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Sesshin in Daily Life

Interview with
Zen Master Dae Kwang

Sesshin, which means “to touch the essence” or “touching the heart-mind” in Japanese, is a type of meditative training to help individuals to nurture their Buddha nature. These often refer to intensive meditation – typically with a daily routine where individuals devote time to almost exclusive zazen (meditation) practice with numerous 30- to 50-minute-long sessions of meditation (interwoven with short rests, meals, work, dharma teaching and meetings with a Zen master). With the numerous types of retreats available, many are practically spoilt for choice. So For You Information finds out more about sesshin from Master Dae Kwang on the true meaning behind sesshin and how should one approach sesshin.


Based on today’s modern living, busy schedule, how practical is sesshin?
Well, how practical is birth, old age, sickness and death – human suffering? So, it’s not about “practical”. If the Buddha was going to be practical, he would have stayed back at the palace. There are things (people do) and there’s always the motivation of the “why” to do It). And there’s always a reason why they do certain things. So, I wouldn’t use the word practical – there are many practitioners and lay teachers who lead a busy life and they definitely find time to practise. Actually, practising within everyday life is the most powerful way to practise. It’s kind of like a tree raised inside a greenhouse, if the treehouse ever goes away, that tree can be easily blown down. If that tree is raised outside, that tree will be strong and not so easily moved. So actually, practice within daily life is the strongest.

So how you recommend we do it – practice within daily life?
I recommend you do it 24 hours a day. It means to remain aware and return to your True Self all the time, it’s not based on circumstances. True Self is not based on circumstances – it’s always there – just that you don’t know it. The Buddha said everybody already has it, just that they don’t know that they have it. And it never gets bigger or it never gets smaller, it never comes – it’s always there – it’s like the sun, always shinning.

Does it become clearer (or brighter) when we take time off to do it. For example, some people would say that “I feel better after a mediation retreat...”.

It’s not about feeling better, it’s about finding out what you truly are. Everybody wants to feel better, but that’s not getting an answer to the question of “What we truly are”. The Buddha did not want to feel better when he left home. So, what forms the question goes back to birth, old age, sickness and death.

In today’s time where everything translate into efficiency and inclination towards instant gratification – constantly asking “How does it help me in the immediate circumstances?”. People want to see results immediately, how do we make them see the need for them to see beyond – beyond practicality as an in route or entry point to start practice?

That’s ignorance – this (always wanting to have immediate results or having the need to make it practical and efficient can be seen as “how does it help me”? Zen means: Find your True Self, help the world – it’s not about “you”. When it’s about “you”, human beings suffer because it always about “me” – “I”, “my”, “mine” and “myself”. The world is upside down. It’s always about “me” today, everyone’s concerned about themselves. And here for examples, people are concerned about career, cars, credit card, condo, country club membership... but these things will soon go away. And that’s what the Buddha saw, the Buddha had all all that stuff, but he left, he had the intuitive wisdom that he knows that soon, these things are going to go away. So, the question is what do we really want and need?

In Zen, we call it the great question of life and death –– what the Buddha faced, what the 6 Great Patriarchs faced – what you and I face. All human beings are the same, irrespective of these (possessions); it doesn’t make any difference if you are extremely wealthy or poor, just like how the 6 Patriarchs were very poor compared to the Buddha who was very rich. But one thing that is the same, is the same question of what life and death is.

It seems that it is easier to approach this big question of “What is life and death?” with the older generation. So, how do we approach this question with the younger generation?
I don’t know. Someday, it will just hits you. Like a child who don’t know about fire, you can tell him/her what fire is, what it mean and about how it is “hot” when in contact. But they wouldn’t know until they touch it, to have that “hot” and/or “ouch” feeling. You can say, “No, it’s hot! Don’t touch that!” but the child will never know till he/she touches it. So likewise, someday, the younger generation will get it, someday when they “touch” that stove, match or fire, then they will get it – the inner wisdom before the thinking wisdom.

Sometimes, mothers intentionally allow the child touch something hot, not hot enough to burn but hot enough to teach them the pain. So every human being is like that, we need to experience it. And today, we are all raised like that, in a cocoon – and Buddhists are raised in a Buddhist palace, because parents want their kids to be raised in a good circumstance or have good and controlled situations to learn things or important lessons. But if you think about it for a second, it’s not possible in the end.

And this (controlled situation) is not ideal?

That’s right. It’s not ideal because your personal wisdom does not grow. You don’t know what that (hot) really means, and someday, you could get into real trouble.

So, we should allow the time and experience to unfold naturally, for things and situations to unravel on their own?
Yes. As you can see, Buddha lived in this cocoon and then he looked out from his cocoon. And this is the same for all human beings; someday, at some point in time, we would look out from the cocoon.

Then, if that’s the case, we all have our own path (fate and destiny) and there’s a popular attitude towards this – “Let’s shiu yuan (nature take its own course).
Right, but this (breaking the cocoon) can come in all different forms; it can be reading a book, watching a television programme, falling off the golf cart, breaking a leg... all kinds of things. Because old age, sickness and death is there. You might avoid old age by dying young, you may be pretty healthy and not get sick, but you cannot avoid the third thing, death. Circumstances of life is different for everybody because everyone has different karma but all of the different circumstances would be teaching you. My teacher always said, “If you watch closely, life is always teaching you. But who’s paying attention?” So, go back to practice of finding your True Self.

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