Friday, April 6, 2012


'Do not look around the meditation hall. Do not make eye-contact with others. Do not speak to others. If you must communicate, write a note. Sesshin starts now.'  There were four black-robed monks sitting in a line.  The Ino - the head of the meditation hall, who in this incarnation had an impeccable upper-class English accent - had just finished reading us the instructions that would govern the seven-day retreat I'd signed up to at the San Francisco Zen Center.  After my conversation with John Tarrant, I'd decided not to go on retreats with his Pacific Zen Institute anymore, though I was continuing to practice on a weekly basis with his student David Weinstein.  But I had undertaken to attend other retreats available in the area, and since SFZC was only a couple of blocks away from my flat, and is an important reference-point for American Buddhists, what better place to start but there?

From the beginning, I knew that these guys were serious.  We were instructed to make an effort to turn up to every compulsory session of meditation and to every service, in order to support others in their practice.  There was to be no use of phones or computers, and no reading or writing.  (One woman asked at the beginning what we would be allowed to do in rest periods, given that these activities were forbidden.)  Unlike at PZI retreats, where people would often talk quietly together and greet newcomers with a hug, here practioners followed the rules strictly.  The whole experience reminded me of nothing so much as being at boarding school in England.  All activities were forcibly communal; a great regularity prevailed; and the whole eccentric endeavour was presided over and punctuated by the periodic ringing of bells.  At the end of the day I returned to my room feeling like my mind had been nuked with quietness.

Nowhere was the attention to etiquette more marked than in the traditional oryoki breakfasts.  Oryoki is a ritualized form of eating involving a small bundle of kitchenware wrapped in a cloth.  It looks like the kind of thing you bring on a picnic, or that a kid running away from home would hang from a stick he would then carry jauntily on his shoulder.  When you unwrap it there are chopsticks, a spoon, a spatula, a cloth, and three bowls (or five if you're a priest - apparently ordination in Zen is partly about getting more bowls than everyone else).   There was a special hour-long instruction session on the first day to ensure that we all lifted our bowls at the right times.  At one point a controversy arose among the clergy about when we should be allowed to serve oursleves the gomasho, a poppy-seed condiment you sprinkle on your food.  In the end, the Senior Dharma Teacher announced, 'The Abbots have met about this, and have ruled that the gomasho will be served after the third bowl'.  So it was decided.

I enjoyed oryoki only to the extent that it gave me a glimpse into Japanese monastic practice, and if I'm honest that's the only way I could really put up with several of the other aspects of practice at SFZC sesshin.  Every day we spent a couple of hours chanting, sometimes texts that had been translated into English, like Dogen's enlightening 'Fukan-zazengi', but just as often meaningless strings of Japanese syllables, 'to yota mitsu bishi ka rate to kyo', and so on.  Now, I don't mind being made to repeat words that will stick with me and may eventually sink into my heart ('Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord'), but I do object to reciting phonemes that are simply not intelligible to me (or anyone else in the room) and are unlikely to become so in the future.   Presumably the SFZC response would be that they are honouring the ancestors, but the ancestors in question were Japanese, and so presumably understood the Japanese text they were chanting.

Worse than the bowing were the prostrations.  At about six o'clock every morning we'd file into the upstairs hall, bow once or twice in one direction (you can't go anywhere in that place without there being some statuette to kowtow to somewhere behind you), and then put our hands in gasho (prayer-position), kneel down, fall forward, softly head-butt the reed-matt floor, and then lift up just our hands so that we looked like caterpillar with curious antennae.  Then we'd get up, and do the whole thing again, driven repeatedly forward and downward by a serious-looking young chap with an extra-large sacred bonker and a supersized bowl-bell.  It was like a static pacifist version of the scene in Ben Hur where all the slaves rowing are being taken up to ramming speed by a man banging a drum.  I don't really see the point of falling on the floor for a bunch of statues, or for Siddartha Gauthama: the man died in 483 BC, so it's hard to see why he would care.

I also had to bow when doing dokusan (personal interview) with the Senior Dharma Teacher, although she was such a humble person that it was easy for me not to think of it as an act of obeisance to her personally.  In general I have to say that SFZC, for all its liturgical conservatism, has a much less top-down approach to teaching than PZI.  When I went to speak to Victoria Austin, the retreat's other leading teacher, I asked her about Richard Baker and accountability, and she welcomed my questions, before responding to them in a straightforward manner.  She said that SFZC Abbots served at the pleasure of a board of governors, that spiritual teachers should be expected at the very least to live up to the ethical convention governing other organizations, and that unusual insight should never be used to justify teachers' transgressions.  I felt reassured by her response, not only because it confirmed my instincts, but because it made SFZC seem like a safe and sane place to practice meditation.

All the same, after four days the rigidity and strictness of the practice there - during a sesshin which was supposed to have been specially designed for the ailing - was making my usual low-level pain intolerable.  I sat left foot over right, I sat right foot over left, I knelt with a cushion, I knelt with a bench.  I went home the fourth night and couldn't sleep because my legs and back were in such agony.  I stayed awake until five, wrote a note to the Ino, and then went and handed it in.  It read: 'I am ending my sesshin a day earlier than planned due to excessive pain'.  (Later I got an email back, saying 'I was sorry to hear of your pain; I hope you found the retreat a valuable experience nonetheless'.)  I walked back along Page Street, thinking 'Well, that didn't work'.  I stopped for a long time by a tree to listen to a blackbird singing; but that, of course, is something you could do any day.   


  1. Replies
    1. I don't know; WiG every Wednesday; and other places in the area for retreats. We'll see. I think I should try out vipassana or Tibetan for a bit.

  2. maybe you should look further afield for your retreats?

    1. Maybe one day, but at the moment I don't have much money.

  3. Extra large sacred bonker? ^_^

    That sounds quite a bit like Korean Buddhism.... all the bowing and wooden bells and chanting. I'm going to do a temple stay in May or June. I'll keep you posted.

    Save your pennies and do a retreat here!