Impressions of Korinji

I recently got back from my first dai-sesshin at Korinji—all spattered with mud and okayu, feeling a bit stunned, impressed, and grateful. The fact that the place itself even exists is startling, it’s two buildings springing like giant mushrooms from a steep Wisconsin hillside. The wooded grounds are amazing, walking trails climb up and down the hills among enormous boulders, moss and ferns. The boulders were particularly incredible, dozens of them across the property. Ancient—tossed up before the last ice age when the glaciers missed scraping off this region—each with real presence and character, several flat and wide enough to sit zazen on. The vine maples reminded me of bamboo angling up among the bigger trees. One morning during a break I stood under the sanmon gate and watched a doe grazing up the valley in the misty rain for ten or fifteen minutes. Little birds flitting around, carrying caterpillars in their beaks without eating them, seemingly just to show off for one another. It’s a wonderfully serene, contemplative setting. Even within the relentless schedule of dai-sesshin, I found myself with a half hour here and there each day with nothing to do but soak into the surroundings—scheduled down time that almost never happens in my busy home life, which I appreciated immensely.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I was surprised to find a fully functioning sodo. All of the traditional monastic forms are faithfully maintained with nothing omitted or abbreviated—no notion that “modern westerners” can’t do it or wouldn’t benefit from it. During dai-sesshin there are about 10-12 hours of zazen a day, between 4-5 hours sleep, and sanzen 2-3 times a day—which was very familiar to me. There were some details of the form I hadn’t encountered before which I found helpful and supportive. Just a couple of examples: at wake up time when the lights are turned on with a shouted “kaijo!”, there is an immediate inkin ring down and you have to jump out of bed and be standing in line at the foot of the bed to bow all together. The effect is that you’re standing there bowing before you even know what’s going on, skipping entirely any sense of dragging yourself out of bed. And they do the full five-bowl jihatsu meals with handaikan servers, which was really cool. It’s complicated and difficult, the jikijitsu barks every time there’s a mess up. It forces you to basically be in your tanden with spread out awareness to be able to keep an eye on what’s going on, do all the things, and also eat (very quickly!). And when it’s working, it’s really beautiful—the whole group flowing together. It made me appreciate how these monastic forms aren’t just a “good opportunity” to apply our practice—these forms were specifically designed and refined over centuries to inform, support, integrate, and embody our practice. What a rare and precious thing!

In addition to the beautiful setting and the rigorous formal aspects, I really felt a general freshness, a vitality, and earnestness among the trainees. They are actually establishing the monastery grounds with their day to day work practice for everyone who comes after. And most impressively, they are hammering out a sincere culture of training in that place. I think none of them realize how that culture of training will echo for who knows how long—they’re setting a really high bar, and it’s great. I’m looking forward to the next time I can participate in the training there, and hope it will be sooner rather than later. And I would highly recommend the experience to anyone with the interest and motivation to go. Even for newer practitioners who might not be ready for a full dai-sesshin, there are Intro to Zen days offered at the monastery, as well as week long “Zen Life” retreats that would be ideal for beginners.

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