Zen is, after all, zazen: just sitting. But how many of us have wondered whether Dogen was making some kind of cruel joke? Where is the repose? Where is the bliss?
Zazen, zazen, and more zazen. Sometimes a minimum of two hours a day on the cushion, usually 3 hours, and during the 7 day sesshin, ten periods of zazen. I checked the sesshin schedule, and there were 295 minutes of zazen a day (equaling 4.91 hours), and if you add in the dharma talk, tea, and three oryoki meals, that is an additional 3.5 hours on the cushion.
I thought I had trained for this. I was sitting 30 minutes a day, 3 times a day, for two months. But I felt as if I had never sat at all. I knew that I should not condemn myself or feel like a failure – although that was often how I felt. As my good friend and mentor, Chris Fortin, said, “It’s not that you were a failure, it was just not what you expected.”
The big shock was on Day 2, when we did a tangaryo. I went to the Ino, the head of the hall, and said, “Let me get this straight. I sit from 5 am until 9 pm with bathroom breaks and three short breaks for meals?” “Yes,” she said, “do your best.”
Doing my best was an ever-present koan. What is my best? What is the discomfort one works through in order to gain a strong posture that one can hold? What level of pain is simply too much – pain that would cause any reasonable person to stay in bed?
During the entire practiced period, I was dismayed by how much my body hurt. I switched between a chair and the cushion, but I can tell you sitting motionless in a chair for 40 minutes can be just as painful as sitting on a cushion. On the chair, I felt burning sensations in my neck and shoulders. On the cushion, pain between my shoulder blades.
One good thing: during the 40 minutes, I was constantly making small adjustments and learned my true posture. My teacher, Norman Fischer, said that I would become intimate with my spine. How true! If I slightly bent my head or tucked my chin, my neck and shoulders felt better. I would adjust my spine and learned that if the vertebrae were in a line, like children’s play blocks stacked in a column, I could sit better. There was a balance between using muscles to sit upright and yet staying (relatively) relaxed.
This must sound pretty masochistic, and one would reasonably question whether this is a “cult of pain,” – words my mind repeated at my very lowest experience. There were instructions from the Abbess to stay with the schedule, to stay with the pain. I do not agree with this philosophy at all. I think intense pain is not necessary and possibly harmful. But I do think, now, that pushing through discomfort can be useful.
So, although this description might sound grim, it was, in retrospect, a wonderful challenge. After these two months, it is as if I found my posture, found my foundation, and I am now able to just sit for several hours. Not exactly in repose and bliss, but with a body-mind open awareness that is actually refreshing.