Book Extract: Rohatsu Sesshin - The Zen Way by Irmgard Schloegl
In the Zen schools, the Buddha's Enlightenment is prefigured by the gruelling Rohatsu sesshin, designed to push the monks to their limits.
In the Mahayana school, the Buddha’s day of Enlightenment is celebrated on the eighth of December. As the legend has it, having settled himself down under the Bo-tree with the resolution not to get up until he had seen through his problems, it was on the morning of the eighth of December that Gotama looked up, saw the morning star and became the Enlightened One, the Buddha.
In memory of that occasion, the monks dedicate the week from the first of December to the morning of the eighth to supreme effort, following to the limit of their ability the great example of the Buddha.
Extra food supplies are begged beforehand, the grounds are swept of leaves, a large amount of wood for the kitchen fires is sawn and split, and all necessary preparations are made; work stops during this Sesshin except in the kitchen. The afternoon before the monks have a few hours to go out and they use this to go shopping for supplies. That evening the monastery gates are closed as usual for the night, and they are not opened again until the eighth of December. There is the ceremonial tea with the master, and traditionally it is understood that, as the Buddha vowed not to get up, so they monks will undertake to die rather than give up their attempt to break through the ignorance of I’.
Somehow Rohatsu always coincides with the first real cold and frost. All sliding doors and windows are wide open, the winds whistle through the monastery in the long evening sittings, and the cold penetrates the early morning sittings. The time schedule is hard; the monks rise at 2 am and except for meal times, tea served in the meditation hall, daily Teisho, and four Sanzen interviews a day, Zazen prevails. The food is good. And there is one treat, something to look forward to when everything seems to have reached rock bottom, a little ray of warmth beckoning. At 10 pm just as the cold seems to penetrate one’s marrow, boiling hot, spicy noodle soup is served in the refectory, as much as each can eat.
This description may sound odd to the reader in a reasonably warm room, reasonably well fed, and reasonably free to do as he wishes. To appreciate fully what this sudden gift means one needs the living experience, not necessarily even a Rohatsu Sesshin, but of being absolutely and completely reduced, exhausted, with no redress and no let-up, at the same time making one’s utmost effort - as Master Hakuin expressed it, enduring what is unendurable. Getting up, moving one’s cramped legs, stretching them on the way to the refectory. Bowing, sitting down, and then receiving the heavenly bowl of piping hot food, at first uncertain whether one should nurse it to warm one’s numb hands or get it inside where it begins to glow and radiate warmth all through one’s body. Never have I eaten better noodles, nor will I than those Rohatsu ones, they re legendary, too; and the monks’ eyes shine when they talk about it any time fo the year.
Rohatsu Sesshin is a grim Sesshin, and lest one forgets, it reminds one that this Great Matter is truly a matter of life and death. A little bit of I dies every Rohatsu. The monks are without heat, and cannot bath, or shave, and on the last day they look haggard but determined.
The last day also sees a change in the daily routine. Teisho is in the afternoon, and afterwards all go and clean the immediate grounds. All the leaves that fell during the last week have been piling up knee deep, and are now swept together into huge piles and burnt; this is hard and fast work, but a welcome relief to muscles cramped with cold and long sitting. Then back into the meditation hall.
The last night is sat through. There is also a last, very formal Sanzen at midnight. A cup of rice dregs is served afterwards in memory of the Buddha’s accepting a ‘cup of milk gruel before he sat himself sown for his supreme effort, his resolve strengthening the monks’ endeavour.
About 3am on the morning of the eighth of December, the sitting comes to a formal end. The Zendo head monk addresses the community; the bath is heated. Head monk, Zendo head monk, and lay sitters have a hot snack in the head monk’s office, usually sweet bean sauce with rice dumplings, followed by the thick ceremonial tea. But soon the Zendo head monk is called; the bath is hot, and in person he tenderly scrubs the backs of his monks, loosening the muscles. Many a young monk overawed by this bursts into tears.
The eighth of December is the Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. The monks have little chance to sleep, for at 6am there is Sutra chanting to celebrate it. But for the rest of the day the discipline is relaxed.
(The Zen Way by Irmgard Schloegl, pub. The Zen Centre London 1987)
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