A sesshin is a Zen retreat. In one sense I think 'retreat' is an appropriate word since you are withrawing from the stresses and distractions of 'worldly' life for a while. On the other hand, the purpose of doing this is to confront yourself and existence in a very direct way without flinching. Sitting there with nothing to distract you for hours and hours, there's just nowhere to hide any more.
This post is somewhat belated since it refers to the sesshin I attended in November, but hey, I didn't have a blog then.
I've taken a while to get around to attend a proper sesshin - mainly because I was intimidated by the prospect of sitting for so long with nothing to distract me, but also because of circumstances. Also I thought we were going to be eating gruel all day.
On the whole, the food was great, although I didn't have an urge to cook up a big pot of genmai (a sort of cross between porridge and vegetable soup). Meals were generally ritualised, and largely silent. The atmosphere was warm and friendly.
I've not really placed much importance on the ritualistic aspects of Zen, seeing them as mere religious and cultural trappings. I don't wear or even own a kimono. I don't see a purpose for it at this time. However in the context of a sesshin at least, everyone in black robes was at least visually clean and added to a sense of ritual. Whether this offsets my concern of attachment to rituals, trappings and religiosity in general is another matter. For now I remain a 'plain clothes' student of Zen.
One thing I noticed was that at times during the ritual of meals and between all the long zazen sittings, I managed to remain very focussed and aware in a way that I wouldn't normally.
Something else interesting I noticed during the zazen was a sense of discursive thought as a sort of bodily function, like digestion, or breathing, or the beating of my heart. We tend to automatically accept the virtual world of our thoughts as reality even if our thoughts are that we are mistaken or that we cannot know anything. Thoughts just bubbled away sometimes and then stopped. I didn't take them as real. I think this is what Deshimaru meant when he said Think with your whole body.
In spite of having a slight phobia of public speaking and in spite of being intimidated by the Godo (oh my god, he's a Zen Master! stupidness) I'm proud to say that I got up during the Mondo session, bowed to the Godo and asked a question. Godo Guy Mercier (if you didn't guess) is French and although his English is good, he used a translator to help with the mondo.
Me: "To recieve ordinations in Soto Zen, is it necessary to believe in traditional buddhist concepts of Karma and Rebirth?"
Godo: "No... you do need to have faith"
Me: [thinking he was talking about faith in the reality of literal karma and rebirth] "I don't think I could ever accept something on faith alone"
Godo: "Continue to practice, sew your rakusu and study the sutras."
I bowed politely. Disappointing I thought, but I don't need formally recognised ordination to continue to practice.
One of the priests came and spoke to me afterwards to clarify that this was all based on a language problem. The Godo had been referring to confidence in the practice, not blind faith in Karma, rebirth or other such obscure metaphysical processes.