Lessons From a Zen Retreat

Some of you have attended Vipassana meditation retreats, and you may be curious about how Buddhist practices differ on a Zen retreat. In August, I attended an 8-day Soto Zen sesshin at the Garrison Institute on the Hudson River in New York. The silent retreat was co-led by Koshin Paley Ellison, (who guided me through four years of Buddhist chaplaincy training at the NY Zen Center for Contemplative Care), along with his husband Chodo Campbell; their teacher, 93-year-old Dai En Friedman; and Shinzan Palma, a visiting Zen priest from San Diego.

On my travels from Houston, I realized how much I was longing for the refuge of an in-person retreat after two years of pandemic restrictions. For the wellbeing of the sangha, each of the seventy retreatants had to show proof of Covid vaccinations and a negative home test.

Traveling to New England felt like a big effort. Few people wore face masks on my flight to La Guardia. At the airport, I had trouble locating the line for a taxi to 125th Street train station in Manhattan. There, I was struck by how dirty and impoverished the neighborhood appeared.

In the station, all ticket windows were closed. A policeman directed me to a machine, where a savvy commuter helped me purchase a round trip ticket to Garrison. Unable to find an elevator, I lugged my suitcase up a long flight of stairs to Track 4 to wait in sweltering sun for the next train to Poughkeepsie. After a half hour, a woman informed me, “The train to Poughkeepsie that stops at Garrison is about to leave on Track 2.” Hastily thanking her, I hauled my suitcase downstairs, and ran to hoist it up another flight of stairs, only to find that the train had just departed. A sympathetic conductor advised me to catch the next train to Croton-on-Hudson, where I’d have 6 minutes to cross over to another track for a train to Garrison. I arrived at my destination just in time to board the Garrison Institute van on its final trip from the train station.

Shortly after I found my assigned single room, the dinner bell rang to signal the start of the retreat. As I ate a delicious vegetarian meal with some dharma friends from chaplaincy training, I was aware of how stressed and tired I was.

The sound of clacking sticks summoned us to gather in the great meditation hall and to undertake a vow of Noble Silence. I followed the example of my companions and bowed to the altar as I entered the long, high-ceilinged room,

one of the few spaces at the Garrison Institute that is air-conditioned. The cool temperature felt like a welcome reprieve from the heat wave outside. Stained glass windows reminded me that the space was originally constructed for religious services of Capuchin monks. In traditional Zen manner, chairs and zafu sitting cushions were precisely arranged in parallel rows on both sides of a central ritual area. Half-way down the left row, I found a tag with my name on one of the chairs. I bowed to my seat and to the sangha before taking my place. My chair was positioned directly behind the zafu of a stocky, muscular young man with a crew cut. I assessed him as a jock and assumed that we would have little in common.

The formal Zen students were attired in black robes and sat near the altar, where a figure of the Buddha gazed upon us all. Like other informal retreatants, I wore a simple black cotton shirt and loose-fitting black pants. My only expression of individuality was the neon orange color of my socks. I had packed different brightly colored socks for each day of the sesshin.  Clad in dark robes, the teachers, each with an attendant, or jisha, entered the room last to take seats by the altar.

A senior student announced the time for a dharma talk, or teisho. Prior to addressing the sangha, Koshin prepared himself by making three full prostrations before the image of the Buddha. Once Koshin was seated, three attendants bowed to him, presenting him in turn with a small table, a folder containing his talk, and a  beautiful ceramic cup of tea. The sangha chanted in unison about the blessings of hearing and sustaining the dharma. The rituals prepared us to be fully attentive.

Koshin spoke about taking refuge from the hell realm of thought, taming the mind whenever it begins to wander into regrets about the past or fantasies about the future. He reminded us to bring attention to the breath and body sensations that are occurring in the present moment. His advice was to let the practice work through us instead of striving to do it perfectly. Before bedtime, Chodo solemnly intoned the evening gatha: “Let me respectfully remind you that life and death are of supreme importance. Life passes swiftly by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! On this night, your days are diminished by one. Take heed. Do not squander your life.”

