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Sesshins - how long is too long?

Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Jugglesaurus on Thu Sep 05, 2013 8:51 am

Sesshins are hard, right? I'm not sure why they sometimes seem so hard, actually - you get fed well enough, the work can be hard but it's not terrible or anything, you don't have to cope with commuting, you're with nice people and the ones I go to don't have 6 hours of sleep or anything, so it's not like everyone gets sleep deprived - but they are hard and intense.
There was a case a year or so back where a couple ended up dead after leaving a retreat that was meant to go on for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. From everything I read about it, there were lots of issues about that besides the length - but is the length itself dangerous for your sanity? Could anyone go on a 3 year retreat and come out still sane and grounded? I have been on some (not many) 9-day sesshins and they seemed to range from surprisingly pleasant to desperately hard. I know zen has 90 day angos and we don't see news stories about participants in those dying, so there's that.
So... what's the maximum length you all think is a good idea? Is there a maximum length at all, or does it vary from person to person? Do you think that someone can do too many sesshins, even if they're short?
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby unsui on Thu Sep 05, 2013 9:21 am

Jugglesaurus wrote:Sesshins are hard, right? I'm not sure why they sometimes seem so hard, actually - you get fed well enough, the work can be hard but it's not terrible or anything, you don't have to cope with commuting, you're with nice people and the ones I go to don't have 6 hours of sleep or anything, so it's not like everyone gets sleep deprived - but they are hard and intense.
There was a case a year or so back where a couple ended up dead after leaving a retreat that was meant to go on for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. From everything I read about it, there were lots of issues about that besides the length - but is the length itself dangerous for your sanity? Could anyone go on a 3 year retreat and come out still sane and grounded? I have been on some (not many) 9-day sesshins and they seemed to range from surprisingly pleasant to desperately hard. I know zen has 90 day angos and we don't see news stories about participants in those dying, so there's that.
So... what's the maximum length you all think is a good idea? Is there a maximum length at all, or does it vary from person to person? Do you think that someone can do too many sesshins, even if they're short?

Ango isn't sesshin. There are sesshins during Ango, but there are also days off and the possibility for social interaction. Participating in an ango is a great experience, if one is motivated. At our place, we only do 35-day angos, since we haven't been able to attract enough people who can stay for the full 90 days. Apart from me, there have only been two others who could take the time off and who had no other financial responsibilities. One of them left at the end with great peace and joy, returning to his "regular" life in good balance. The other not so much, since he just couldn't let go of his preconceived notions of what Zen practice is about.

Tibetan solitary retreats where one is in isolation can range from 1 month to years and years and years. Those are not for everybody, though --- I believe you must be ordained and have received the proper initiations and stuff. Read Cave in the Snow if you would like some insight into this. From Wikipedia:
In 1976 Tenzin Palmo commenced living in a cave in the Himalayas measuring 10 feet wide and six feet deep and remained there for 12 years, for three of which she was in full retreat. The cave was high in the remote Lahul area of the Indian Himalayas, on the border of Himachal Pradesh and Tibet. In the course of the retreat she grew her own food and practiced deep meditation based on ancient Buddhist beliefs. In accordance with protocol, she never lay down, sleeping in a traditional wooden meditation box in a meditative posture for just three hours a night. The last three years were spent in complete isolation. She survived temperatures of below −30° Fahrenheit (−35°C) and snow for six to eight months of the year.
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Hosei on Thu Sep 05, 2013 3:23 pm

There are sesshins during Ango, but there are also days off and the possibility for social interaction.


- I went on a mini-ango recently . .and our "days off" consisted of pretty much the same thing as the other ones.. but just less. 5:30 wake up instead of 4:30, 20 minutes of service instead of 40. informal breakfast with fresh baguettes and jam and coffee.. instead of rice porridge, salt pickles and the constant threat of knocking your spoon off the tan with your sleeve, then an hour and a half off in the morning for personal samu (shower/shave/laundry/wash oryoki/change setsu tip) and again in the afternoon .

it was cool though.. a change is as good as a break sometimes..

