‘Just sitting’ at the zazen weekend retreat

zazen retreat


For the past few years, I would spend one February weekend attending an annual zazen retreat organised by my zazen group at a farm outside of London. Our zazen group is quite small, so most of us know each other quite well. People come and go, and there is no pressure to attend the sessions regularly.

The path that brought me to my teacher and the group was windy, but it was worth it. After my teacher moved away from the UK, the annual retreat would be a good opportunity to spend quality time with him and listen to his talks. Our group’s practice is based on the teachings taught by the 13th century Japanese Zen master, Dogen Zenji, who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. However, our group is not associated with any Soto zen organisation or institution, since my teacher (and his teacher) do not like the hiercharchy, rigidity and dogma of any organisation – even the Buddhist ones.


zazen retreat


Due to my upbringing, I have felt like an ‘outsider’ all my life, and I never felt the need to belong to a group, yet my views changed since I became a regular at my zazen group. In Buddhism, Sangha means a community of fellow practitioners, and it is the third of the Three Jewels (the other two are The Buddha and The Dharma i.e. the teachings), so it is an important part of the practice. Practising with a group of people from all walks of life is not only interesting, it also broadens my horizon. They are not friends who I hang out with, though they are more than acquaintances, and I know I can turn to some for support if I need it. I dislike clique groups, so perhaps the reason why I like this group is that we tend to maintain an adequate distance between us. Low-key and friendly, but not cliquey.


zazen retreat  zazen retreat


There are many misconceptions regarding zazen. I want to clarify that the zazen practice taught by Dogen is neither mindfulness nor meditation. It is not about emptying the mind, finding happiness, or seeking enlightenment (this is the major difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen); the core of Dogen‘s teaching is Shikantaza, which can be translated to ‘just sitting’. This form of practice was introduced to Dogen by his Chinese teacher, Rujing, a monk of the Caodong school of Zen Buddhism in China. Unlike other kinds of meditation practice, it does not require you to focus your attention on the breathing or solve a koan or visualise, instead you just sit in a full or half lotus position (if possible) wholeheartedly and be aware of your body-mind (N.B. body and mind is not separate). This kind of practice is more difficult, but over time, you would become more aware of all the sensations in your body and the fleeting thoughts that come and go. Letting go of thoughts, stories and images does not involve conscious effort, as long as you don’t grasp or dwell on them, they would eventually fade away.

When you sit without trying, aiming or judging, you may experience what Dogen describes as shin-jin-datsu-raku, which meansbody-mind dropping off(originally translated from Chinese). Of course, he does not mean it literally, but from my experience, it feels like there is more ‘space, clarity, openness and calmness’ within. This is not a state that you can seek, it happens naturally, and without making any effort. All the effort you need in zazen is to keep your body relaxed and upright, yet this is easier said than done.


lower shaw farm


Zazen is crucial if you want to understand Zen Buddhism because it is experiential. You can learn Buddhist ethics and teachings from many books, but zazen is not an intellectual practice, it is an ‘action’ that does not involve thinking. My teacher often emphasise that zazen is not about sitting still, rather it is an action that requires constant adjusting and you can only find balance through the subtle adjustments and movements. It is like walking on a tightrope or riding a bicycle – both are balancing acts that require adjustments of the postures.

“Zazen is good for nothing” is a quote by the prominent Japanese Soto Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki (who died in 1965), which completely contradicts other goal-oriented spiritual practices. Zazen is not about self-improvement, and it does not make you a better person; to me, it is more about acceptance and awareness. After practising zazen for 6 years (and prior to it, I spent 6 years practising different forms of meditation), now I simply enjoy the act of ‘just sitting’. I don’t sit because I want to be in a different state, I sit because I want to, even when I feel down/happy/conflicted… We all have the tendency to want to escape from reality, but the truth is it never works. Although practising has not always been easy, it has become a habit to me (like brushing my teeth) and I would miss it if I don’t sit for a while.


zazen retreat


Many people think of retreats as some kind of spa holiday where you would relax for days – nothing could be further from the truth! It is actually exhausting to sit in a upright position for 4-5 hours a day. We would start each day at 7am and end after 9pm, and the day is filled with different work duties (samu in Japanese), hence a retreat is hardly a holiday. However, after just a weekend of sitting and time away from my digital devices, I usually would feel quite uplifted despite the aches and pains in my body.

Like my teacher would say, “After a weekend of sitting, all the stiffness in our bodies would ‘drop off’ and this would be revealed in our postures”. Surprisingly, our sitting postures reveal a lot about the states of our body-mind. According to some cognitive and neuroscience research, the balance state of the autonomic nervous system is one of the benefits of the practice. Besides the health benefit, Kodo Sawaki Roshi said that “Zazen is to tune into the universe”. I believe that zazen is just one of the many methods that enable us to let go of our self-centredness and be more connected to the universe. If all of us can find a method to feel this connectedness, then perhaps our world would one day become integrated and harmonious.





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