Sesshin, Distractions, and Turning Away – A Talk by Leland Shields

Posted by on Sep 17, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Sesshin, Distractions, and Turning Away – A Talk by Leland Shields

Sesshin, Distractions, and Turning Away

Leland Shields, September 12, 2022

Driven to find how to live in this world of sickness and inescapable loss, Siddhartha spent years searching in all ways available among the teachers and seekers of his time. He remained unsatisfied after years of effort, with great will, and with belief that spiritual sustenance was possible while denying the body to the point of emaciation. He sat until strength failed him. A woman taking milk to market saw Siddhartha and made a compassionate offering of milk. Realizing that weakening the body hindered his way on the path, Siddhartha accepted milk and regained strength. For this perceived indulgence, Siddhartha was rejected by his community of seekers. Undeterred, He placed a grass mat under the Bodhi tree and sat down, focusing with determination.

The myth in our Zen tradition is that he sat, steadfast, seven days and seven nights, beset by the temptations of Mara, until waking when seeing the Venus star on the morning of the 8th day.

This story contains the originating myth of sesshin.

Nothing is said about Buddha rising within that seven days to beg for food, drink water, and toilet. Having foregone denial of his body, the middle way is inferred; I fully trust Siddhartha included care for his body in the days and nights. Just as I trust the clear commitment to a quiet mind and sitting without movement.

Here we are, you and I, under the Bodhi tree today. We too care for our bodies with meals, sleep, sitting and walking meditation, and interacting as fitting with those around us. As we do so, we care for our commitment to being awake by setting aside distractions as we are able, even while caring for our bodies, sitting and walking meditation, and interacting with those around us.

Sesshin are designed as settings in which we express our inspiration to practice in luxurious blocks of time that are only available because we’ve reduced other commitments and activities. In our non-residential sesshin, our contact with the world and other people is a greater part of the week than we’ve had for our residential sesshin. Madelon and I chose to describe this as sesshin nonetheless, intending to evoke the spirit of retreat throughout the day and night, as in retreats of any setting. Sesshin literally means to touch the heart-mind. It is up to each of us to make this sesshin by breathing this breath, and hearing this very sound. And again, breathing this very breath and hearing this sound.

There is also no sesshin without Mara, because Mara is not separate from us. Mara shows up on the second of the Four Infinite Vows; “Blind passions without cease, I vow to see through.” In the hours of our zazen, Mara is an intimate partner, sometimes referred to as distraction.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “distraction” as, “something that distracts : an object that directs one’s attention away from something else”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its etymology as from the Latin, “A drawing or being drawn asunder; pulling asunder; forcible disruption, division, or severance.”

It seems we can find ways to become distracted even by the question as to what is a distraction. Is it a distraction to be concerned about climate change while sitting, and wondering if zazen is the best use of time and energy in this troubled world? In place of climate change, fill in with the world or personal trouble that comes to your mind as we sit.

Distraction and the nature of mind are such that while engaged in social action we may wonder if that time would be better used supporting an ill or distressed loved one. And while caring for a loved one we may well wonder if we should be spending more time in meditation. These are all good questions, and priorities are set by our actions every day. Part of our zazen meditation is to quiet the waters of mind such that a fitting response to those questions is available to us.

Siddartha expressed priorities when leaving a spouse and child at home to begin his search. Frankly, I am troubled by that part of the story, having chosen otherwise when I had a baby in my own home. But I have to presume that Siddartha had to take the one path he took, to the benefit of us all over the last 2,500 years. I cannot know what path would have been best for Siddhartha, nor anyone else. I trust you and I each to navigate our way, blundering around in the dark as we do, correcting course when encountering our own discord.

Siddartha chose a path again after seeing the Venus star on the morning of the eighth day; he left his seat to offer new perspective to the friends of his practice community. Seeing him, they immediately knew there was a change, and embraced him again. The story shows that sitting does not preclude engagement in the world – each engagement in its time.

With these considerations, I’ve circled around the use of seclusion to foster deep engagement in practice. As in other faith traditions, Buddhism has a long history of monastic settings, ancestors spending time in hermitages, and having times of isolated focus. Buddha left home and eventually sat for an extended time alone under this Bodhi tree. Moses was herding alone for an untold time when meeting the burning bush. Jesus went into the desert for forty days. In the book, Thoughts in Solitude (p. 91), Thomas Merton wrote:

If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”

Merton apparently did not see this as separate from action in the world; in his notes from 1953-1954 he wrote:

I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists, and agitators…

Thomas Merton, In My Own Words

Speaking as a lay practitioner myself, I find that externally manifested seclusion is a wonderful tool, but not the point. Instead, we can use externally manifested seclusion as affirmatively stepping toward receptive silence, and as support for receptivity to carry at all times. Carrying the silence with us is the metaphor of Buddha walking away from the Bodhi tree to meet his friends, and speaking.