In unison, the sangha bowed three times: to the teachers before they left the hall, to the altar, and to rows of practitioners across the room. In two long, orderly lines, we moved silently towards the exit doors, bowing once more to the altar before heading to our sleeping quarters. My bedroom was hot and stuffy. A little fan on the bedside table wafted waves of warm air around me. I took a cold shower in the communal bathroom and slept fitfully until the early morning bell rang.

By 6:20am, all retreatants were assembled for the first zazen sit of the day. I remembered to stay alert for the morning jundo ritual. Each day, a different teacher walked quietly past the rows of retreatants, who one-by-one placed their hands in gassho or prayer position as a gesture of respect. After the teacher was seated, two loud beats on a wooden drum initiated the morning service.

A formal Zen student led us in slowly chanting three times the verses of Atonement: “All evil karma ever committed by me since of old, on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance, born of my body, mouth and thought, now I atone for it all.” We intoned the Heart sutra about form and emptiness, and chanted words of gratitude for the Soto Zen ancestral lineage in Japan and for the current teachers. Other chants focused on compassion for all beings who are suffering and for caregivers who aim to alleviate suffering.

Prior to following the teachers and their attendants into the dining room for a silent breakfast, we chanted a long prayer of gratitude, starting with: “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know where it comes from.” After the meal, there was a period for exercise and bathing. Each morning before the heat grew intense, I walked to the riverside to practice Qigong. On my way there one day, as I bowed to pass beneath a leafy branch, a large black and yellow butterfly landed directly above the crown of my head. Its presence was like a blessing. My slow, mindful movements seemed to attract songbirds and dragonflies. On a few occasions, eagles and hawks soared above me, and I felt increasingly in harmony with nature.

Next on the daily schedule was samu service. Sangha members who were not involved in rehearsing chants and Zen ceremonies were assigned a daily task to leave the Garrison Institute cleaner than we found it. The overworked kitchen crew reported to the teachers that while programs were suspended during the pandemic, little maintenance had been done in the main building or on the grounds. When the cook saw us setting forth with mops, brooms, and toilet brushes, he bowed with appreciation. My job was to sweep hallways and bathrooms on the third floor, where it was stuffy and dusty. I imagined myself carrying on the legacy of generations of monastic temple sweepers.

We returned to the great hall for zazen and kinhin, strict walking practice. As I settled into sitting posture, the resonant ringing of the big bowl-like meditation bell permeated my body. I practiced listening to each ring from its inception to its dissolution. Roused from sitting meditation by clacking sticks, the sangha rose as one. We bowed towards the center, and then turned in unison to form a line that snaked around the room. With the left hand cupped in the right hand, each of us matched the infinitesimally slow foot movements of the person immediately in front. Sometimes I could sense the moment of intention before my predecessor lifted, moved, or placed her foot.

Another sharp clacking sound signaled a collective bow and then quick walking in formation. We had to pay close attention to avoid lagging or surging too close to one another. Individuals could bow out for a brief bathroom break, and then bow in as seamlessly as possible to claim their original spot in the rapidly undulating line. At the sound of a third loud clack, everyone placed hands in gassho position. Once we circled around to our original seats, all bowed and sat down in unison to resume sitting meditation.

Chodo’s dharma talk reframed atonement as “At-one-ment.” He spoke about conditioned habits and patterns that we inherit from our ancestors. His British forbears were murderers and thieves, and he left home at the age of sixteen to escape the violent atmosphere. After years of drug and alcohol addiction, he met a dharma teacher, turned his life around and became a Buddhist monk. Chodo was clear that we must acknowledge our own transgressions and accept without whitewashing that what is done is done. Then we can resolve to learn from our experiences and to avoid repeating any harm that we have committed.

