One Continuous Thread: Virtual Sesshin

· Sangha News, Zen Training

By Taikyo Gilman

The wake-up drum and bell sounding through the hallway, people moving quietly before dawn, three rings on the bansho bell beginning morning zazen. Sesshin has its soundscape, and with a little bit of added technology, an unprecedented 133 people shared the experience of the Apple Blossom sesshin sounds.

View from “air traffic control” in the gaitan above the zendo

Through a monitor frame the sights of the zendo were shared: liturgy, talks throughout the week, and zazen. The other sensory elements of sesshin were necessarily homemade: incense and flowers, the taste of breakfast and lunch, the sounds and quiet conversations with family members, roommates, co-workers on Zoom calls, grocery store clerks, telemedicine calls, the reality of home practice.

The core Monastery residents lived within the 24-7 structure of the sesshin schedule while 103 others moved within and without.

Afternoon service of Daihishin Dharani.

But it was not sesshin—not in the traditional sense—and yet was something else of great value. “One Continuous Thread” as Hojin Sensei has dubbed these home dweller intensives, and it’s a fitting name. She heard from practitioners who were finding a self-reliance in their practice they hadn’t felt before.

While reminding people that this was a time when they weren’t running themselves at the same old pace, “the machine isn’t running right now,” she said, “so let what you value sink deeply right now, the invaluable connection with the three jewels.” An integration of practice in daily life with partners, children, sharing it as much as possible, begins to blossom.

Responses from at-home participants include gratitude, amazement and enthusiasm for bringing the framework of intensive practice into their secluded spaces. One mother of five was doing oryoki with her children during the intensive, and another was having dharma conversations with their non-practicing spouse. For those living in solitude, it was another way to re-evaluate how we open up our time for the things we value.

With an elder at home to care for, Myoho said she was able to frame her day to include zazen along with all her other responsibilities without relying on outside help, something necessary when traveling for sesshin. Kokuan was able to continue his work with the state of New Jersey during his extended work-practice period within the structure of a meditation intensive.

And for those with health conditions, the surge of on-line dharma is a blessing. “I’ve practiced with the sangha more now than I’ve been able to in years,” said one participant, a cancer survivor with health restrictions. And for those recovering from Covid-19 in their own homes, it was a cherished way to be held while regaining strength, and to practice at a manageable pace.

Many others, particularly those living in other parts of the country or overseas, were able to follow as much of the intensive schedule as they could. Comments and suggestions for improvement will be taken up with the training staff, but for the time being this new evolution is broadening the capacity we have to support each other in simple, genuine connection.

Earth Day altar on the final day of Apple Blossom Sesshin

Going forward, for now, the model for this inside-outside retreat phenomenon is being codified into what reality has already proven it to be: parallel tracks weaving through space and time. The Monastery’s May intensive, which has been dubbed “Metta Sesshin” will be held within the cloister as it always has been, and Livestreamed as it was in March and April.

Those participating outside the Monastery will be registering with the now official title, One Continuous Thread: A Home Practice Intensive. Our hope is that this offering will make clear that one’s level of engagement with the structures of sesshin is wide open to individual needs and situations. Some will follow the entire schedule (or nearly) while others will check in with the dharma talks and perhaps morning and evening zazen. Either way, the through line will be our shared intention to study the mind, to study karma, to be mutually supportive, to take refuge in the three treasures again and again, and to be of benefit to all beings everywhere.

Find out more about One Continuous Thread on the program page.

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