Going to sesshin is a bit like preparing oneself prior to taking a journey to a distant
land. You need appropriate clothes, you need to know a few survival phrases, and
you need to have passing familiarity with the culture. In the same way, when you
come to sesshin, you need to dress correctly, you need to know a few terms, and you
need to know what is expected of you.
The best preparation for sesshin is to do as much extra zazen and chanting as
possible. This enables you to enter sesshin with a mind already receptive,
concentrated and attentive. Equally important are those things you should make
every effort to avoid because they will make it more difficult for you to settle into the
MOVIES & TV—Watching any movie, even one with a Buddhist theme is probably
the single worst thing you can do prior to sesshin. The imagery of movies is
implanted in the mind in such a way that it readily comes to consciousness during
zazen. Between our rampant thoughts, unstable emotions, and physical discomfort,
we have enough to contend with during sesshin. Why add to the burden? Same goes
EXTRANEOUS READING—Specifically novels, books about Zen, books with violent
themes (even if they are non-fiction), and magazines. It should be obvious why it is
inadvisable to read novels or books containing violence-you’ll be setting yourself up
for fantasies or particularly distressing makyo. As for magazines, you will end up
spending extra time trying to let go of the mental clutter created by what you have
But why not Buddhist books? It is because the phrases in Zen texts will haunt you
during sesshin. You’ll find yourself comparing your mind states to those that were
described in the book you read. Instead of concentrating on your practice, you’ll be
concentrating on ideas concerning the practices you read about. It’s a no-win
situation. Give yourself a break-don’t read prior to sesshin.
MUSIC—If you start to quiet down your environment before sesshin begins, likewise,
your mind will begin to quiet. For many people, music sticks in the mind like super
glue. Catchy tunes, romantic melodies, bits and pieces of classical music can become
a broken record during sesshin.
Now here are a few things you should do, in addition to the essential extra sitting:
PREPARE YOUR BODY—Cut down on caffeine, stretch, get some extra sleep. Coffee
isn’t served during sesshin (black tea is available in the mornings), so if you’re used
to multiple cups of coffee it would be a good idea to cut back to avoid headaches.
With respect to sleep, if you are exhausted when you come to sesshin, you’ll fall
asleep during zazen. Try to get some extra rest both before and after sesshin.
PREPARE YOUR FAMILY—Family members need to know a bit about what you will
be doing, even if you’re not too sure yourself. At the very least, explain that you will
be incommunicado during sesshin, but that you can be reached in case of emergency
by e-mailing or calling the Center.
When my children were young, they looked forward to sesshins because my husband
let them get away with things I wouldn’t have, mostly at mealtimes, and because I
always left them a letter and tiny present for each day I was away. Every morning
they awoke to the letter, and each evening they looked forward to opening their
“sesshin present.” It was a little thing, but it made a huge difference in their attitude
toward my absences.
TAKE CARE OF COMMITMENTS—In the week or two before sesshin begins, try to
take care of things that need your attention so that you won’t be thinking about them
during sesshin. Be aware, too, that it is not uncommon for people to feel anxious or
even ill as sesshin approaches. This usually passes quickly once sesshin actually
Following these suggestions will not guarantee that your sesshin will be without ups
and downs, but it will go a long way to smoothing the road.
~Sunyana Graef, Roshi