By Alberto Anzan Apalategui

To me, some of the best practice lies within service. That’s ironic for me to say because I use to believe that service was for lower rank practitioners. That is false because ultimately there are no ranks. Moreover, being of service has allowed me to deepen my practice in ways I could not have fathomed.

 In February, I took my yearly visit to Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico for sesshin. My teacher Jose Shinzan Palma was leading the sesshin along with Sensei Kaz Tanahashi. I was excited to return to Upaya because the previous year had proven supremely valuable. However, this time Shinzan had signed me up to be a server during oryoki*. I was both disappointed and excited. I was disappointed because my sesshin would be interrupted by having to serve food for others, but I was excited because I recognized my teacher was trying to deepen my spiritual practice. I honestly did not know what to expect.

 The time had come. It was the first official day of sesshin, and I had brief training. At first, it was a matter of learning from my mistakes: “Set this pot down, but not that bowl. Or, this signal means that, so do this instead etc.” As meals continued, I noticed the team of six I was working with were also bringing their best effort. We then made a connection and built trust. And I believe that trust came from knowing we were all going to do our part. We were all accountable.

 For me, slowly, the “I” melted away until I was left bare. Free. Yet, I now had space to be myself; behaving without shame or self-criticism. While at the same time, I was a part of something bigger simultaneously. There was “we” the team and there was “me,” an authentic self. I enjoyed the paradox because there was an emancipation to it. We were getting into a flow and finding a footing upon which to dance. Something special, if I can say, was happening.

 When either of us forgot something, another of us provided it without second guessing. If a practitioner dropped a spoon, whoever was closets to it would immediately swap it for a new one. Meanwhile, one of us would wash the dirty spoon for reservation. One reason for this effect, this well-oiled system, was because we would regroup after each service and give time and energy to questions, comments, or concerns. Mali, our leader, was so sweet. She would listen and supply feedback, or contemplate our concerns so she could device a possible solution. Mali really took care of us, but at the same time she demonstrated true leadership. She was always on the ready, accountable, calm, and experienced. I was very grateful for her. We all were.

 Towards the end of the sesshin, I was beginning to feel the interconnectivity. I was starting to understand how we were all truly connected. Because of this experience serving, I solidified my dislike for the word “enlightenment” because ‘enlightenment’ revealed itself like a goal. I sincerely had no care for “enlightenment.” Ironically, all I cared about was being connected to everything and everyone. There was a sense of peace there, and it was revealed to me through service.

Today, every moment to serve is an opportunity to deeply practice for me. I am grateful for everyone’s contribution to this realization. Shinzan volunteered me, Mali took leadership and supported us, people needed to be fed, and my team was perfect to work with. I often think of my team. I miss those clowns. I miss Ellery and her inability to hold back laughter, Eddie provoking Ellery, Jyoshin’s sweetness and gentleness, Alex’s authenticity, and Ben who brought balance to our silliness by modeling a centered practitioner. Thank you.


By Gregg Dojin Henning

Shinzan would say “do you want decaf coffee or do you want the real thing, it’s up to you”. Joko would say, please remember, I’m not your teacher, your life is your teacher. Sesshin, (Zen Intensive practice) in a way, is like drinking the real thing and learning how to experience life, this very moment, as your teacher. Habitually, for me, I’d rather not do that. I, habitually, would rather continue to seek some kind of escape, comfort, and pleasure in an effort to avoid this moment as it is, this experience as it is. After all, aren’t I Supposed to figure out this life so I can make life be as I Think it should be, so I can experience life as I think this life is supposed to be experienced?
I remember the 3 Treasures Zen Center which is where I did my first Zazenkai, which consists of 6 to 8 periods of sitting in an eight hour length of time.
I had brought a novice meditator with me and after about two periods of sitting I found the whole thing seeming to be absurd, frustrating, and painful. And yet there was some reason, that I was not aware of, that compelled me to stay. My novice friend and I would sneak off every chance we got to break noble silence which we thought was silly. I left that day thinking, “that was strange”. But as I was on my way home, the sky seemed to be just a little more blue, my body seemed to feel more sunk into the seat of the car. I seemed to hear more of the sounds around me. I found this experience to be mildly interesting and kind of blew it off and said to myself, “ok now, what am I suppose to be thinking about?” And back up in my head I went which felt familiar and I thought “safer”.
I then continued my daily practice attending the Zen Center of San Diego with Joko Beck Sensei. She would make very clear the importance of attending at least a few Sesshin’s per year. In fact it seemed a sort of “expectation” if you were going to continue to study with her, although, she never out right stated such.
I was excited and apprehensive as I was driving to the Zen Center of San Diego to attend my first three day Sesshin. I really did not know what to expect. And in a way I think that “not knowing” was helpful.
When I arrived we were given orientation which included agreeing to noble silence, no looking at practitioners in the eye, keeping one’s head down, following the schedule absolutely, being on time for each practice period. We had been advised that staying at the center from beginning to end was not only advised but a very important part of the process. I was to sleep on zabuton’s in the side room next to the Zendo. It was called the Snore room and indeed I snore, go figure, thank goodness for earplugs! We were given instruction on how we were to have meals with one another. We would eat our meals sitting in Zazen in the main Zendo. We were shown the movements/procedures (form) of Oriyoki (meal practice). I remember thinking, “No way, you’ve got to be kidding me, I’ll never remember this. What have I gotten myself into?” At this time I started to plan my escape. But again some unknown knowing compelled me to stay.
As I sat facing the wall early the second day, meticulously labeling each thought and returning to the physical sensations of the body, I began to become aware of how the tightly held belief in many of these thought patterns was causing searing contractions in my body. How believing these seemingly concrete thoughts about how I was suppose to be, about how others were suppose to be, how life was suppose to be, opinions after opinions, moved me to tears. I had no idea how I’d been treating myself and others by believing these old rusty, ceaselessly unending thought patterns that I unyieldingly held tight as “the truth of the way things are” I found it shocking and amazing at the same time.
I remember having interview (Diason) with Joko and telling her about these profound insights and her saying matter of factly, “Yes, It’s not a big deal, it’s what we all do, it’s good that you can see this. Now you go back and just keep up your sitting. Continue to really pay attention, ok?”. And that was that. Didn’t she realize what an amazing discovery I had had? Apparently it was nothing special and if I would just continue to sit and stop trying to make sense of it and just pay attention to what was happening moment to moment, somehow, all would become clear.
Over the next two days we all sat together, walked together, ate together, and worked together, silently becoming intimate with each other without a word minus the occasional instructions. I remember leaving that Sesshin with sore knees, sore back and a feeling of profound gratitude and appreciation. But for what? I wasn’t sure.
Over the years I have done many one, two, three, four, five day sittings and while I may not realize in what way I’m changed. I have no doubt that in each and every Session a shift from a self centered life of suffering to a more life centered equanimous being has taken place.
I remember after the first three day Sesshin I returned to work walking a little slower and my gait was a bit stiff. My coworker asked, “Geez, what did you do this weekend?” I replied, “eh, just sat around mostly, no big deal”