Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer in Japan and Zazen retreats

It’s been a while since my last post. I won't bore you with reasons why I haven't been blogging for a while, just got a bit bogged down with some stuff.

One thing that kept me a bit busy for a while was preparing to come to Japan for the summer with my family, where I'm writing this from. It was nice to get back here for a while, although I'm still getting used to the heat.

Another thing that happened me recently was I went to my first Zazen retreat ever outside Japan (in France in May). I'd been to a good few retreats in Japan with Gudo Nishijima, but never to one outside Japan before. One reason I've only been to retreats in Japan is that there were no Buddhist groups around when I was growing up (I lived in Ireland and we was mostly all Catholics). Another reason was there was just no information about Buddhism anywhere when I was younger. It was long before the Internet, and the only Buddhist book I remember seeing in our local bookstore was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was the first Zen book I ever read. It wasn't a bad book, but didn't tell me an awful lot about Zen Buddhism.

Even when I got to Japan, it took me a while to check out Buddhism. What eventually got me hooked was a one-day Zazen retreat I did at a temple in Kyoto. When I did zazen there I felt like I'd found something I wanted to check out more. Later on I moved to Tokyo and was lucky enough to come across Gudo Nishijima.

So basically I hadn’t a clue about Buddhist groups or teachers even when I was practicing with Nishijima’s group. I remember one time a guy at one of Nishijima’s talks in Tokyo gave me a copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s famous book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” He looked surprised when I told him I'd never heard of Shunryu Suzuki. I read the book but didn’t think an awful lot about it. Not to say it’s not a good book, I just wasn’t really interested in Buddhist books then. I was just trying to learn whatever I could from Nishijima. Probably the fact that some guy I didn't know just handed me the book made me a bit uneasy about reading it too. I think I felt it could be like one of those books the Hare Krishnas hand out. Of course, I found out later I was wrong. In fact, the guy who gave me the book used to carry a supply of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” books around with him in a satchel. He told me his way of spreading Buddhism was presenting a copy of Suzuki's book to people.

I’ve kind of gotten off the subject a little, but that was one reason I wanted to go to a retreat outside Japan - to see if there was much difference between the Zen retreats I'd been to with Gudo Nishijima and a retreat overseas. Obviously, I did notice some differences at the retreat in France, but the zazen wasn't too different.

By the way, when I was at the retreat there someone asked me what Nishijima's retreats in Japan were like. Basically, Nishijima liked to keep the retreats kind of simple and also follow his understanding of Dogen's way. So at the retreats we'd do Zazen, Nishijima would give four talks, we'd have meals in the traditional style, everyone would do 40 minutes of light work each morning, and we'd also have a good bit of free time. The Dogen Sangha retreat in September is still held in the same way that Nishijima followed, so if you're in Japan around that time it might be worth checking out.

In case anyone else is interested, here's a copy of the daily schedule from one of Nishijima's Zazen retreats (click on the "Zazen Retreat Schedule" link underneath if you want to see the original version). It's much the same schedule for the current Dogen Sangha retreats too, except an extra day.

Read this document on Scribd: Zazen Retreat Schedule

One more thing. At that retreat in France I was chatting to someone who told me she'd just started doing Zazen a couple of months ago, but that the very first time she did zazen she felt like it was the thing for her. I told her I felt the same way when I first did zazen too, although I never expected to be still doing it years later.


  1. Hi Peter, I did 3 months in France at a retreat many years ago and it seems that we did a bit more zazen than you but the teaching was thin on the ground. I would really like to experience it in Japan though. Ian Hosei Boughey

  2. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your comment.

    As you probably noticed if you looked at that schedule, Nishijima believes in giving talks as well as practicing Zazen. He thinks Buddhist philosophy developed out of the sitting practice, but that without Buddhist philosophy there's no such thing as "Buddhism".

    The Dogen Sangha retreat at Tokei-in temple might be worth a visit if you're in Japan some day.




Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.