The week between December 1st and 8th is called Rohatsu Sesshin, which is a whole week of intensive zazen. The custom has its roots in the Buddha’s own attainment of enlightenment after a week of meditation. Following the example of the Buddha, the Zen monks meditate for a whole week , regardless of the cold weather. Many lay practitioners also participate in this week of intensive zazen since it is the one week when they can devote themselves fully to zazen in a monastery without any outside interference. During zazen, practitioners often experience leg pain from the constant kneeling. However, by focusing one’s mind, an indescribable inner composure and sense of expansiveness can be attained. Trying to attain this state in an impatient frame of mind will only lead to a sense of narrowness and closure. But immersing both mind and body in zazen will lead to the attainment of Buddhahood, radiating naturally from the inner depths of mind. The whole week can be called a week of completely handing oneself over to the Buddha.
December 8th is the day we commemorate Shakyamuni Buddha’s realization of the Way. Following many years of difficult ascetic practice, Shakyamuni sat in zazen beneath the Bodhi tree. At dawn on December 8th, Shakyamuni saw the morning star and realizing awakening, he then became Shakyamuni Buddha. He was no longer an ordinary, common person and instead had achieved the brilliance by which to free all of humankind.
In Soto Zen School, we call this day Jodo-e and perform a ceremony as a gesture of our gratitude to Shakyamuni Buddha. It is also customary to practice zazen on this day.
On December 9th and 10th, Danpi Ho-on Sesshin and intensive zazen take place. Danpi means to cut off one’s hand, an episode illustrating the devotion of the Second Patriarch Eka. On the night of December 9th in 520 CE, the Second Patriarch Eka visited the First Patriarch Bodhidharma and stood outside in a snowstorm without sleeping. Noticing him, Bodhidharma asked, “Why are you standing outside in the snow? What do you seek?” Eka implored him in tears, “Please teach me the truth of the Buddha’s Dharma and save me.” Bodhidharma turned him down with the words “The true teaching cannot be gained half-heartedly, but only with suffering.” Hearing these words, Eka secretly took out a sword and cut off his left forearm to show his determination. Because of this, he was admitted and spent six years in hard training. He went on to propagate the Buddha Dharma and became the Second Patriarch. The Danpi Ho-on Sesshin is the time to commemorate his dedication. On the day of commemoration the monks meditate without sleep for one full day and night.