan burst out of his room in his busily patterned robe on his way to the men’s bathroom (which is also in the ‘holy hall’) and whispered, “have they gone by yet?” I peered through the thick glass wall next to the door and whispered back “here they come,” watching two dark blobs moving from left to right across the glass as the doshi and his jisha passed onto the staircase and out of sight. We waited two seconds and then opened the door to pass to the other side, comfortably avoiding collision.
I have appreciated sesshin this week. Mostly my connection to it has been through ceremony: the Suzuki Roshi Annual Memorial, the Full Moon ceremony, and Buddha’s Enlightenment ceremony. Setting up the altars in my last month as head chiden (no, really!), I felt grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the efforts that people were making in their zazen. The flow of giving seemed to go both ways, as the quiet of the building helped me drop down a notch from the busyness of my day when I returned each night. Add to that the sweetness of being head chiden for Rohatsu – the small oryoki bowl left anonymously (somewhat) at my door with an offering of ceremonial manju from Buddha’s Enlightenment ceremony. Delicious and thank you!