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Sesshin

What is “sesshin”?

Sesshin, which translates as "touching the heart-mind", is a style of intensive meditation retreat unique to the Zen school. In Three Pillars of Zen, Phillip Kapleau, Roshi, describes the practice in this way:
“Sesshin in one form or another goes back to the time of the Buddha, when monks would train themselves in seclusion during the several months of the rainy season. The purpose of sesshin, as the word implies, is to enable one to collect and unify one’s normally scattered mind in order to focus it like a powerful telescope inward in order to discover one’s true Self-nature. During sesshin the basic teaching devices and methods of Zen- that is, zazen, teisho (the formal commentary), and dokusan (private instruction)- are coordinated into a meaningful whole during [four to ten] days of seclusion (Kapleau, 214).”
In other words, sesshin is a means of settling the waves of distracted mind to allow absorption to occur and insight to unfold. This progression into stillness is developed by maintaining silence, refraining from media use and engaging in work practice, formal meals and, most importantly, zazen. Zazen, the zen form of sitting, is the primary practice of sesshin, taking up 8-10 hours of the daily schedule. It is what allows the mind to quiet, the body to still and one’s innate wisdom to flow forth. The power of sesshin, however, is not only accessible during the moments of ease and clarity but can also be found when one squarely faces sesshin’s inevitable challenges, rather than trying to bypass them.

What to expect

Sesshin is a time of intensive meditation and is psychologically and emotionally demanding. Sleep is reduced and physical discomfort is a challenge all participants will face and should be expected. If you sense that the stress of focused, silent sitting meditation for 8-10 hours a day is not a healthy or appropriate endeavor for you at this time, please honor your wisdom. If you have never attended a sesshin at Great Vow, it is recommended that you first attend a Beginner's Mind Weekend Retreat. If you have never been to either of these retreats, or if you would like to discuss the appropriateness of sesshin for you, please call the training office at 503-728-0654.

Sesshin are held in silence. After opening remarks on the first night, we enter silence and maintain it until a closing circle on the final day. During sesshin we meditate together between 8-10 hours per day. Sitting meditation is usually in two-hour blocks of four 25-minute periods, with walking meditation and opportunities to shift your sitting position. We provide meditation supplies (chairs, benches, and cushions), but you are welcome to bring your own. 

Meals are formal and held in silence. There is a morning work period and a few breaks throughout the day. The daily schedule may include an afternoon dharma talk (teisho) from the teacher, interview with the teacher (sanzen), and formal tea at night. 

Mornings usually begin at 3:50 a.m. and end around 10 p.m. Dharma talks and guided meditations revolve around the sesshin theme. Click here to see an approximate sesshin schedule. 
 
The morning work period lasts roughly 90 minutes. During this period, participants engage in simple work practice, such as cooking, cleaning, gardening, or sewing. There are scheduled breaks after meals.
 
Please arrive between 5 and 6 p.m. the first night, and check in at the office. 
 
Part time attendance
 
Part time attendance is only available for members of Zen Community of Oregon. If you are a member and would like to attend sesshin part time, please contact the registrar to arrange the details. 
 
Proper attire
 
To support the dignity of spiritual practice and to lessen distractions, we ask people to wear modest, subdued clothing in the meditation hall. Please do not wear shorts, sleeveless tops, or shirts with advertising or logos.
 
Because many people are sensitive to scents, please do not wear perfume or cologne, or use strongly scented toiletries in the meditation hall.
 
What to bring
 
Personal toiletries (we have a small supply of toiletries including ear plugs if you forget anything)
Flashlight (optional)
Slip-on shoes or sandals (helpful for shoes-off area in the zendo and dorm rooms)
Please also consider bringing your own linens or sleeping bag. This helps the monastery cut down on energy use. We do have plenty of linens available if you would rather use ours. 
Oriyoki set (if you have one; loaner sets are available)
Outside clothes for work, including gloves and outdoor shoes (we have a supply if you forget)
 
Please do not bring
 
Non-prescription drugs (excluding allergy medications, vitamins/supplements, or related items)
Pets
Alcoholic beverages
I-pods/radios
Reading materials
 
Cell phone and laptop use
 
During sesshin we encourage all participants to keep their cell phones and computers powered off for the duration. The phone number for the monastery is 503-728-0654, and is checked daily. Please arrange for those who might need to contact you in case of an emergency to use this number, rather than your cell phone.
 
Sources: Kapleau, Phillip, Roshi. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.