Blood Moon Sesshin at Windhorse

Finished my first five-day sesshin with Windhorse Zen Center at about 3:30 pm Sunday, my regular place of “business” these days for meditation retreats. In my efforts to ease back into doing sesshins after seven years away from them, I did a two-day sesshin in January, a three-day one in February, and now a five-day in March. Working up to full-Monty, seven-day ones.

As a reminder, sesshins are intense Zen Buddhist meditation retreats. In the new tamer, Western culture version, we are only sitting in formal meditation eight hours a day, as opposed to the 9-10 in the old days as inherited from Japan.

I’m sure everyone who has not gone to one of these, wonders what do we do all day, from some 6:30am to 9:00pm? Below I’ve put our schedule from this sesshin, along with a little explanation. For now, I want to focus on more general principles.

Pre-COVID, when we were still doing these in person at retreat centers, three rules that were followed were: Noble silence, not looking around or in each others faces and eyes as we went about our day, and no social greetings, which follows from the first two. Sesshins are times for deep internal work on ourselves. These rules are in place from vast years of experience to facilitate that deep internal work. Noble silence is about not talking, singing, or making any unnecessary noise so as not to disturb or distract others. Only written notes are allowed except during chores. Again, the purpose is to keep the focus inward. No phone calls, texts, internet, music, etc. You are not supposed to journal either. This is where my Bandido archetype comes in, my own Captain Jack Sparrow: I look at this rule especially as a “guideline” rather than a “rule.”

Now that so much is being done virtually, in our case via Zoom, texts, and emails, many of these hard fast rules have been somewhat relaxed. Now these are not to be done unless they are sesshin related. For example, during Dokusan (formal meetings with my teacher during sesshins), he lets me know my schedule via email and tells me when he is about ready via text, then I pull up his Zoom link on the Internet, and we have our consultation. And, of course, since I’m doing these from my home, I can decide which rules to follow and to what extent as they serve me. The dogs don’t care, wondering why I’m spending all that time sitting in a chair or on my meditation (zazen) mat, and when I’m going to take them for a walk.

Why do I do sesshins? They are intense and a lot of hard work. They are exhausting. First, back to the old adage, “No pain, no gain.” Intense=pain=gain. Personal and spiritual growth are learning processes. Learning means brain growth (=neuroplasticity, specifically). Intensity stimulates more brain growth, thus more learning, thus more spiritual/personal growth. Second, my purpose in these is to deepen my spiritual practice and increase my personal growth. These are my primary aims.

Zen sesshins are focused on spiritual awakening or enlightenment, referred to as kensho or satori. In my case, this is a secondary goal. If it happens, it happens. I have had several of these satori-like experiences, what psychologist William James called “unitive experiences,” and describe them in my two books, WindWalker and Guru. These experiences were great, fantastic, wonderful, and what psychologist Abraham Maslow called Peak Experiences. They are not, however, my primary goal. Being an enlightened Buddha might be great. I don’t know, I’ve never been one. But, again, my primary goals are cultivating inner-peace and personal growth.

Back to the question now of what we do all day during a sesshin–

Here is a copy from this last five-day one at Windhorse. Hopefully, they won’t mind. Here is little dictionary for the terms:

  • Zazen is Zen sitting meditation
  • Tea ceremony is a starting ceremony for sesshins. Silently drinking a cup of tea as we gather ourselves to start the sesshin
  • Four Vows: chants
  • three prostrations: ceremonial bows
  • dokusan: ceremonial meetings with your teacher, usually once per day per student
  • teisho: teaching by Roshi
  • kinhin: walking meditation between sittings (zazen) rounds. Gives you a chance to get up, walk, stretch, go to the bathroom, etc.

March Virtual Sesshin Schedule

Tuesday, March 23:

  • 7:00-9:00 PM                            Tea ceremony, zazen, Four vows, three



Wednesday, March 24 through Saturday, March 27

  • 6:30-7:45 AM                                    Verse of the Buddha-robe, zazen, chanting
  • 10:00AM-12:30 PM                         Zazen, kinhin, teisho, zazen with dokusan
  • 2:00-4:20 PM                                    Zazen with dokusan, chanting
  • 7:00-9:00 PM                                    Zazen, kinhin, Four Vows,

three prostrations


Sunday, March 28

  • 6:30-7:45 AM                                    Verse of the Buddha-robe, zazen, chanting
  • 10:00 AM-12:30 PM                         Zazen, kinhin, teisho, zazen         

                                                               with dokusan

  • 2:00-4:20 PM                                    Zazen with dokusan, chanting

*Optional Sangha hello after