I think everybody is probably different.. "too long" for one person may be a doddle for another... some people thrive on monastic schedules.. others just want to skip samu and go watch 'Game of Thrones' on their ipads, and need more 'me' time than others.

As for solitary retreats.. there's a fine tradition of people becoming hermits across faiths isn't there? The dessert fathers, etc..

For me I think the difference between a "hard retreat" and a not hard one is how much resistance I'm putting up to things. when I let the schedules carry me and support me, instead of trying to personalise them or resent them.. things are so much easier :-)

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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Meido on Thu Sep 05, 2013 4:40 pm

Jugglesaurus wrote:Sesshins are hard, right? I'm not sure why they sometimes seem so hard, actually -


One think important to remember, I think, is that sesshin as a training form was developed within a monastic context. As such it was meant to be challenging - i.e., to provide a meaningful opportunity for deepening practice - for people who already were practicing a certain amount each day.

For example: at Tenryu-ji, the monastery of one of my teachers, normal week-long sesshin were held each month during ango. During these, time was of course given over almost completely to zazen, sanzen and so on in a schedule that would not be unfamiliar to many of us. But the week before each sesshin was actually a "pre-sesshin" which was, in essence, sesshin. The week after also was a "post-sesshin"; this was - you guessed it - essentially a sesshin schedule.

So you've got weeks at a time immersed in rather intensive zazen and other practice. "Down" weeks would have more samu, takuhatsu, and the like: but the daily schedule then would still include at least several hours of zazen.

Of course in a training monastery like Tenryu-ji, these are mostly younger people. No one would expect an older person, or any layperson not practicing in such an intensive manner on a daily basis, to jump into sesshin and have an easy go of it. Sort of like running a marathon without jogging every day.

Yet many of us do just that. While we may still get tremendous benefit from sesshin, we should recognize that it can be difficult to utilize that training form fully - and certainly, we may experience hardship - if our ongoing daily practice is not sufficient for it. Recognizing this, in some places in the west you may also find slightly less exhausting sesshin schedules offered to folks above, say, age 40 or 50. I think this is important, as each of us ultimately has to work with his/her actual conditions.

None of the above is meant to discourage anyone from going to sesshin. Difficulty during sesshin is a tremendous opportunity, actually.

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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Carol on Thu Sep 05, 2013 6:59 pm

The question of "how long is too long" very much depends on the person, the tradition, the preparation, and other variables. From what I recall of the persons who died in that event -- it was not a "traditional sesshin" or even a Buddhist retreat program, but was something else set up by a couple of independent spiritual teachers. So, I would not consider it relevant to the question of Zen sesshin or other Buddhist retreats that are led by experienced and well-trained teachers in their respective traditions.

For me, like Hosei, the difficulty of a retreat is closely related to how much resistance I put up to whatever is happening. Sometimes I have a lot of resistance, especially when my health is bad and I don't have the strength for it but don't want to accept my limitations. Other times sesshin is just hard because the mind is restless or resistant to dropping the illusion of control. That can happen on long or short sesshin -- from 1-day retreats to 10-day retreats. Generally, that kind of resistance seems to drop away about the 3rd day of a 7-day retreat for me and for many other people I've observed,

As a layperson, I've never done longer than a 10-day sesshin. If I were younger, in good health, and without family financial responsibilities, I would have liked to do a 3-month ango.

~Carol
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Nonin on Thu Sep 05, 2013 10:44 pm

When I was at Tassajara years and years ago, we did a 14-day sesshin. Tesshin Anderson was the teacher. It was a wonderful sesshin. The longest sesshin that I do these days is a 7-day Rohatsu sesshin with our sangha in Omaha. I'm always "at loose ends" when it's over, for the longer you sit the more grounded you become.

I spent 8 consecutive years in monasteries in the mid to late 80's. The typical monastic schedule is three months ango (practice period); three months relaxed schedule; then, 3-months ango; three months relaxed schedule. There's a rhythm to it. I always looked forward to ango; then, I was happy when it was over! I've heard that the three-month ango length was based on the three months Rains Retreat in ancient India, when Shakyamuni Buddha's disciples gathered in one place because travel was very difficult, if not impossible.

