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What Is a Sesshin?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 18 April 2014
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A sesshin is a type of Zen meditation retreat, typically held at or sponsored by a Zen monastery. Retreats can last anywhere from a day to a full week, and focus on intense, inward-looking reflection. Sesshins are by nature silent retreats, which means that there is no talking allowed amongst participants. In a traditional sesshin, attendees are barred from so much as looking at each other. A primary goal is to deeply connect with the inner self through meditation. While retreats are often widely attended, each person present is instructed to define his universe only around himself.

The word sesshin is a merging of two Japanese words: setsu, which can be translated as touching, receiving, or conveying and shin, which means mind. Sesshin is most commonly translated as “to touch the mind.” An individual’s ability to “touch” his own mind, and in so doing awaken his consciousness, is precisely the mission of this kind of meditation.

Days are spent mostly in quiet reflection. The goal is not to ponder issues or problems, but rather to come to a greater understanding and mindfulness of one’s self and the depths of one’s mind. Activities sometimes include reflective chanting, but more often than not focus on sitting still, breathing deeply, and voiding all thoughts completely.

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Retreats are run by Zen masters, frequently monks. These masters often give talks or lessons in the afternoons that are followed by personal reflection and meditation. Sesshin reflection typically involves sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat in a shared meditation room, or participating in a walking meditation along one of the pastoral trails surrounding the monastery. Meals are prepared by the monastery’s tenzo, or chef, and are shared silently, but communally.

Other typical sesshin activities include sunrise breathing exercises; reflective chores, like cleaning; and one-on-one interviews with a Zen master. The interviews are typically the only time that retreat participants engage in conversation. They are designed to help participants deepen their knowledge of Zen, and are a time for guided personal exploration more than they are for questions and answers.

Most of the time, sesshin meditation is designed as a means of deepening one’s Zen practice, not as a way of learning Zen or gaining exposure to the meditative art. It is not uncommon for sesshin organizers to go so far as to discourage newcomers from attending more than a day of two of the retreat. Beginners are often encouraged to choose day-long introductory retreats, or to attend weekend-long meditations before building up to a full week away. For many, a week of meditation is an intense experience, and is one that should be prepared for slowly over time.

Some Zen masters use sesshin as a means of building up to larger meditation goals. For instance, in order to participate in ango — a three-month period of meditation practice and intentional living — a person usually must have attended a number of sesshin retreats, and be deemed ready by a member of the sponsoring monastery. Others simply attend retreats time and time again in order to grow stronger in their spiritual practices, and to experience deeper personal awareness.

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