To take isolation and silence too literally, is to experience the world we meet as distraction. We can take the buzz of an air purifier as inhibiting meditation, and take fear of recession and our own finances as disrupting our attention. Would you see this differently in your life if distraction is defined as that which pulls our attention from the present, severing our recognition of non-duality?

Distraction in this way can occur when grasping and when rejecting the buzzing sound. What is it to be present when the buzzing sound dominates over timing bells and birds? Hmmmmm…

In Jewish tradition, Satan is not thought of as evil; the 12th Century Jewish theologian Maimonides said the name “Satan” is derived from the root, “turn away.” Jewish texts often translate Satan as obstruction or adversary. All these allude to the questions, turn away from what? Obstruct from what?

Whether sitting in Dharma Gate, or your home dojo, we all know the call to turn away. That call can derive from the petty to the profound – from the craving for a strawberry, to sending a post card to get out the vote. The call to turn away while in the world is also familiar –having dinner with someone while watching the clock for the start of the next sitting period, or work deadline.

The commonality of obstruction in faith traditions encourages me; this is not my failing, not your failing, it is life. If this is life, this too is a chance to turn toward.

Returning to our Zen tradition, Lin-chi is recorded as saying this to his community:

Bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind, and you’ll not differ from the Patriarch-Buddha. Do you want to know the Patriarch-Buddha? He is none other than you who stand before me listening to my discourse. Since you lack faith in yourself, you run around seeking something outside. Even if through seeking you find something, that will be nothing more than elaborate descriptions in written words; in the end you will fail to gain the mind of the Living Patriarch.

Ruth F. Sasaki, The Record of Lin-chi, p. 7

The first phrase in this quote is, “Bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind…” It would carry a different meaning if Lin-chi left out the word “seeking” and said, “Bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaseless… mind…” By specifying rest of the seeking mind, Lin-chi is encouraging us to have a seat right here, without seeking beyond this place which includes the mind of sense perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. As the Heart Sutra encourages us:

Since there is nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva lives by Prajna Paramita, with no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear; far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.

The translator of the quote of Lin-chi using language of the patriarchy was Ruth F. Sasaki, born in 1892, a female pioneer of Zen in the West. She was the first foreigner to be a priest of a Rinzai temple in Japan, and the only woman and only foreigner to be a priest of Daitoku-ji. Encountering phrases like “the Patriarch Buddha,” our minds today may naturally find associations with current questions of language as being inclusive or divisive. That is the nature of mind. Once such an association arises during sesshin, now what? There was a time for Buddha to sit receptive, and a time to rise and speak. Neither is right or wrong. One is in accord for this moment. Whether receptive or speaking, can you turn towards the Tao that dances in all sensations, feelings, and thoughts in this very moment?

The truth is that you already know what is a distraction. It’s a bit simpler this week; we have all brought body and mind to sesshin. There may be some of the non-formal times during this sesshin when you can wonder how to express your practice, but I trust we all carry the intention of turning away from discursive mind for this short week, and toward the Tao that also includes maybe this, and maybe that. Every one of us has spread out a grass mat and are sitting on it under branches and leaves, surrounded by weeds. Together with all we sit.

In Cultivating the Empty Field, Hung-chih (transliteration from The Roaring Stream) wrote:

So nowadays please do not acquiesce to sages and exalt their worth [instead of realizing it yourself ]. This is how you should wear the robe and eat your food. When constantly mindful with no distracting considerations, minds do not allow contaminating attachments… Comprehend your sense-object faculties until they are exhausted from top to bottom… Naturally the mind flowers and radiance shines forth, responding to the visible lands and fields. How could you have ever separated from the various permutations? Now you can enter among diverse beings and travel the bird’s way without hindrance, free at last.

Zhengjue; Cheng-chüeh. Cultivating the Empty Field (Tuttle Library Of Enlightenment) (pp. 54-55). Tuttle Publishing. Kindle Edition.

When we meditate, work, garden, and converse, we can easily turn away from the singular presence of breath, and noise, deadline stress, sun, snails, and the furrowed brow of the one to whom we are speaking. We turn away from the Venus star that is never missing. We can also turn toward breath, noise, deadline stress, and the myriad forms perceptible just now. The Venus star is yours now, though it may be known by other names.

This from Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen” is yours too.

Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes;
this very place is the Lotus Land;
This very body, the Buddha.

I’ll end today with a verse from Keizan, encouraging us to embrace that which is our practice as it is, whether in the autumn of falling leaves, or the spring of wild growth.

Though there be the purity of the autumn waters
Extending to the horizon,
How does that compare with the haziness
Of a spring night’s moon?
Most people want clear purity,
But though you sweep and sweep,
The mind is not yet emptied.

Keizan, (translated by) Thomas Cleary, Transmission of the Light, p. 27.