Sunday, 9 August 2009

Sesshin in Eiheji.

After some waiting, chin rubbing and a possible let-down, I heard today that I can attend a sesshin in Eiheiji temple, the head temple of the Soto Zen school. I visited there before as a tourist and it's a very beautiful place. I was able to see the training monks, albeit from a distance, going about some of their daily chores. There is a big visitors centre which holds retreats two or three times each month.

The monk at the temple I do zazen at is worried about me going, even though he has organised it. He's particularly worried about me sitting seiza (on my haunches) for periods of up to two hours. It's scaring me too a bit, but I've been hoping to go to a sesshin for some time now. This will be my first. He says that I'll need a bit of coaching before I go. I was thinking of smuggling in a few morphine shots to whack into my legs when the going gets nasty. What I'm worried about is the food situation. It's typical temple oryoki, which means small amounts of food, served quite infrequently. Here's the sesshin schedule:

  • 3:30 - Shinrei (wake up bell)
  • 3:50 - Kyoten zazen (Morning zazen)
  • 5:00 - Choka (Morning service)
  • 7:00 - Shojiki (Breakfast)
  • 8:30 - Samu (Work period)
  • 10:00 - Guchu zazen (Late-morning zazen)
  • 11:00 - Nicchu (Midday service)
  • 12:00 - Chujiki (Lunch)
  • 13:00 - Samu (Work period)
  • 14:00 - Hoji zazen (Afternoon zazen)
  • 16:00 - Banka (Evening service)
  • 17:00 - Yakuseki (Evening meal)
  • 19:00 - Yaza (Evening zazen)
  • 21:00 - Kaichin (Lights out)
As you can see, there's a 14 hour gap between even meal and breakfast. I'm not altogether sure why it's so tough. I suppose it could be argued that when we are confronted with pain in life, our motivation for overcoming pain is increased, and that the sesshin schedule, therefore, will focus minds in zazen. That's what I'm hoping. The monk at my temple tells me that the seiza periods are at least one hour, which is severe. However, I can see that morning service is scheduled for two hours, which is a monster session. Two hours of seiza on a very empty stomach. Ouchies. Morphine, see!


  1. In my experience of retreats long services are less challeneging than long periods of zazen! Perhaps because the mind has something external to focus on, or perhaps just because I love the chanting & ceremony! :-)

    Less food in your stomach might take some adjusting but actually it makes meditation easier I think from experience and from what I've read.

    Pain in the legs is a barrier you have to overcome at some point if you attend intensive retreats also - very few people don't come up against it at some point - and there are teachings on how to use the pain productively. It usually has a mixture of physiological and psychological causes, so even if you are very flexible and adjust your posture to be very comfortable, when things come up in your mind they sometimes hurt in your body! And maintaining any still posture that is different to what we do in everyday life can be uncomfortable after a while. Uncomfortable sensations can easily be experienced as pain!

    I hope it goes well and look forward to hearing more about it when you come back! (I'm a bit envious actually!)

  2. Hi puerhan, how's it going?

    The monk at my temple told me on the phone eariler that he'll show me a seiza cheat which will be hidden under the hakama garment I'll be wearing. He was in Eiheiji for three years, so he knows a shortcut or two (probably a whole lot more that that actually). I'm still on the look out for morphine shots though :oP

    Man, I sit seiza at my weekly zazenkai at the temple, while we chant after sitting. Usually it takes no more than 10 mins and I'm like an old man getting to my feet and making my way towards the front of the temple for samu. It's like I've had someone else's legs translanted on. They'll be dragging me across the tatami after a hour of it in Eiheiji.

  3. What about asking those who are responsible for the sesshin at Eiheiji? I think they will be not so harsh to really insist on seiza for about two hours. You may probably change your position, if the pain gets too hard. I have done so too during long chants, although not at Eiheiji.
    Anyway, have a good sesshin!

  4. Judging by what I've heard about discipline at Eiheiji, for lay people as well as nivice monks, I'm not sure if they'll make an exception. Anyways, I'm up for it, whatever it takes. I'm sure I'll survive. As puerhan said above, there should be plenty to focus on externally, lots of very interesting things happening during the ceremonies, so it'll be sound. Sure, once my legs go numb then I've nothing to worry about, apart from standing up that is!