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by Robert Aitken, Roshi

This text addresses some of the most fundamental and delicate religious issues.
Therefore, it should be read, quoted and analysed in a mindful way.

Text digitised by T.Matthew Ciolek <>,
Canberra Zen Group.

Copyright (c) by Robert Aitken and Sydney Zen Center
251 Young St., Annandale, Sydney, NSW 2038, Australia.

Soon your sesshin will begin.  The word sesshin is a compound sino-Japanese term
made up of two ideographs, setsu and shin.  Shin means mind.  Setsu has several
meanings - touch, receive, convey.  Usually sesshin is literally translated to
touch the mind, but it also means to receive the mind, to convey the mind.  All
of these meanings are included in that one expression, sesshin.  It is a time to
put everything aside, to forget everything and to focus all one's enquiring
spirit through the medium of the practice, counting the breaths or koan work.

To touch the mind of course implies an individual action.  To receive the mind
and to convey the mind show how the action of realisation is not self-centred.
In fact, you are simply the agent of realisation.  If you enter sesshin with the
spirit, "I must become realised", then you are setting up a conflict with the
basic fact.  Fundamentally, heaven and earth and I are of one spirit.  All
things and I are one.   Dogen Zenji asked, "What is the mind?  The mind is
mountains, rivers and the great earth, the sun and the moon and the stars."
And of course it is all people, all things, all plants, all animals.  And
particularly in this instance it is your brothers and sisters in the dojo.  Your
own individual effort is very important but unless it is effort with the spirit
that you are the agent of realisation, it is self-centred.

Sometimes I hear people say after sesshin, "Well, I certainly worked through a
lot of things during that sesshin," and I think to myself, "That wasn't such a
good sesshin for you."   Sesshin is not a time to work things through.  Things
may be worked through in your practice but if you set yourself toward working
through things, that is to say, reviewing old traumas, then you are not using
your time effectively.

Sesshin is a time to focus wholeheartedly on one thing, just that count, just
that koan, nothing else.  You must forget yourself in that practice and then
things will be worked through.

Yasutani Haku'un Roshi used to caution us at the beginning of every sesshin that
there are three basic rules for sesshin. These rules are not established for the
sake of ritual or ceremony.  They are rules that have been worked out
empirically over many hundreds of years in the operation of Zen seclusions.
The first of these rules is no talking, not even whispering.  There is something
about the human voice that is very distracting.  Your ears prick up and your
concentration is lost.  Don't talk at all.  During a work period you may have to
ask, "Where do you keep the mop?". or maybe you don't have to ask for it.  Maybe
if you use some initiative, you can look around and find it yourself.  If some
emergency comes up, then you may speak to one of the leaders privately,
succinctly in a soft voice.  Remember that your leader has his or her own
practice too.  Too much complaint, too much emergency, will have a poor effect
on the entire sesshin.

Please remember that personal crisis can be a great opportunity in zazen.  The
only emergency that can take you from sesshin comes when one gets a telegram
that someone is gravely ill at home, or something of that kind.  Other
emergencies should be worked through.  One becomes very sensitive during sesshin
and convinced that a neighbour is wriggling just to distract me or the monitor
is hitting me too hard or not hard enough, or the meals don't contain enough
protein or they're too salty or not salty enough or I'm not getting enough sleep
or my legs hurt too much and so on.  Well, all of these things, except the
latter one, can be just set to one side as delusion.  If your legs hurt too much
then you may sit in a chair.  But remember that just like working out in a gym,
you cannot stretch your legs to the point where you can sit comfortably unless
there is a certain amount of pain.  You cannot develop yourself unless you
become a little tired or a little sore.  So push yourself.  Zen is the middle
way and it is important not to get blown out so that you come to the point where
you simply cannot ever do zazen again. So, find the middle way between extremes
and sit in a chair if you must.

