Temple of Peace

Adult practice: Part 27
"Eat two parts out of three"

We had a look at the sesshin schedule at Antaiji last month. The new schedule consists of fifteen 45 minute periods of zazen, 12 sets of 15 minute walking kinhin, two meals and two breaks after each meal. When people hear that we sit one period more than before, and have one meal less, they might at first think that the schedule has become even harder than it used to be. But actually the opposite is the case. In the old schedule, most periods were 50 minutes long, and the periods after each meal lasted even for one hour. This made sitting a hell, especially after lunch, from 1 pm to 2 pm, and after dinner, from 7 pm to 8 pm, unless you were one of those blessed ones who would just sleep through these periods. Sitting for 5 minutes less makes a big difference, and the 15 minutes less after each meal make it possible for some people to sit through the new Antaiji style sesshin who could not handle the old schedule. Also, especially for Japanese "two meals a day" sounds very ascetic, but in the midst of sesshin, you usually don't feel so incredibly hungry. Quite contrary, the more you eat the more pain you will experience. So reducing the meals to two meals a day helped to reduce the pain in the legs too, and no-one who sat with the new schedule at Antaiji has been starving, rather most people expressed satisfaction with the changes. So my main reason for changing the schedule was not to make it stricter, but less painful and physically exhausting, both by cutting the sittings a little shorter and by having only two meals a day, which is just enough.

Again we might want to add here that it is ideal to have slept well before zazen and not to be too exhausted, but - especially in a monastic environment where you can never choose if you want to sit or work or stand in the kitchen or rest - it will happen often that you do not get all the rest you want and feel very exhausted indeed. Then again, this will be an opportunity to practice patience and perseverance on the cushion. Actually, I think that this point is very important when we think about the problem of falling asleep during zazen, which is a very common and serious problem for many practioners here in Japan. I said before that it is vital for anyone who has this problem that they first of all realize that they are actually sleeping - when they sleep, they don't know it, and when they wake up, they don't realize that they had been sleeping all the time. Next, it is important to realize that it is me who is sleeping. No-one else is responsible for that. We must not blame it on the environment or the fact that people didn't let us sleep last night or that we had too much work to do the last couple of days. The self-sufficient life here at Antaiji involves a lot of work, and the work that I don't do now will have to be done by the others. Therefore it is not good when I say: "Sesshin starts tomorrow and I really don't see why I have to do this job here right now - I'm soooooo sick and tired of it!"

But that doesn't mean that we don't get any rest at all. Actually, if we use the 24 hours of our time in an intelligent way, we will find that we get all the rest we need. The question is only: do we really use the time in an intelligent way? Do we use the time that we consider our "private time" (but there is really no time that can be called private) or "free time" (but all the time of your life is FREE TIME, isn't it? Or what did you think that practice is!?) to prepare ourselves for zazen, or do we just "kill" that time? If we do kill it, we are killing zazen with it.

By the way, too many people who come to Antaiji complain that they have "no time " here. At Antaiji, we have 24 hours each day, just as everyone else in the world. It is just that we sometimes start to think that when we work or stand in the kitchen, or even when we sit in zazen on the cushion, that this time is not "our time". But if that time is not our time, who's time is it? The problem seems not to be that we have no time, but rather that we don't know how to use time fully as our time, i.e. to commit ourselves completely to each single moment of life.

In the "Tenzo-kyôkun", Dôgen Zenji says that without bodhimind your practice will only exhaust yourself without any merit. What is bodhimind? In the same "Tenzo-kyôkun", you find the response: "To roll up one's sleevs and work is called bodhimind". And in the "Gakudôyôjinshû", Dôgen Zenji makes the point that if you try to have it easy, you will be miserable even when you lie down to have a nap. So when we feel sick and tired of it all, is it really because we are working so hard, or is just that we are lacking bodhimind? Or maybe we have just forgotten that all 24 hours of the day belong to us, they are our practice!?

There are limits to physical exhaustion though, and if fatigue becomes a chronic problem, sleeping during zazen can turn into a habit which once acquired is difficult to get rid off again. When I first came to Antaiji, the monks said that "the sesshins are our only holidays". That was true in so far as sesshin were the only time were you could just sit and relax, recovering from the endless work in between the sesshins. Often work was so intense on the normal days that the monks didn't really feel like eating after samu - you were just too exhausted and tense. That led to the paradoxical situation that we ate more at the meals during sesshin than we would normally do after work. As the tenzo (temple cook) would not participate in the zazen, he had the whole day from 4 am to 9 pm to prepare food and was expected to serve one or two dishes more at each meal than on a regular work day, that means rice and soup and three side dishes. Therefore sesshin were considered by some to be a culinary feast. "What fun is there during sesshin except eating and sleeping?", they would say. And after the sesshin: "Wow, the tenzo did a really great job this sesshin, I gained 2 kilos in three days!"

It goes without saying that sesshin are not meant to be culinary feasts. Of course it is the tenzo's job to offer delicious food to the sangha. But he also has to consider the occasion, and a meal during sesshin requires different food than a meal on a work day. Keizan's advice to "eat two parts out of three" is very wise. You just can not sit with a full stomach.

One more cause that led me to change the sesshin schedule to two meals per day was the fact that after the funeral of the former abbot, all of my dharma brothers left Antaiji, and for the first year I was alone with only one more lay practioner who had arrived just after the funeral. That means that I had to be the tenzo, strike the bell in the meditation hall, and be the work leader at the same time. Of course that is impossible. So to enable me to be present in the meditation hall and at work, but also to get cooking done in the kitchen, I first bought an electrical rice cooker (before we used a pressure cooking pot on the wood stove) and a micro wave. Without the rice cooker, the tenzo would have to start the fire in the kitchen two hours before the meal, but now you just put the rice and the water in the machine, set the time, and it will be ready for the meal automatically. The micro wave on the other hand made it possible to prepare all the side dishes for the sesshin on the free day before sesshin in advance. So during my first year as the abbot, I would ring the kinhin bell before a meal, get up and go to the kitchen and prepare all the food (rice and two side dishes) during the 15 minutes of kinhin.

On the work days, me and the other practioner would work together until half an hour before a meal, and then prepare the food together in the kitchen. Only thus it was possible to keep up the work schedule and do all the necessary cooking at the same time. Only during my second year as the abbot was it possible to switch back to the rotation system, where one monk is the tenzo for three days, and doesn't have to participate in work or zazen on those days. Only during sesshin, because there are only two meals to be prepared now, the tenzo can sit for about 8 or 9 out of 15 periods together with the others.

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