Article by Peter Coyote
The Rohatsu (Great Cold) sesshin—a week of intensive Zen meditation—takes place in early December ending on the eighth, the day commemorating Buddha’s enlightenment. At Green Gulch Zen Center, near my home on the fog-shrouded slopes of Mount Tamalpais in Northern California’s Marin County, meditation begins at 5:00 a.m. and lasts until 9:30 p.m. each day punctuated by service, meals, walking meditation, and two short rest periods. Talking, except for essential communication, is discouraged, as is eye contact and any behavior that might distract others from their concentration. It takes enormous collective effort to organize a sesshin, with volunteers cooking, serving, and maintaining the temple on behalf of those sitting. Consequently, great care is taken not to waste the opportunity or the gift of their service.
I knew none of this when I signed up for my first sesshin after only a year of meditating, sitting, at most, two forty-minute periods a day at the San Francisco Zen Center.
Nor did I know that in sesshin meals would be eaten in place at one’s sitting cushion, in the same painful cross-legged position one had been meditating in. They are served in a highly efficient manner, done precisely this way for hundreds of years. Each monk’s eating utensils—chopsticks, a wooden spoon, a cleaning apparatus called a setsu (resembling a doctor’s tongue depressor with a cloth pad sewed on the tip)—are laid across three nesting bowls called oryoki (meaning “just enough”)—covered by a napkin and cleaning cloth, the whole wrapped in a bandanna-sized cloth that, when unwrapped, is efficiently used as a place mat.
Because Buddhism is not precisely a religion like the Abrahamic trio—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, (Buddha was a normal man—neither supernatural nor a prophet)—what appears to the uninitiated as prayers and worship of a deity are actually expressions of gratitude for the Buddha’s compassionate teachings. By the end of the first highly ritualized meal, I was convinced entirely too much gratitude was being displayed and began wishing harm on the officiant whose changes and offerings had to end before I would be allowed to leave my seat and mercifully straighten my paralyzed legs.
There were chants of thanks when food was offered, chants after it was served, and more when the first bowl was raised. Before the servers entered bearing the food, the wooden bar in front of the sitters’ places had to be cleaned. A damp towel was introduced and then either passed from hand to hand down the length of the room, or if one was graced with an elevated seat, propelled by a runner racing down the aisle between sitters scrubbing the “table” (the edge of the raised platform) as he went.
The servers moved quickly, but no matter how efficient they were, I wanted to scream with frustration, impatience, and pain, because until the meal is over and one’s bowls washed and put away and the last chanted syllable uttered, you cannot rise from your seat. Furthermore, it is an arduous and delicate maneuver to change the position of crossed, cramped, insensate legs without sending the delicate bowls in front of you skittering into the lap of the person facing you. The frustration was akin to being trapped behind a comatose driver at a stoplight that changes once an hour for twenty seconds while the moron in front of you misses it while texting. Imagine this occurring repeatedly, over and over again while you are on fire, and you’ll have a clear idea of my state of mind.
Every task proceeded at its own proper (agonizing) pace. You cannot simply eat, wash your bowl, and leave to go fart and pick your teeth. At the signal of clacking wooden sticks we wait while the food is brought into the zendo, served into each outstretched bowl, (the serving bracketed by stately bows) and then, before it can be touched, a complex grace is offered reminding us where the Buddha was born, taught, and died, and what virtues each portion in our bowls is dedicated to. Then, (still on fire) we are asked to consider “whether our virtue and practice deserve this offering” of food. I was deranged with discomfort and frustration at the slowness, the waiting, the ritualized cleaning of the bowls and the collection of the last scraps of food for “the hungry ghosts.” (“Fucking ants! They’re feeding ants while I’m dying here!”) All of these ritual steps inserted between my wretched self and the post-meal relief I desperately needed. I was furious. Every cell in my body was intent on inhaling my food as quickly as possible so that I could flee the zendo and straighten my legs. This was day one. By 7:00 a.m. I had forgotten that I had chosen to be there because I was desperate for help.
It’s quite normal in sesshin for the knees to be in pain, and the muscles in the upper back and shoulders to be burning with tension or even in spasm. It matters not. The pace of meals and services is glacial, and from my perspective that day, pitiless. The older monks sat quietly erect and maddeningly patient with no evidence of discomfort. By the second period of zazen, compounding my discomfort with embarrassment, my body began shaking violently, twitching and jerking as if I were experiencing a grand mal seizure. After awhile the shaking enervated my muscles and made me gasp for breath. It was distracting, exhausting, and embarrassing. The monks on either side of me resembled oil paintings while I writhed and flapped like a landed fish between them. Restarting my recently abandoned use of heroin began to appear tantalizingly preferable to another sixty seconds of Zen.
In such a situation one is forced face-to-face with one’s body and mind and their discomforts. There are no distractions and no places to hide. There is no way to pretend that your suffering is not occurring nor is there any way to philosophize it away. The sesshin demands everything you have and then takes a big gulp of more. An old Zen adage states, “Pain in the legs is the taste of zazen.”
Even after a year of regular zazen, I was completely unprepared for the rigor and determination required by a sesshin. By lunch of the second day, my body was trembling and shaking and tears were spilling over the edges of my eyes. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “I have to get out of here.” Internal narratives chronicling previous failures and self-betrayals were flashing like neon signs in my psyche and I began rehearsing excuses that might offer me the excuse to flee; anything that would afford me the opportunity to rise from this odious, smug, self-satisfied cushion, and move spontaneously again.
