Announcing New Sesshin Hygiene Policies – A Letter from Roshi

The worst of this flu season has passed, but it took a toll on our Sangha as never before. At our January sesshin, about half of the participants came down with colds, coughs, and/or “flu-like illnesses.” It is clear now that we can no longer rely on the relatively loose sesshin hygiene policies that we’ve gotten away with (more or less) in the past.

To minimize sickness and contagion in sesshin going forth, I recently consulted with four Sangha physicians, our regular sesshin monitors, and others to adopt stricter preventive measures and responses. The strongest of these measures, which are still under discussion, will not go into effect until the next flu season – fall and winter. That allows time for us to gather more information, including reports from January sesshin participants, who were recently canvassed for feedback.

Irrespective of the influenza virus itself, the following “public health” and other policies will go into effect starting with the upcoming April sesshin:

Before sesshin

  • All participants must bring their health insurance cards with them.
  • Participants who feel they might be coming down with something that could be contagious to others should report their symptoms to the monitors, who might ask them, regretfully, to bow out of sesshin for the sake of others if not themselves.

During sesshin

  • After a symptomatic participant reports his or her condition, the monitors will assess, in consultation with a health professional if necessary, whether the ailing participant needs to leave sesshin or remain but be isolated. Isolation would mean either a room change or temporary removal from the zendo (to the Kannon Room or Piano Room) or both. At a large sesshin this could involve moving the symptomatic participant into an “infirmary” (such as the Mill House) with others who are in the same condition.
  • Local participants who seem unlikely to recover enough to rejoin sesshin could be driven home by the sesshin runner (the person each sesshin who is assigned to run errands). An out-of-town participant unlikely to be able to rejoin sesshin could be driven to our Arnold Park center until having recovered enough to go home.
  • A moderately symptomatic participant – e.g., one with a cough or cold worthy of the name – could be asked to wear a hygienic mask, a supply of which now will be part of the sesshin “pharmacy.” Even a healthy participant may ask to wear a mask in the zendo.
  • Other new hygienic measures (too detailed to enumerate here) will be deployed in the kitchen, dining room, water table area, soaking bath rooms, dokusan room, and during calisthenics.
  • We will, of course, also keep with the standard guidelines we’ve always announced, such as for people: not to put their fingers in their eyes, mouth, or nose; to sneeze and cough only into the crook of their elbow (robe sleeve); and to wash their hands frequently.

A concern: After fifty years of sesshins with few actionable critiques of our hygiene policies, are we, in reaction to an exceptionally bad flu season, now overcorrecting? I can hear Zen master Mumon’s warning from the Mumonkan: “Rather than giving relief to the body, give relief to the mind.” It would be regrettable indeed if with these stiffer policies we inadvertently encourage people in sesshin to become preoccupied with germs. We want to change the microbial culture of sesshin without changing our focused sesshin culture.

Most of our sesshin participants, it would seem, have always been less concerned about contagion than about the terminal illness we all share: being born in the first place. Why else would people with sesshin experience under the previously looser guidelines have kept returning? The truth is, if your foremost concern is contagion, sitting day and night in one room with dozens of others is not a good idea.

The foregoing new policies are sure to place more demands on the sesshin monitors and work supervisors, both before and during sesshin. But these guidelines reflect our best first try at taking health risks in sesshin more seriously, yet without getting obsessive. They are not set in stone, and our trial run at next month’s sesshin could prompt us to revise them a bit. Meanwhile, input from the Sangha (especially those with sesshin experience) is welcome. (please send any comments or suggestions to

I apologize, belatedly, to sesshin participants over the years who suffered unnecessarily due to the Center’s casual hygiene policies. Sesshin participants themselves can help, though, by recognizing the huge importance of the immune system and by bolstering it through good diet, exercise, emotional stability, and most of all, daily zazen!

—Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede


Dokusan This Week

With Roshi leaving on Thursday to lead a 2-day sesshin at the Madison Zen Center, the last dokusan offered this week will be tomorrow morning, Wednesday, March 21.