Reflections on Camping Sesshin

by Eishin Nancy Easton

Case 4 in the Book of Serenity says:

As the World Honored One was walking with the congregation, he pointed to the ground with his finger and said, “This spot is good to build a sanctuary.”
Indra, Emperor of the gods, took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground, and said, “The sanctuary is built.”

The World Honored One smiled.

The sanctuary is built

The sanctuary is built.

Since 2016, Ancient Dragon Zen Gate has held an annual three-day Camping Sesshin that combines traditional Zen forms and Dharma teachings within the natural setting provided by Illinois Beach State Park. Our sesshin takes place in a sheltered, open-air environment, and opportunities for tent camping are available for overnight participants. Daily Dharma talks, discussions, communal meals and nature walks are offered by our co-leaders Eishin Nancy Easton and Gyoshin Laurel Ross, and other senior students under the guidance of Guiding Dharma Teacher Taigen Dan Leighton. This sesshin offers us an opportunity to bring our practice to an encounter with the natural world, without venturing far from home.

For Ancient Dragon as a non-residential, urban practice center, Camping Sesshin brings a welcome opportunity to practice together in an extended way, as participants bring their own tents and camp overnight in the land surrounding our tent zendo. Pre-dawn zazen on the shore of Lake Michigan is one of the highlights, along with our extended walking meditation along a trail that precedes the morning’s Dharma talk.

During the COVID pandemic this year, we have not been able to occupy our zendo, and have similarly not felt that it was safe to offer this practice due to the hazards of communal food preparation. However, plans are currently in the works to offer a half-day or all-day sitting in this format, with participants bringing their own bag lunch. Our spacious tent zendo can easily accommodate 6-8 socially-distanced participants, and the outdoor setting adds to our physical safety.

The tent zendo

Texts that we have studied during Camping Sesshin include the Heart Sutra, the Song of the Grass Hut, and the passage from the Lotus Sutra about bodhisattvas springing from the earth, along with talks about the geological, biological, and cultural history of our location. Perhaps most importantly, though, this sesshin helps us gain a deeper recognition that the natural world is not merely all around us—the natural world IS us, and we are it. Our daily contemplative nature walk/hikes help deepen our awareness of the terrain, as well as the many forms of life that live together all around us. Boundaries between self and other, especially other species, begin to feel less distinct as we develop intimacy with the sentience and insentience surrounding us.

Outdoor kinhin

At the heart of this experience, and fully essential to the process, are the forms of sesshin. Some of our participants are new to camping, and some are newer to practice. Not everyone is equally familiar with sesshin forms, and this provides important opportunities to help each other remember, observe, and enact the forms. Whether in sesshin or in daily practice, our forms help to provide a frame within which we can more clearly see not just our practice but the many dimensions that come together to co-create our life. In particular, when we modify the forms to the situation at hand—a Camping Sesshin—we are confronted with the necessity of studying our immediate actions, our life, and our practice more closely. Dharma quickly moves from being an idea “out there” to the immediacy of our life in the moment. The physical practice of camping combined with traditional Zen forms makes possible a fully-embodied study of who we are as beings embedded in the web of time, space, and species, where we came from, and how we can live our lives in harmony with—and to benefit—all beings.

Zazen by the shore of Lake Michigan

The World Honored One points to the ground and asks us to build a sanctuary. Indra picks up a blade of grass, sticks it in the ground and tells us the sanctuary has been built. This is the same Indra of “Indra’s Net”—the web of interconnectedness in which every vertex of the net contains a jewel that reflects every other jewel in the net. We may come to understand this in a different way through participating in our Camping Sesshins than we can when we sit in our urban, indoor zendo. Living and practicing out in the open for a few days, we are able to taste freedom across many dimensions. But at the same time, we are also able to gain a brief glimpse into the myth of the individual, as we experience more deeply our interconnectedness with all beings under the sky.