Unfortunately for my craven and indulgent self, I was pinioned firmly in place by pride. There were a number of Zen students in the sesshin whom I had previously dismissed as fools, certain that my spiritual development exceeded theirs by a comfortable margin. I would never be able to maintain this imagined sense of superiority if I crawled out of the zendo on the second day; my ego dictated that I stay put.
Miraculously, near the end of the third day, my physical pains began to diminish. Though still shaking, I could investigate the pain in my knees more attentively, and noticed how that investigation actually changed the quality of the pain. I still shook and twitched, but a certain amount of the emotional charge that shaking carried diminished as well. It was simply shaking.
On the very last day’s break period, walking up the dusty road in a high, chilled wind, I had the distinct feeling that the entire center of my body had disappeared or become transparent. I could feel the wind whistling through it. I felt feather-light and momentarily problem-free; as if the back of my head had disappeared and the space behind my eyes opened out onto the universe. Before me, the world was extraordinarily vivid and alive, shimmering intensely. I had not taken a drug and yet I was truly “high.” I thought, “This is nice! I’m gonna check Zen out a little further.” Forty years later I’m still checking.
In the first week of December 2009, I was sixty-eight years old. Infirmity and dying were in the forefront of my mind. Forty-five years earlier I had contracted Hepatitis C from shooting drugs. It had remained undiagnosed until the late 1990s, by which time the disease had been conscripting and destroying my liver cells for all those years.
My youth had left, snatching as it exited the firm outlines of my body and my once distinct jaw and un-creased neck. The backs of my hands were dotted with liver spots, and shadows pooled below my eyes. My stamina had diminished and like most people who have aged beyond the notice of today’s youthful diversions, my acting career had settled into a stasis with no promise of any breakthroughs pending. Sickness, old age, and death had become tangible to me in ways that had been only romantic posturing in my twenties.
It was now incontrovertible that in a conceivable future, everything I held dear, every memory and achievement, every treasure, including my own body, would be stripped from me. That is the central, unavoidable fact of human existence (and a fundamental tenet of Buddhism) and when it changed from a notion into a certainty, my perspective changed with it, particularly my ideas about time. Looking backwards, the lengthening succession of dead friends and family disappeared into emptiness like a black thread being unspooled into a tub of ink. The only uncertainty in my future was speculation about how savagely sickness, old age, and death would claim their due. With these thoughts as unpleasant companions, I decided to sit another seven-day sesshin. It was December again, time for Rohatsu, the Great Cold sesshin.
Sesshins are always rough, and the first three days were particularly difficult this year. Though my shaking and convulsions had subsided many years before and I could sit as solidly as those senior monks I’d once envied, my body was forty years older. The pain in my knees was intense, debilitating, and distracting to the degree that during a private audience with my teacher in the middle of the third day, I confessed to him that I would have to leave the sesshin because I could not bear the pain any longer.
He was mildly critical of me for not paying closer attention to my body and for trying to bull my way through. “You’re nearly seventy,” he said. “It’s hard to admit that all your cards are on the table now and that you have none left to draw. You’ll have to play the ones you have as best you can. That is the central fact of your existence. That is reality and you’ll have to adjust to that. You are living what we mean when we say, ‘seeing without delusion.’ You only have one set of knees and you need to take care of them. If you have to sit in a chair, sit in a chair. Don’t cripple yourself trying to be tough or refusing to recognize the reality of your body or your age.”
He was correct of course and had pinpointed the underlying depression amplifying my physical pain. After our conversation, I began alternating meditation periods between my cushion and a chair, calculating backwards from mealtimes so that the meditation period before a meal (which I preferred to take on my cushion) was done in a chair. This relieved the stress on my knees and the consequent reduction of pain allowed me to refocus and dedicate my efforts wholeheartedly. I aligned myself to the schedule without resistance, and was able to focus my concentration on a question that had arisen for me on the sesshin’s first day.
It was a simple question I had condensed into a short mnemonic phrase—“What is it?”—mental shorthand for the larger question—“What is it I’m missing or still searching for?” By the end of day four I was completely absorbed by it. My question accompanied each inhale and exhale, and resided within me, simmering on a back burner, whether meditating, walking, or eating. It floated through my dreams.
On the sixth day, in the late afternoon, the light outside was thinning and we began a period of rapid kinhin (walking meditation). Our route began by exiting a side door, circumambulating the rough porch girding the building, reentering through the door at the opposite corner, threading a path through the zendo and out the first door again. The wood underfoot was bracingly cold and its rough texture stimulating; the rapid walking increased my circulation and alertness and was a balm to my sore joints and muscles. The afternoon fog, creeping in from the ocean, was obscuring the edges of the hills, sending tendrils slithering through the grass like a vigorous living entity.
I had just stepped out the door onto the porch. Perhaps it was the second or third round, but I had just begun my course down the building’s long side. I remember that my hands were folded formally against my navel and my gaze was unfocused, and I remember a portion of the swishing black robe and flashing heels of the person in front of me. Several paces after passing through the door, a bird began to shriek from very nearby. It was as loud and startling as if it was sitting on my shoulder, and its plaint was unrelenting. Today, I know it was a Camp Jay, but I wasn’t aware of that at the moment because my concentration was purloined by my question, and the bird’s shriek was an irritant.
Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! it cried—strident, insistent, obliterating all thought. Suddenly, in that momentary emptiness, its cries were transformed and I heard them as It! It! It! It!—the indisputable answer to my question. I took one more step and the world as I had always experienced it ended.
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 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.