The second rule is no looking around.  I want to tell you a story about that.
The first Roshi in the United States was a man named Sasaki Shigetsu, also known
as Sasaki Soku-an Roshi.  He established the American Buddhist Society which
later became the first Zen Institute of New York, and it was his wife, Ruth
Fuller Sasaki who wrote Zen Dust with Miura Roshi.  A man named Emanuel Sherman
was a student of Sasaki Roshi.  The Roshi gave him a zazen robe.  The war came
along, Sasaki Roshi was interned and he later died, and Sherman rather fell away
from the practice of doing zazen.  Then in l957 when my wife Anne and I were
teaching in Ojai, California, Nakagawa Soen Roshi came to hold memorial sesshin
after the death of his friend Sensaki Nyogen  Sensai in Los Angeles.  I
persuaded Sherman, who was also living at Ojai at that time, to come with us to
the sesshin, and he wore his robe.   Roshi asked him before sesshin, "Where did
you get that robe?" and Sherman told him, "It was given to me by Sasaki Shigetsu
Roshi in New York when I studied with him before the war."  He turned over the
lapel of his robe where something was written in Chinese characters and said,
"I've always wondered what this said."  And Soen Roshi read the inscription and
asked, "Did Sasaki Roshi write that?"   Sherman said, "Yes, he did."  Soen Roshi
said, "What a great roshi he was."  Sherman said, "What does it say, what does
it say?"  Soen Roshi said, "It says, 'don't look around'."

You see, if you are seeking to touch the mind, eye contact is very distracting
from this practice.  You are seeking fundamental communication and the
distraction of ordinary social interaction can be destructive.

The third rule is "no social greetings".  This follows naturally from the first
two.  The original Japanese says something like, "no social signals."  In other
words, if two people come to a door at the same time, there is no need for one
person to gesture to the other to go first.  One person goes first and another
follows, like two drops of water in the stream, very naturally.  You don't use
social signals in a crowd of people but if you are walking through a crowd of
people you can make your way without touching anybody, without any signals,
without any word.  People move aside naturally and you move aside naturally.
That's the way it should be in sesshin.  If you follow these three rules, no
talking, no looking around and no social greetings, you will have a good

Now I want to say a few words about the dojo.  Dojo is a term that you are
familiar with because it is used by people in akido, karate, judo and so on.
It's even in the English dictionary.  It is a sino-Japanese term made up of two
ideographs.  "Do" is the Japanese pronunciation of Tao, as in Tao-te-ching or
Taoism.  And Jo simply means place.  The place of the Tao.  Tao means "way".
Arthur Whaley translates the Tao-te-Ching as the way and its power.  But Tao
does not mean only a way to - it does not simply mean a means.  The opening
words in the Tao-te-Ching are, "The way that can be followed is not the true
way."  So we should understand what Tao means.

When Kumara-jiva and other great translators set about rendering Buddhist
Sanskrit into Chinese they had to find Chinese words that were equivalent to
particular Sanskrit expressions.  They used the word Tao to mean not only path
but also realisation.  They used Tao to translate Bodhi.  So Tao is not only the
path to realisation, it is realisation itself.  Actually Dojo is a translation
of the Sanskrit word Bodhi Manda.  Bodhi is enlightenment, Manda is spot or
place, the place or spot of enlightenment and it refers to the spot under the
Bodhi tree where the Buddha sat when he saw the morning star and had his great

So, your meditation hall, your dojo, is your sacred place.  Your cushions are
your own personal dojo, your own personal Bodhi Manda, your own personal spot of
realisation.  Thus it is very important to keep the dojo as a sacred place of
realisation.  It must be spotlessly clean, it must be in regular order with a
figure as the focal point of devotion - a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.  Before the
Buddha or Bodhisattva, you should have incense, flowers and a candle.  The
candle represents enlightenment, the flowers represent compassion, the two sides
of any genuine religious experience.  The incense is an offering to the Buddha,
as of course candle and flowers are as well.