At our temple, we do a three-month practice period in the Fall and a Two-month one in the late Winter. Our Practice Periods provide structure for intensifying one’s practice and sangha connections for a specific period of time in three areas: (1) daily practice at home (sitting and devotional services, (2) regular involvement at the temple (e.g., specific morning or evening sittings, Sunday morning practice, or work practice, and (3) attendance a special events (e.g., sesshins, study groups, or precept ceremonies) Practice Period students also keep a practice journal and meet with me as a group two or three times during the Fall period, which ends with Rohatsu Sesshin (Dec. 1-7).

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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Seeker242 on Thu Sep 05, 2013 10:53 pm

My teacher says of a 100 day solo retreat. "There are 3 outcomes to such a retreat. You either die, go crazy or get enlightenment" :lol2:

But of course, the only real option is the last one. The first two don't count, unless you are a massive pessimist! :lol2:

I don't think there is a "maximum time limit" unless you have some kind of bad back or something. Heck, Tibetans do 3 year retreats and nobody dies there. I don't even think it's possible for a layperson to do too many retreats. Are they difficult? My teacher would say "If you make it difficult, then it's difficult. If you make it easy, then it's easy" :)
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Jok_Hae on Thu Sep 05, 2013 11:24 pm

Carol wrote:

For me, like Hosei, the difficulty of a retreat is closely related to how much resistance I put up to whatever is happening.


This hits it for me. I used to wear a watch and have a clock by the mat I slept on...but these days, I enjoy just listening to the various sounds of the retreat. The morning bell, 5 minute moktak, etc. Kind of like letting the retreat do me, instead of the other way around. It seems to help. :Namaste:

Length is probably just a personal issue, I don't think there is anything inherently dangerous for western practitioners. A monastery in an Asian country might be different, given peer pressure and cultural norms. Or not...
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Kojip on Fri Sep 06, 2013 1:25 am

I did many 9 day residential retreats during my Theravadin years and usually shorter Zen retreats (Yong Maeng Jong Jin) later. The Theravadin retreats involved hour long sittings and slow walking, whereas the Zen involved shorter 20 min sittings broken up by rapid walking. Somehow the zen retreats are more intense, there can be more of a "tough it out" feeling. Always after the 4 day mark..always, my knees blow out. It happens suddenly ...just pain. At one time this pain was part of hitting the wall "one of us has to go". But this attitude has fallen away in recent years and now when the knees go I am more gentle, and see no need to push. A retreat does not need to be "hard" the hardness is in here. If there is no hardness in here it can go on and on. I have only done a solo retreat at a monastery once, in a kuti on a hillside, and would very much like the opportunity to do it again. Richard/\
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby So-on Mann on Fri Sep 06, 2013 3:52 am

I like Meido's analogy of jogging and marathoning... nobody steps into very long retreats without a history of steady sitting. So "how long" depends on the circumstance, and so does the definition of "challenging." Also physical health is an issue- I don't do retreats anymore, after years of worsening nerve damage.
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Jugglesaurus on Fri Sep 06, 2013 12:33 pm

It's interesting how many people feel that a retreat is only hard when you make it hard. I think that's probably true, although it doesn't always feel like there's any internal resistence.
I've never heard of a practice period that includes stuff done at home as well as incorporating sesshins. That's a really interesting idea that makes a whole lot of sense - our society doesn't really allow for people to take time out to do a 3 month practice period totally away from home. I would think it would be especially helpful for people who don't live very close to their dojo/centre.
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Meido on Fri Sep 06, 2013 12:48 pm

Jugglesaurus wrote:I've never heard of a practice period that includes stuff done at home as well as incorporating sesshins. That's a really interesting idea that makes a whole lot of sense -


I think it makes sense also, and there's a lot of room for creativity here. Online "bonding" with a community to help drive one's practice at home - like what Jundo is doing, or what Anirukta organized - is one useful area to explore I think. I've also noticed some places allowing sesshin attendees to participate in a partial schedule and then return home for a period each day in order to take care of family or work responsibilities. This makes sense.

One thing we've considered here is offering a "home sesshin" schedule for distant members, in which we would webcast certain portions of the event so folks could follow along in a partial schedule at home - they could sit and chant with us in the morning, then later sit again and listen to teisho in the evening.

