A Tender Approach to Zen Retreat

:: Post submitted by Rev. Koji Acquaviva ::

Joy and ease are at the heart of our upcoming sesshin (retreat), “Relaxing into the River of Joy.” Rev. Koji Acquaviva will be leading this day-long tender approach to practice. Below, he talks about the inspiration for this special kind of retreat. We’ll be gathering together on Saturday, February 4th.

So where did the idea for this retreat come from and what’s different about it?

Well, I’ve spent pretty much all of my adult life in Zen centers and I tried really hard to follow the basic blueprint of training that was offered to me: follow the schedule, say yes to everything, work hard, let go of thought, let go of preferences, good and bad are just notions, pleasant and unpleasant are just textures. Little by little it became apparent that it just wasn’t working for me. I had to customize it to make it relevant and effective.

The combination of steady rigor and cryptic philosophy seemed to really inspire some people, but for those of us that are marginalized in any way, or even simply hard on ourselves, that mode of practice can really reinscribe harm.

It seems to actually work for only a small number of people, but that small number of people are the ones who stick around in the organizations and sustain the same kind of approach, because they experience it as working. If you tell them it’s not doing it for you, they tell you to keep going, or try harder, or that it’s not supposed to “do anything for you”, which is a rather disingenuous use of a traditional teaching.

It seems to me like a lot of people in this country relate to Zen practice in one of two ways. People often view it as either an intellectual and philosophical undertaking or as a purely somatic one where concepts are of no use. Integrating the two approaches is a start, but, in my view, that’s not quite complete either. I think the transmission of Buddhism and other yogic traditions into a culture saturated by the influence of white protestantism and capitalism has led to a de-emphasizing of the sacred, mysterious, and awe-inspiring aspects of the spiritual life. A lot of converts to Buddhism in the U.S. are practicing a type of Buddhism that’s had the ritual, magical, and devotional aspects of it deliberately erased. Especially in Zen contexts the ritual that has remained is often carried out in either a reluctant or a sanctimonious way as if ritual was a matter of fine manners and skill rather than expressing and encountering the sacred. 

After about ten years of trying to do Zen in a pretty orthodox way, I started venturing out into the worlds of Pure Land and Tibetan Buddhism and the world of Vedanta and Bhakti yoga, looking for ways to put together a practice path for myself that feels more well rounded.

I remember going to Tibetan centers and appreciating the way they study and analyze the teachings there. I love the unpretentious feeling of devotion and gratitude I experienced with Pure Land practitioners. I lived at an ashram and felt the impact of singing and practicing breath exercises and postural yoga daily.

As a result of all this exploration, I’ve landed on a synthesis of Zen philosophy including agendaless sitting, Indo-Tibetan psychology and analytical meditation, using the breath, postures, and movements to encounter feelings of wellness and the presence of the divine as done in hatha yoga and vedanta, and the devotional heart of Bhakti and Pure Land Buddhism. I’ve been sharing this more and more and I’m finding it’s a supportive blend for a lot of people. 

Last year in Austin, I had the opportunity to design a daylong retreat to lead and I really wanted to come up with something that was uplifting. Something that had some supportive guided practices like affectionate breathing, some chanting and singing, some movement and breath work, nice long breaks and minimizing formality so that people weren’t concerning themselves with job assignments like timekeeping, cooking, ringing bells. I decided I’d handle all of that stuff myself and let all the participants simply do the practices and take it easy.

I wanted to try to pick practices that both confronted automatic ways of being, but also left one feeling at least a little bit better than when they started. I think we need affirmation, we need to feel well. Buddha was pretty clear that hearts that haven’t been gladdened by practice don’t readily access wisdom. When we don’t feel safe and supported, it’s unlikely our hearts will open to our experience in ways that aren’t ruled by habit and clinging.

So, I’d say one of the most important things we can do is figure out how to practice with our body-minds so that we become stable vessels. Stable enough to experience the feelings that arise as we move through our lives and rather than contracting around the feelings and building a world based on them, letting them move through this body-mind. Zen style sitting might be a way to access that stability, but we don’t have to practice dismembered Buddhism by insisting on only one practice, we can avail ourselves to all the yogic technologies we’ve inherited. We can sing, we can visualize, we can generate feelings of light and color inside ourselves. We can make offerings and ask our ancestors for help. We can breathe or stretch or twist or put our bodies in positions that highlight the felt experience of life energy coursing within us. We can imagine all of existence as a deity that we’re devoted to and have a personal relationship with. We can stand under a tree and say, “for now all I’m going to do is generate the experience of love inside myself.”

So, that’s my intention behind this retreat, it’s an attempt to refresh and reorient people, to broaden our understanding of what practice is, and we might find tools that we’ll want to take with us into any retreat or sesshin setting.

Koji Acquaviva began practicing Zen at the age of twenty at the San Francisco Zen Center where he was a resident and staff member for ten years. He co-founded the Mid City Zen Center in New Orleans, Louisiana and served regularly as visiting teacher at the Austin Zen Center. As a queer and neurodivergent person who trained rather traditionally, Koji makes his best effort to identify and confront the ways Buddhism is taught which re-inscribe harm for members of marginalized communities.

Clouds in Water Zen Center is a vibrant urban community in the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota. We practice in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition, dedicated to awakening the heart of great wisdom and compassion. We welcome people of all backgrounds and faiths.

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