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Charles M. Young, a veteran journalist and fledgling Zen practitioner, decided to attend the Rohatsu sesshin at Dai Bosatsu Zendo in New York's Catskill mountains. "It is known as the 'Mount Everest of sesshins' and the 'monk killer,' for its marathon-like test of one's sitting endurance," writes Young. This is what happened to him.

Day One: Wake-up bell at 4:30, which leaves 20 minutes for my three anonymous roommates and me to perform our bathroom ablutions, get into our robes, and go to the zendo (meditation hall). Kinhin (semi-aerobic, follow-the-leader walking meditation) around the zendo at 4:50. Choka, the morning service in the dharma hall, at 5:00. This is mostly chanting, accompanied by various gongs and bells and drums, and it's fun when you get used to it. It's also beautiful in the darkness before dawn, illuminated only by candles.

After a long sit, Jiro Osho, the Tanto (meaning the second-in-command under Eido Shimano Roshi, the abbot), tells the neophytes about mu. In the eighth century, there was a Zen master named Joshu. One of Joshu's disciples asked him, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Joshu answered, "Mu," in effect a nonsense syllable, and the monk attained enlightenment on the spot.

What did he mean by mu? Mu is one of the most basic yet difficult koans, or Zen riddles, and we are now to contemplate it during zazen (meditation) and solve it. Figuring out mu is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball that won't go up or down in your gullet, says Jiro, a stocky and vigorous man who looks like he should be leading the Seven Samurai against an army of bandits. Mu just sits there and burns.

Struggling with the koan is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball that won't go up or down in your gullet.

Monastery cleaning at 8:00. In Zen, everything is cleaned every day, and then you clean it some more. My assignment each day is to take a bucket and a rag and wash six flights of slate stairs in different parts of the building. I keep thinking about my apartment, which I clean once a decade or so. The most faithful of my lifetime companions, dust bunnies, have become my sworn enemies.

This piece was excerpted from "Hunka Hunka Burning Karma," which ran in the June 2000 issue of "Men's Journal." Reprinted with permission.

Chant Lotus Sutra at 9:00, then zazen. It's my knees that become the red-hot iron ball, not mu. Bent like pretzels in a semi-lotus position almost all the time, they demand to know with every throb why I'm not watching television on the couch.

Lunch at noon. Brown rice, tofu with hot mustard and ginger, and cabbage salad.

More zazen.

Supper at 5:00. Vegetable soup, salad, and bread.

End of structured sitting at 9:30.

Day Two: The first half of the Diamond Sutra, a dialogue between Buddha and one of his disciples, is performed in English and then chanted by everyone in Japanese. The chanting takes about a half-hour, and since it is all nonsense syllables to people who don't speak Japanese, it takes incredible concentration to get through. The monks really have this nailed, missing syllables only when they breath.

After lunch, during the break, I go out into the woods and mu with all the others who are doing their first koan. Zen, like opera, is big on loosening the diaphragm. Since Dai Bosatsu is surrounded by forest, it is a great place to go out and loosen you diaphragm by screaming "Mu!" Along with a couple dozen others, I walk about half a mile down the road and howl. Lots of fun, once you get over feeling like an idiot.

Day Three: In midmorning, a bell signals the Scrum for Enlightenment. That's my term for everyone in the zendo leaping off their zafu and running for the dharma hall to demonstrate their dedication to dokusan (a one-on-one meeting with the Zen teacher). Arms flail, people trip, people push you into walls. At all other times, the atmosphere is noncompetitive. During the Scrum, it's every man for himself. Every woman, too. I'm quick off my zafu, but somebody pushes me into a doorjamb, and I end up about 25 people back in line to see Roshi, which means a long wait sitting on the hard floor. The monkey in my mind is going apeshit with stage fright.

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