Meditation, or zazen, is the bedrock of Zen practice and most of us try and find the time to sit (i.e. meditate) at home most days or even every day. Most of us in the StoneWater Zen sangha – including the monks and even our teacher, Keizan Sensei – are lay practitioners: we are ordinary folk with jobs, families, other responsibilities etc. We don’t live in a monastery or even have a permanent full time training centre.
Our pragmatic experience is that regular daily meditation practice somehow makes our lives run better. But for most of us it’s not easy to find the time to do this alone amidst the pressures of work, family and social commitments. This is why we sit together with others at morning or evening sittings during the week. Coming together with others makes our meditation stronger. This arises partly from the commitment to be at a certain place at fixed times which anchors our practice, and it’s also having the support of others, to encourage and advise us. This is the real value and meaning of sangha, a community.
Why a retreat?
These two factors, the benefits of regular practice and the support of others in a community are what residential retreats are all about. A retreat or sesshin is a chance for lay practitioners to practice together with an experienced teacher in a much more intensive way for three to six days. A retreat is different from sitting alone at home or even with others in a weekly group.
What happens on a retreat?
The essence of a retreat is simplicity. There is no distractions like TV, radio or newspapers, phones are discouraged and the general rule is silence. The day is structured with a fixed timetable so that we don’t have to make choices: there is a fixed, simple vegetarian menu (special dietary requirements are catered for) and everyone has a role. Tasks like preparing and serving meals, washing up and cleaning are done in small teams organised in a rota. If it’s not your turn to do a job you are free to relax, sleep or go for a walk. The purpose of this organised simplicity is to give the maximum time for concentrated Zen meditation with everything taken care of to reduce distraction and build the intense concentration missing from sitting at home (see the typical daily timetable below).
Retreats are a communal experience and are based on a shared adherence to a timetable and form. In silence, we sit, eat and work together, and sleep in shared rooms in basic accommodation (there are no single bedrooms). There is something extraordinary about being in silence with ten to fifty other people you may not know for many hours in a day. You’re alone in silence but not alone. At first it’s hard because of the sheer ‘busyness’ of everyday life, even for experienced meditators. We crave stimulation and initially, thoughts keep turning back to home and family or work. Then the boredom or discomfort often sets in. But gradually during the retreat the mind and body calm down, and the world drops away. Now the real work of meditation begins…
A typical day on retreat
The day begins early: we rise at 5.30 am, have a quick cup of tea (in silence) and are in the zendo (meditation hall) by 6 am. Three 30 minute periods of zazen (sitting meditation) interspersed with kinhin (walking meditation) are followed by a service with lots of chanting and bowing. Then comes breakfast around 8 am, followed by samu (communal work) which is a chance to take the focus of meditation into ordinary activities and to do these in a mindful way.
Free time follows in mid morning then comes another session in the zendo from 11.30 am, usually a half hour of meditation then a talk by the teacher and a short service, before lunch at 1.15 pm. After lunch comes more free time – a chance to walk, relax or sleep, then another 2 hours of meditation (sitting and walking) from 4 pm before supper at 6 pm. Then comes a short break before we are back in the zendo at 7.30 pm for a final hour and a half of meditation. Then it’s lights out at 10 pm ready for an early start next day. Day after day the effects and benefits of the zazen accumulate. But how can it not, meditating for 7 to 8 hours a day?
Form is an important aspect of Zen practice. Everything is important and has its own form or correct way: how we enter the zendo, sit, bow, walk, chant, work… For many this mindfulness of apparently small things is an important aspect of Zen practice and emphasises the specialness of ordinary life but we know this can be strange for beginners. This is why there is always an introduction for newcomers and experienced people are available throughout the retreat to answer your questions and make you feel welcome and at home.
Working with a teacher
For many, the chance to work with experienced Zen teachers such as Tenshin Roshi, Keizan Sensei or Ken Jones, each of whom has more than thirty years experience of Zen practice, is the high point of a retreat. Each has a unique, individual viewpoint and the morning Dharma talks and face-to-face personal meetings with these teachers during the meditation periods can be life changing, whether you are working with a koan or dealing with the ‘stuff’ of everyday life.
Choice of retreats
StoneWater Zen Sangha provides a choice of retreats most months through the year, each with its own distinctive flavour: Lake District retreats are held at Keizan Sensei’s home and provide an intimate rural setting for up to 10 people. (There is a lovely poetic account of a Lake District Retreat by Ron Bell elsewhere in the blog.) The twice yearly Crosby retreats, just outside Liverpool, for up to 50 people attract people from across the UK and Europe. And we are now experimenting with urban retreats at our Liverpool Dojo.
Because of their location and setting, or because of practical barriers such as stairs, the Lake District and Liverpool zendos are not accessible for people with mobility impairments. The Crosby venue however is wheelchair friendly.
Sitting at home is special because of its ordinariness. Sitting with others in a weekly group is special for the regular support it provides. But retreats are very special and most of us in the sangha try and attend one or more retreats every year because they are so powerful. Is a retreat for you if you are new to Zen practice? Have a look at one of Suzanne Adey’s entry in this blog, a lovely honest account of her first retreat. But beware, retreats are addictive and may change your life!
A typical daily timetable on Retreat
|5.55 – 8.15||Zazen and service|
|9.30 – 10.30||Samu (working meditation)|
|11.30 – 1.00||Zazen, talk and short service|
|1.15||Lunch and free time|
|4.30 – 6.15||Zazen|
|7.30 – 9.15||Zazen|