Of Buddhist practice’s “Three treasures” or
jewels — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha — the
one often ignored among new Western practitioners
Historically, sangha has referred to the followers
of the Buddha — the monks and nuns. Nowadays
in the West we use sangha to describe people who practice
together and, in a far broader sense, to include all
the followers of the teachings, all the practitioners.
Buddha is the one who realizes. The Dharma
is what is realized. And the Sangha is
the harmony of practice, both communal
and individual, in accord with the Buddha-way.
In this way, all relationships teach us,
even as we appreciate and polish each other,
Ultimately, sangha points to the very fact of interrelatedness,
of interdependence — that everything functions
the sangha principal.
I can not emphasize enough the
importance of sitting with others — as well
as on one’s own — and practicing together
with a qualified teacher and a community group of
practitioners. It’s really a shame that many
people who are interested in practicing meditation
have little sense of the importance of working or
sitting or communing with a group of like-minded
This doesn’t mean you can’t practice if
you live far from a Zen community. But at some point
it becomes really really worthwhile to say “OK,
I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten with my
solitary practice and now it’s time for me to
find a teacher, to find a group, a sangha with
whom I can relate, so that aspect of my practice can
In the old days you’d have to travel abroad.
Dogen traveled to China ("to dusty lands”).
In the West we have a rare opportunity, as there are
a growing number of qualified teachers and many of
us need only travel a few
hundred miles to attend a sesshin or meditation retreat.
Sitting at a Zen center
If you do have access to a Zen center and decide to
sit with that community, here are some things to keep
in mind that will help you adapt to the communal sitting
At many Zen centers the periods of sitting
are usually between 30 and 35 minutes in length.
So a half hour is a sitting period you can aim for
developing your own practice.
Zen Center of Los Angeles we sit 35 minute sessions.
We recognize that newcomers who are sitting shorter
sessions at home may experience some unavoidable difficulties.
Let’s face it, not everyone can sit comfortably
and motionlessly for long periods of time. Practically
no one can when they first start! When sitting alone
you can build up both the length of your sitting periods
and your ability to sit still. But what about when
you sit in a Zen center, among more “experienced” sitters
and even a teacher? There are two considerations: your
practice and contributing to a supportive environment
for everyone sitting together
When you’re trying very hard to be "a good zen
student," you sometimes make unrealistic demands
of yourself. If you
can sit reasonably still for a period or two, that’s
fine. "Reasonably still" doesn’t
mean perfect motionlessness. It means you’re
not frequently wiggling around. It means
not gasping or sobbing (too much) and
that you’re not groaning silently to yourself.
Group practice in a Zen community usually
includes daily practice, intensive
training periods, and the special meditation retreat
If you live near a Zen center take advantage of the
opportunity to integrate some of
your practice with the center's.
Most Western training centers also schedule
intensive training periods which include a strong
emphasis on sitting as well talks by a teacher,
individual study and contact with a teacher. You may
find that in temporarily setting aside the usual routines
of your life and engaging in such practice, you gain
new awareness of your strength and flexibility, and
the perspective that emerges through training can help
you to deal more creatively with families, friends,
and fellow workers.
Zen communities hold intensive sitting retreats called sesshin.
The word “sesshin” comes
from two Japanese words: setsu — " to
collect” or “to
regulate” and shin —“heart” or “mind”..
So a sesshin is a special time devoted to collecting
or regulating the heart/mind.
It has been said that
one who has not sat sesshin has yet to fully
experience Zen practice.
Three to seven day sesshins provides
an opportunity to live, eat, sit, work, and sleep inside
the monastery or Zen center. While the emphasis is
on sitting — usually about eight to ten hours daily
— there is also work-practice,
chanting, talks by the teacher, and daily personal
encounters between teacher and student.
offers an important change of pace and focus from
everyday life that can have cumulative and far-reaching
impact on your life and practice. It can bring you
closer to yourself and can build strength and
self-confidence. Sesshin can also
awaken you to the preciousness of time.
Sesshin leads you through
confusion and scattered energies past the ego, and
beyond dualistic thought. It is a rugged and sobering
trek, with deep valleys and high peaks. But it is in
the making of the journey that the individual and
the community discover and create themselves
from moment to moment. In a fashion you may have never
experienced, sesshin relieves you of the need
to break concentration even briefly. Every moment,
every action can be experienced as arising from the
moments and actions preceding and following it. In
sesshin you can explore explore what
it really means to pay attention, moment after moment.
And as this awareness sinks in, you may begin to wonder
how much of your so-called “everyday” life
passes unnoted, unappreciated, unused.
Sesshin is an opportunity to discover
life anew, and, with this discovery, what it means
to be alive.
The word sesshin also implies unifying
or harmonizing ones’ individual practice with
that of the larger group. The experience of
sitting, working, and being with diverse yet similarly-attuned
group of others serves to greatly heighten the sense
of immediateness and personal relevance of sitting,
and to afford a far more visceral appreciation of Zen
practice. And in the process, your
sense of relatedness to others—and to the teachings
and the practice itself—is greatly
It is common for us in the West to see
individual and group activities as polar opposites,
and we tend to feel that we must choose between
them. But in sesshin, it becomes clear that both are
real and compatible, and that the deepest harmony occurs
when both are accorded the right appreciation and expression.
[To learn more about sitting in sesshin,
Meditation in Plain English.]