Finally, an extended (one week, one month, three months or longer) period of intensified home practice according to a set schedule, with periodic check-ins and contact with a teacher, is a very reasonable thing to do.

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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Zendudest on Fri Sep 06, 2013 4:57 pm

Meido said:
Recognizing this, in some places in the west you may also find slightly less exhausting sesshin schedules offered to folks above, say, age 40 or 50. I think this is important, as each of us ultimately has to work with his/her actual conditions.


A couple of things for those who've never been to sesshin:

(1) Age (e.g. >40) is not necessarily the barrier alluded to above. Philip Kapleau Roshi attended his first sesshin around the age of 40 in Japan and trained there into his 50's. He continued teaching into his 80's until Parkinson's Disease made it too difficult for him. All the sesshin I have attended have had many folks older than 50 (including myself) who thrived on the schedule. I had a friend who died a year or so ago who attended 7-day sesshin in Chapin Mill (RZC retreat facility) until a few months before she died-- in her 80's. All 3 head monitors at RZC are well past 60 yrs and the schedule is quite rigorous.

(2) Certainly if you've never attended sesshin, start out with a shorter one (or even a one-day sit). Talk to the teacher if you want to attend a regular sesshin part time or in a chair.

(3) Among the lineages I've trained with (Suzuki Roshi and Kapleau lineages), age is no barrier to full sesshin participation (or even full-time training) and chairs are available if needed in the zendo.

(4) All that being said, Mitra Bishop (Kapleau lineages) has occasionally offers sesshin of 'relaxed schedule' http://www.sanmonjizen.org/
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Carol on Fri Sep 06, 2013 5:17 pm

Meido wrote:One thing we've considered here is offering a "home sesshin" schedule for distant members, in which we would webcast certain portions of the event so folks could follow along in a partial schedule at home - they could sit and chant with us in the morning, then later sit again and listen to teisho in the evening.

~ Meido


This is a wonderful idea. I hope you do it!

~Carol
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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby desert_woodworker on Tue Sep 10, 2013 4:47 am

Do them all.

Sesshin or retreat offers the best conditions. We have the best teaching, and the best company.

The company is important: the Ch'an and Zen tradition has always emphasized sitting TOGETHER. Don't miss out on either long or short opportunities to marinate in such good company, teaching, and practice.

It could be better to ask how short is too short:

Weekend retreats are too short. Do them all, but weekend retreats are too short: it takes three days to settle-in. By the end of a weekend retreat, you are just about settled-in, but not quite; and, you have to leave. You get all the pain and not much settledness.

Longer than that, there are only 7-day and 10-day and 14-day sesshin, or retreats. Or, 49-days if you're super-lucky.

Your years-long example is probably some Tibetan thing. I respect that, but it is not realistically a Zen undertaking. Not even in a monastic setting. So, let's put that aside.

How short is too short?:

"One minute of Zazen, one minute of Enlightenment".

Developments depend on causes and conditions. Best to find the conditions that suit, and not short-circuit or short-change ourselves.

The sesshin that's too long is the one where your cats starve at home, or your boss becomes fed-up with your absence.

When you feel at home with sesshin, it's past time to start volunteering to do service-positions: Jiki, Ino, Tenzo, Karmadana, Tanto, Jisha, etc. Sesshin is not just for ourselves. Or, ourselves is a pretty extensive Being, the only one we are.

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Re: Sesshins - how long is too long?

Postby Jugglesaurus on Wed Sep 11, 2013 11:59 am

I am not sure I agree that weekend retreats are too short. I think you're right that it seems like you are just getting into the rhythm of it and it's over, but I think that's just another thing that's hard about sesshins - long ones can be hard once they are over precisely because you got into the schedule and feel a bit lost coming home!
We actually tend to get assigned jobs pretty easily if it's not our first sesshin. Not so much ino or other jobs that require a lot of experience and specialist knowledge, but if you've been to a sesshin before then you're in the pool for kitchen assistant, altar cleaner, bookshop helper, meal service etc. I don't know about volunteering - it just kind of happens!
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