a.k.a. "Run Away! Run Away!"

On September 4-6 2004 we'll have our annual Zazen Retreat in Shizuoka (details here). Up until last year my teacher Gudo Nishijima gave all the lectures. But this year he decided to stay home and the job of giving the lectures fell to me. That's not to say I'll really be "in charge" of the retreat -- whatever that means. There's lots more involved in dealing with up to a couple dozen foreign people in a temple in rural Japan. A lot of other people will be involved. But as for the talks on Buddhism, it looks like it's up to me.

The idea of a Zazen Retreat is kind of funny to me. Just the words themselves sound like an oxymoron. To me, zazen is all about facing what you really are right here and right now. In other words zazen is all about not retreating. Ironically, though, one of the best ways to do this is by taking a few days to retreat from your usual routine.

Our retreats are pretty light-weight as zazen retreats go. We don't give you goofy questions to try and answer. We don't hit anyone with sticks or shout at you. We don't require complete silence for the three days you're at the temple. We do require you get up at 4:30 in the morning and practice zazen for about five hours a day. But even this is really wimpy by the standards set at many other temples where you're up at three and sitting anywhere from ten to eighteen hours a day sometimes. I once asked Nishijima about this and found out he considered those other retreats -- many of which he has attended -- to be a bit over-the-top. His idea is that Zen practice is a way of discovering the beauty and joy of your ordinary life. If the retreats are too far removed from the life you usually live, students often end up missing the point entirely and, instead, focus on the specialness of the retreat while missing the specialness of the rest of their lives.

So why go to a retreat at all? The best way to answer that is to go to a retreat and find out for yourself. Because if you sit around thinking about it you can easily convince yourself that there's no reason at all to waste your time and money on such a thing. A couple of my friends are at the Fuji Rock Festival right now spending three days rockin' out on the slopes of Mount Fuji to The White Stripes, Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, The Pixies, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and about a million other bands, most of which I've never heard of. I'm sure that's a way more exciting way to spend a long weekend. And I do enjoy that sort of thing too, having just gone to the Rock Odyssey festival in Yokohama -- headlined by The Who -- last week. Yet if you go to a Zen retreat you'll discover the reasons that Zen retreats may be even more valuable to your life than rock festivals with a kind of clarity words -- and rock festivals -- can never reach.

But let me attempt the impossible here and explain why you might want to go and sit in front of a blank wall listening to the cicadas and trying not to fall asleep for three days. The fact is, the "ordinary lives" most of us lead aren't really all that ordinary. Or at least we can say they're extremely artificial. Getting up at dawn and going to bed at nightfall you come to realize this is how most of the animal kingdom lives. The hours we set for ourselves are actually pretty weird when you get right down to it.

There's also a certain amount of regimentation to a Zen retreat. Again, our retreats pale in comparison to the almost militaristic attention to the details of how to eat, how to walk, how to talk and so on that they follow in a lot of Zen retreats. But we do require that you abide by a schedule which is far tighter than what most folks deal with at work and at home. Meals are taken in a certain proscribed way at specific times as are baths, work periods and even rest periods. You're supposed to walk through the temple with your hands folded in a certain way and bow to the statue of Buddha in the center whenever you pass in front of him no matter what kind of hurry you might be in.

But far from being restrictive, most people find the regimentation incredibly liberating. There's a great freedom in knowing what's expected of you at any given time of day. Of course, plenty of people take that sort of thing way overboard and become fanatical about schedules and suchlike. Still, having just enough of a routine and forcing yourself to stick to it can make you realize why we human beings are so drawn to routines. For my own part, although I spent most of my life chafing against any routine that was enforced upon me, the zazen retreats led to an understanding of why routines are valuable and also to the understanding of why I was always so much more depressed whenever I finally managed to break free of my routines. There's a good reason most people in this world work a certain schedule. Much as we may say we don't, the truth is we like it that way.

Then there's all the sitting and staring at the wall. What could possibly be more pointless? Certainly it's lots more interesting to stare at PJ Harvey or Meg from The White Stripes than to look at a white wall for hours and hours. Well, it is and it isn't. You can actually discover quite a lot by staring at a wall, and it's stuff you can't discover any other way. You also learn that there's stuff you can discover after the fourth hour of looking at that wall that you couldn't possibly have noticed during just fifteen minutes, or half an hour, or even three and a half hours. By the third day you're noticing stuff you'd spent your whole life ignoring.

Or not. Because sometimes our defenses are built up so well you feel like you've done nothing for the whole three days -- which is perfectly true. And yet when you get home you'll discover something has changed.

It used to be that every time I came home from one of our retreats I'd feel like I was stepping off of some space craft on to the surface of an alien world. The place I'd spent most of my life just seemed so bizarre after three days at the temple. But after a few retreats that feeling began to fade. The bright lights and noise of Shinjuku and the quiet tea fields of the Shizuoka hills blended into one seamless whole. They both sprung from the very same source. But the only way to see that clearly was to spend a few days away.

I've gone to zazen retreats at least once a year for the past ten years and I don't think I'll ever get tired of them. If you have some free time this September, why don't you come along and see for yourself?