Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training
During the Zen Rohatsu Sesshin (7 ½ Day Zen Meditation Retreat in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment day) that I attended this past week, I began to notice some eerie similarities to my multiple experiences of Military Basic Training. Though this was my first Sesshin at the Zen temple where I study, I have been in a military basic training environment not less than five times in my life, and that does not include the UU Worship services I lead for the Basic Trainees at the Great Lakes Naval Station.
I am sharing these observations of similarities and surface differences between Sesshin and Military Basic Training, in the hopes that it might inspire thought… Sesshin was a wonderful experience, and I may write about it more in the future. But this is what I have to share right now… other than saying it is good to be home.
Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training:
You wake up at O’ Dark Thirty for no apparent reason.
There is a lot of “hurry up” so you can “sit down and wait”.
You must always be on time, but you don’t have a watch.
You spend a lot of time with people you are not supposed to talk to.
The simplest things become very important.
You are told by the teacher/drill instructor that you are wrong, a lot.
Your body is in pain much of the time.
You eat in silence, and there is a ritual for washing your own Oryoki bowls / mess kit.
You always seem to have kitchen clean-up duty.
Sleeping, eating, and a hot drink are more important than you ever thought they could be.
You stand, sit, walk, and eat in unison.
Every once in awhile someone shouts “ATTENTION!” even when you are already paying attention.
You are told that the self-identity that you have spent years crafting has issues, and sesshin/basic will help with this problem.
Cleaning becomes a ritual act.
There is little contact with the outside world.
Pacific Zen Institute sesshins (next sesshin is Sunday, January 18 — Sunday, January 25) are not quite as regimental as described in David Pyle's blog, but the alalogy still holds in most aspects listed. What I am interested in is the similarity of the deconsruction techniques with little talk of the purposes or goals of the two projects-- military basic training and Zen basic training-- are. The David alludes to it when he says, "In Sesshin you try and let go of the constructed self. In Basic the government constructs a new self for you." But he leaves this difference for another discussion.
The question connects in an interesting way to the blog written by Ken Ireland about the Jesuit Francis Xavier and his encounter with Zen in the 16th century.
There are conversations you overhear or read in books that are so familiar you feel as if you were a fly on the wall, listening to words you’ve heard before. The sentences ring with so much immediacy that you have to restrain yourself from finishing them. The tones are as so familiar you think that you are remembering them, not hearing them for the first time.
The conversations that I am going to write about are from the distant past—the case that I am going to discuss was written down in Latin by Francis Xavier more than 450 years ago, sent on an uncertain journey from Japan to Lisbon aboard a Portuguese caravel, then carried onto Rome, and delivered into the hands of Ignatius Loyola. They are the first recorded encounters between Christians and Zen Buddhists, a Jesuit saint and a roshi.
As I read from Xavier’s letters in Bernard Faure’s Chan Insights and Oversights, there were several moments when the hair on the back of my neck stood up—the words, the phrasing, even the jokes seemed to be right out of conversations that I have had with my own Zen teachers. Despite my post hippie attempts to free myself from all past influences, when I read Xavier’s comments, I could hear echoes from my Jesuit training in my responses to my Zen teachers; carefully formulated points of doctrine intended to stem the tide of the Protestant Reformation were still the core of the Jesuit curriculum when I entered the Society of Jesus 40 years ago. Among the first seven Jesuits, Xavier was the master of debate, but when he shifts the conversation with the Zen master towards a polemical argument, I was almost embarrassed, realizing how much I had missed when I set out to become a Zen student.
As I see it, the Christian project is like the military one, deconstruction of the self-image in order to reconstruct another self, one in relation to the image of God, the other in relation to the image of God and Country.. In the Buddhist project the deconstruction of the self is not about reconstructing a new self. It is about deconstructing the self-image over and over again until one can state like the enlightenment utterance by Buddha, "I see you, oh Housebuilder, the rafters are broken and the ridge beam is split, no more will the house be built."
To the extent that Japanese Buddhists, crafted a Nationalist image of self, they too failed at the Buddha project. It is fascinating to note that the encounter stories of the early Jesuits bring out this point. I first came across the Jesuit references in Heinrich Dumoulin's book "A History of Zen Buddhism," the shorter paperback Beacon edition published in 1969. In addition to recounting the exchange between Xavier and the Zen teacher, Dumoulin recounts the "conversion" of Zen Buddhists including one Zen eacher Kesshu, "whose enlightenment had been confirmed by two outstanding authorities." In this, we can see several things at work. For one, we see that the call to rebuild the house is very strong and having an "enlightenment" experience is no guarantee that one will rebuild the house. Alternatively, we might surmise that certification of an enlightenment experience was not very well established so that a monk who had supposedly answered the question of life and death was able to backslide into the wishful thinking of everlasting life at the foot of Jesus in heaven. This would be like a Zen monk converting to Pure Land and deciding to sit at the foot of Amida Buddha after death rather than fully deal with death in the here and now of this life.
When Buddhism talks about transcending death, it also means transcending life. Christian theology wans to transcend death but doesn't seem to get to this place of transcending both life and death, that is, finding the Zero Point, or actually seeing the face of God and rests with the hope of seeing God in heaven. People who believe that eternal life rests in a heaven, as Xavier obviously believed, have a false image of eternal life and have no clue about the eternal life that rests nowhwere. Buddhism eshews both eternalism and annilationism (or nihilism). There is an important difference between a belief in an "immortal soul" and seeing the undying living person, who as Linji says, goes in and out of the holes in the face. The Jesuits believed that "the soul" has a beginning but not an end. Buddhism teaches that there is no beginning and no end and no soul, and so speaks of the unborn as well as the undying. The unborn and undying one is not easy to meet, and I don't see any evidence that Xavier or his Jesuit missionary brothers in Japan ever got any closer than to see that one as an objectified image of God in heaven. The Jesuits were incapable of seeing anything in the "principle" of emptiness (sunyata) other than plain nihilism. They could not see that the image of God is what they create in their own image when looking into emptiness.
But the Buddhists of 16th century Japan were also people of their age and were not all that disposed to the higher virtues of Buddhism when their social structure was challenged . Both Japanese Buddhists and the new Japanese Christian converts came to blows and at times burned down each others temples or churches. So even in Buddhism we see that we the people often fail to live up to our ideals. The perennial problem is in finding the balance of the middle way between these different situations of the building projects of society and the deconstruction project of the spiritual quest.