Letting go of stale stories of guilt and shame allows us to connect with gratitude for having access to dharma teachings that our ancestors lacked. With compassion for ourselves and for all who inherit conditioned habits, we are motivated to live a life of non-harming. We aspire to transform our karma for the benefit of ourselves, our ancestors, and future generations.

As I listened, I felt a weight lift from my heart. On some level, I had been carrying the burden of my grandfather’s suicide and my mother’s depression, along with remorse for my own unskillful behavior. In a 5-minute teacher interview, Chodo counseled me that atonement is a daily practice of accepting our human imperfections while cultivating wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds. I felt grateful for his example and guidance.

When he guides sesshins, Koshin gives retreatants the option of being struck by a Zen wake-up stick that stimulates acupressure points on each shoulder. In the past, I felt scared by the loud whack of the long stick hitting meditators around me.

But this time I raised my hands in gassho position and bowed my neck to receive two hard blows. Short bursts of pain led to a tingling, vibrant sense of aliveness and then to a profound state of peaceful concentration.

As the retreat unfolded, the heat wave played a part in melting away my resistance to uncomfortable sensations. One night, while sweating in damp sheets, I felt compassion for masses of people without access to fans in India where temperatures have climbed to 120 degrees. Song lyrics from Dai En’s dharma talk ran through my mind: “Calm Abiding. Trust the dharma.”

Amidst the frequent formal exchange of bows in the meditation hall, everyone in the sangha softened towards one another. I became a nonverbal friend of the crew-cut young man sitting in front of me. Gentle smiles revealed his loving essence and undid my initial assumptions about him. When we broke silence at the end of the sesshin, he thanked me for being a silent ally on his very first retreat. Before departure, the sangha had a joyous, celebratory lunch.

Fruits of the sesshin were apparent on my travels home. I relaxed on the train to 125th Street station, where the neighborhood that had seemed so menacing eight days earlier now appeared full of color and vibrant activity. This time I made eye contact and felt interconnected with passersby. While waiting for an airport bus, a scruffy-looking woman complained to me about being assaulted and robbed at a nearby pharmacy. Instead of shying away, I listened to her compassionately. On the bus, the driver rejected my Metro card and pointed outside to a machine where I should have bought a ticket. Instead of kicking me off, the bus driver granted me a free ride. I surprised him by giving him the Metro card to help someone who couldn’t afford transportation. We both touched each other with generous gestures.

At the airport, I approached an elderly maintenance man who was sweeping a cafeteria floor to thank him for his service. Fresh from hall-sweeping duties, I was aware of how demanding his job was. The gate for my flight was changed to an area where three flights were departing at once. Throngs of passengers milled around while inaudible boarding announcements broadcast over a faulty P.A. system. In the chaotic scene, I was calm. My serenity continued when our plane was delayed for over an hour on the runway.

Finally airborne, I had a splendid view from my window seat of a gorgeous sunset before it was enveloped in dark storm clouds, illuminated at intervals by dramatic flashes of lightning. Rather than reacting with fear about flying near big thunderstorms, I invited the woman sitting next to me to watch the light show. Mango-colored light from the setting sun shone through what looked like three glowing windows in the pitch-black sky. After our bumpy landing in heavy rain at Bush airport, only one United airlines baggage carousel was working. During the long wait for my suitcase, I learned that earlier flights from La Guardia had been diverted to New Orleans to wait out the storms. With empathy, I realized that other travelers were dealing with far longer delays than I was.Although the form of the Zen sesshin differed from that of insight meditation retreats at Spirit Rock, the benefits were similar. After meditating intensively in Noble Silence, my nervous system was calm, my mind felt spacious, and my heart was open. I felt receptive and caring with strangers whose paths touched mine. Instead of reacting with stress or impatience, I was able to flow with unexpected obstacles, delays, and changes in plans.

Now my challenge is to accept impermanence and not to grasp at prolonging that equanimous state. As I continue daily dharma practice, I hope that lessons from the Zen retreat will motivate you to persevere in your own practice.