In front of every Rinzai Zen monastery in Japan there is a sign that carries the
name of the temple, the name of the mountain, for all temples have a mountain
name as well as a building name.  There is also the name of the sect, the Rinzai
sect and the name of the Branch, like the Myoshinji Branch and then the words
Semon Dojo.  Semon means "special".  So it is a special place of enlightenment.
When I hear people say, "I don't need a special place of enlightenment, I can do
zazen anywhere," I feel they are not ready to do zazen.  The mind is just too
tricky and if you say you are doing zazen all day long, that means you are not
doing zazen at any time.  You need a special corner, if only in your own
bedroom, to make sacred.  The process of religious practice is one of sharp
incisive focus.  It is one of all-out devotion.  This doesn't mean that you go
around all day long in your everyday life with a long face but it means that
when you practice, you only practice.  You include things in that practice which
are conducive to the practice, and you exclude other things.  In this way you
cultivate your own Semon Dojo.

Now about practising without a teacher.  This is extremely difficult, so please
keep yourself within bounds and follow the directions in the orientation as
closely as you can.  When you first sit down, please take a couple of deep
breaths, all the way in and hold it and then all the way out and hold it.  You
may do this through your mouth, although this is the only time when you should
breathe through your mouth.  Then when you've taken these one or two deep
breaths, rock back and forth, first widely and then in decreasing arcs until you
are erect.   And then lean far forward and thrust your rear end back and then
sit up.  Now you are ready for your breath counting.  Unless you have already
worked with a Roshi, I would think that you should stay with breath counting.
If you have taken the koan Mu for yourself and worked on it for some time, then
that will be all right.  But please don't switch around and experiment now with
breath counting, now with Mu, now with the Sound of One Hand, now with the
Original Face before your Parents were Born.  It becomes too diffused.

So if you are counting your breaths, just count your breaths.  But if you have
taken up Mu, then count your breaths for one or two sequences and then begin
with your Mu practice.  Key Mu to your breaths in the same way that you key your
count to your breathing.  There comes a time when you can forget about breathing
and just face Mu.  Your breath at that time will be very small.

Your practice is not merely to focus on something.  You must become that thing
itself.  If you are counting your breaths, then count "one" for the inhalation,
"two" for the exhalation and so on but let the count do the counting.  In other
words, let that point one count one, let that point two count two, let that
point three count three and so on up to ten and then repeat.  It's like the
musician seeks to let the music play the music but he or she must practice a
long time before that can happen.  So you must practice letting the count do the

Mumon said about the koan Mu, "Carry it with you day and night."  What does this
mean in practical terms for the student at sesshin?  It means that you should be
doing Mu or counting your breaths, from morning to night and that you should put
yourself to sleep with it.  If you're chopping vegetables, you need to
concentrate only on chopping.  You can't think about counting your breaths at
such a time or you'll be cutting off your thumb.  In any very demanding work,
please focus on that.  You can't focus on Mu while you're explaining irregular
French verbs.  You can't concentrate on counting your breaths, really
concentrate, if you're driving a car. So focus entirely on what you are doing if
the task is very demanding but there aren't so many demanding tasks at sesshin.
Chopping vegetables and cooking may be the most demanding of those tasks.  So
keep yourself with your breath counting or with your Mu at all times and then
when you go to bed, lie down and hold Mu lightly, or hold your breath-counting
lightly and put yourself to sleep in this way and your zazen will continue in
some fashion during your sleep.

There are two ways to get through a sesshin.  One is to concentrate on survival
and the second is to focus on each moment as it comes up.  Either way will get
you through the sesshin.  But only the second way will give you an effective
sesshin.  If you focus on survival then you will be disappointed after your
sesshin, because you will know that you have wasted your time just thinking
about getting through it.  Forget about getting through it, just focus on that
one, on that two, on that three, that's all - nothing else.   Have a good sesshin!


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