I have just returned from a week long intensive meditation retreat or sesshin at Kodoji Zendo.
It was one of the most difficult and rewarding things I have done.
Kodoji is comprised of a small group of wooden buildings set in a bush clearing beneath sheer granite escarpments of Yengo National park.
Looking down from above, the valley looks something like a Dreamtime rainbow serpent. With the clearing forming the head, and the access track and river winding up in swirling patternation through the deep valley of the snakes body. The cluster of buildings are set perfectly as the eye.
There is a main meditation hall or dojo, linked by a wooden walkway to the kitchen. A short distance away sits a simple hut with a room where the teacher sleeps. Adjoining this is a small alcove where regular private meetings known as dokusan are held with students attending sesshin.
Each day is stripped back to a carefully cultivated pulse of routine.
We arose at 5 am each morning for a brief period of stretching and exercise before the first period of zazen (seated meditation). Zazen lasted 30 minutes, followed by a period of walking meditation and then another 30 min period of zazen. And so it went. Alternating back and forth, until the end of that 3 hour period which was marked by the serving of a meal.
We remained seated on our cushions for meals which were served in a traditional zen ritual known as oryoki (Here is a short video that nicely demonstrates this).
Following each meal was a work/rest period that lasted 1 and a half hours, until the ringing of the wooden han called us to return to the dojo for the next block of zazen.
Although the retreat was far from silent with gongs, clappers, bells, and drums all signalling the beginnings and ends of various activities or periods, there was no speaking throughout the sesshin (an exception was made for those woking in the kitchen where quiet interactions were necessarily permitted).
The entire sesshin environment is carefully constructed to provide maximum conservation of distraction and total immersion into the practice of zazen.
As I said, this was one of the most difficult things I have done. The physical pain alone from all the sitting still was immense (although at some point it stopped registering as pain and turned instead into simply ’sensation’). And the pain aspect was only a slice of discomfort compared to what was going on upstairs in the head compartment.
The actual experience of all this turned out to be quite personal, and Im not going to go into it here. But I will slip a not so irrelevant quote in here from “The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education” by Peter Coyote.
I cannot describe what happened next because in that instant language and thought fell entirely away from my existence. The boundaries between “in here” and “out there” disappeared. The world remained recognizable, as it had always been, but completely stripped of descriptive language and concepts. Everything appeared to be a phantom of itself, luminous but without weight or substance. “I” had been replaced. The closest I can come to describing what I felt was as a part of an awareness with no physical location, inseparable from the entire universe. Everything was precisely as it had come to be. The world was perfect, without time, eternal, and coming and going as it had always been. Every doubt that I had ever harbored about Zen practice fell away. The timid fearful self I had been defending, aggrandizing, comforting, and trying to improve for my entire life had been relieved of duty and everything was fine without him. There was nothing I had to “do.” I knew irrefutably that this was what I had been searching for since I first picked up a book about Zen when I was sixteen years old. In the next instant, I understood that it was not all that important.,
Will I do it again? Absolutely.