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Sesshin

I’m back in Tokyo after three days at the Tekishinjuku International Zendo. I stayed in their guesthouse a little way down the road, and lived a short three-day stint as a monk would. I had a little bit of trouble finding my way back to the guesthouse from the temple in pitch blackness the first night. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, and as I was stumbling around in the dark looking for the door, I kept expecting some old Japanese man to come out and ask me what I was doing trying to break into his house. I had no plan for that situation except to say “Kon-ee-chee-wa, Ari-ga-to, Sa-yo-na-ra.” and run off into the darkness. Here’s what the garden look like during the day.

I didn’t realize before I arrived that this week was Sesshin, which is one of the periods of more intense training each year. It ended up being around six or seven hours per day in either half-lotus or seiza. My legs were already pretty sore from walking and sitting on floors so much over the previous three weeks and I got very close to throwing in the towel during the second afternoon. I’ll never know exactly how close, but I wouldn’t have thought that it possible to get that close to quitting something for that long without actually quitting.

The zendo is associated with another nearby temple, and both are directed by Hozumi Gensho Roshi, the 83rd Patriarch of the Myoshinji lineage of Rinzai Zen. He entered Tokoji temple in Kyoto when he was eight.

There were only two others there when I arrived. Bjorn is from Germany and has been at the zendo for two years. Gema is from Siberia and has been there for nearly ten years. There were a number of other long term practitioners who left this past summer, but most people go only for a few days. The sesshin ended while I was there, so the third day was quite a bit easier. Things got even better when the bakery van arrived.

It was especially cold in the mornings. Gema joked that since it was only one degree Celsius in the kitchen, we should put our hands in the refrigerator to warm them up. The good news was that it was no colder outside. Because of the Sesshin, there was no heat except for a space heater in one room for an hour in the evenings. That was a luxury from Roshi because he thought I must be freezing. I told the guys it was okay if they didn’t want the heat, but if they wanted it they could blame it on me. They blamed it on me.

At least I had some idea of what I was getting into. The monks said that people often show up having some real misconceptions about Zen practice. My first “What the hell am I doing?” moments were during the first dinner. It seems that there’s a correct way to everything, and one needs to do it quickly and silently. Of course, this being Japan, they give little instruction ahead of time. One is supposed to look around and figure out what one is supposed to do; if not, one is corrected. I was corrected dozens of times during my first dinner. Gema said that a number of people have actually stood up, said they “can’t do this,” and left during their first meal. More run away during the meditation. The leg pain was pretty tough that second afternoon.

Each afternoon I had some time to wander around and take photos. There were a lot of persimmons still on the trees even in December. I thought they were much more interesting rotten than intact.

Gema and Bjorn were really terrific. It’s kind of like knowing that your drill instructor is one of the most compassionate people that you’ll ever meet, but that the training program, though entirely self-inflicted and always optional, sometimes borders on brutal. I’m very glad that I went, but I’d be lying if I denied that part of me is glad to be sitting in a warm room, digesting some Tokyo-style okonomiyaki, and dealing with only minor leg pain.

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