Having its roots in Asia, many of the elements of Zen can be confusing to Westerners, giving the impression that the practice is not relevant to their lives. The purpose of this section is to provide a short orientation for individuals unfamiliar with the practice but interested in learning more about it.
The heart of Zen practice is the individual’s motivation to sit in meditation (Japanese: zazen) on a consistent basis and to make his or her best effort to maintain awareness. Zazen immediately upon awakening – in the dim morning light, before the first cup of coffee, before engaging in the busyness of daily life – brings a fulfilling sense of giving birth to the new day.
However, when the responsibilities of family or work do not allow for early morning zazen, sitting in the evening, or at another time during the day, is perfectly fine.
When possible, sitting with others in a space dedicated to meditation practice brings a sense of connection, but if such a center is not readily available, sitting alone is encouraged.
Despite our best efforts, the mind cannot entirely put an end to mental or emotional distractions through will power; thoughts, memories, and creative insights will arise continuously during meditation. So the primary emphasis of zazen is not to stop the mind’s activity, but rather to bring our attention back to the present whenever we recognize that we have become distracted. The point is not to be concerned about the distraction, but instead to gently “let go” of the exciting, disturbing, or entertaining memory, fantasy, or conjecture that arose spontaneously and return to paying attention to one’s breath.
As the mind increases its capacity to return to the present during zazen, it is concurrently improving its skill of being attentive during activities of daily life – at work, at home, on the freeway, or in the market. We become more intimate, less distant, with things and with each other. Problems are solved more readily, with less anxiety, while relationships go more smoothly.
In addition to memories of the past and imaginings of the future, distractions can include negative emotions and feelings spontaneously arising to consciousness. In the early days of one’s practice, these mental activities may appear more frequently and clearly as the mind softens and loses its instinct to defend itself from unpleasant thoughts. At first, our reaction may be to blame zazen for creating such discomfort, not realizing that the tendency to remember has been dimly present all along. Eventually we realize that zazen is doing us a favor in bringing mind activities to light so that we have the opportunity to understand and learn how to respond to them in a creative way, rather than being overwhelmed by their sudden rush. Over time, the frequency and sharpness of these distractions diminish as the mind better understands and accepts itself just as it is.
Meditation practice can be therapeutic, yet Zen practice itself is not therapy, even though both are about relieving suffering by uncovering and honestly facing the activity of the mind. Zen practice does not analyze emotional difficulties nor try to investigate their sources. Rather, it encourages recognition and acceptance of whatever feeling may arise and letting it go by returning attention to the present. In effect, the mind gives itself permission to have a negative feeling by acknowledging, “It is just something happening in this moment.” The emotional grip is loosened, leading to relief of anxiety.
This does not mean that Zen discourages therapy in severe situations where deep, unremitting suffering – severely impacting an individual’s capacity to function and find meaning in life – does call for identification and exploration of its sources.
Soto Zen discourages engaging in zazen for the purpose of gaining enlightenment – a vision, a flash of wisdom that reveals all Truth in an instant, that puts a final end to all one’s personal problems. Such a pursuit is contrary to the individual’s best interest, as striving to attain something for one’s self – even spiritual fulfillment – is actually just one more desire, adding to suffering. More to the point, enlightenment is already inherent in each of us, not something outside of our ordinary self that needs to be pursued and achieved. Rather, it is to be expressed, or realized, by zazen practice. This is the foundation of Buddhist understanding.
Zazen’s quiet activity expresses one’s true self, allowing us to experience that we are infinitely more than short-lived creatures of flesh, senses, and emotions, hungering for gratification. The unfolding understanding of the Reality of worldly phenomena – the Reality that exists beyond appearances – releases confidence uninhibited by limitations of human frailty and mortality. This spiritual understanding is deeper than the self-assurance that comes from finding success in worldly affairs, wider than the good feelings that come from reputation, from being admired, from the nice words people say about us. Those things can fade, whereas confidence based on knowing our true self can never be lost. As practice matures, the mind learns to recognize the world as a cohesive, timeless whole, rather than as a series of isolated personal activities and experiences, driven by desires and expectations.
With time, ordinary activities are seen in a new way, not just as routine chores but as quiet rituals, the expression of something larger, universal. Work, usually envisioned as tedious and necessary, is embraced enthusiastically, rather than shunned. This attitude is succinctly expressed in a well-known saying:
[My] Supernatural power and marvelous activity;
Drawing water and carrying firewood.
So in addition to zazen, Zen temples and monasteries emphasize paying careful attention to simple tasks, including sweeping the floor, cleaning the toilets, cooking, and washing dishes.
Ritual ceremonies continue to play an important role in the practice of serious Zen students. The orientation of Zen rituals is not a form of worship towards an external deity or a way to earn merit. Rather, chanting, bowing, and taking meals together in a reverential, carefully orchestrated way are considered active extensions of attentive sitting practice, continuing the attitude of “no self.” As one Zen scholar points out:
As one engages in ritual, one’s consciousness changes. . . Rituals work through the senses to cultivate wisdom in the bones. . . rituals can help one feel the sense of connectedness bodily.
Zen practice brings together self-discipline and determination with generosity, patience, and a caring attitude towards others.
Zazen, work, and ceremonies are all understood as expressions of the true nature inherent in all things. Pursued mindfully, they diminish emphasis on personal issues, encouraging in its place selflessness and concern for the well-being of others. These activities enhance the individual’s focus, discipline and “taking care” attitude. This reverence – expressing inherent enlightenment by being mindful to whatever we are doing in this moment – becomes the basis for the sense of well-being we seek.
The importance of “taking care” of ordinary activities, rather than taking them casually, is illustrated by the following story:
Two monks are on a pilgrimage, following the tradition of traveling from temple to temple, visiting and studying with well-known teachers in order to expand their practice and understanding. Walking beside a creek, they approach a well-known monastery. A vegetable leaf appears, floating downstream. The monks pause; in dismay, they prepare to turn around and retrace their steps. Suddenly, a monk comes out of a side door, running towards the creek with a long pole. He stops at the edge of the water, reaching out to retrieve the truant leaf. The two monks smile and quickly resume their journey to the temple.
Adherence to a philosophical belief system is not part of the practice. At the same time, Zen students are not discouraged from reading philosophical or religious texts, engaging in other traditional faiths or attending the church, temple, or synagogue of their choice. What Zen practice does discourage is a closed mind and a narrow view of life. Suzuki-roshi put it this way:
“I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form or color – something which exists before all forms and colors appear. This is a very important point. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based more or less on a self-centered idea.”
Zen emphasizes understanding the true nature of all conditioned phenomena of the world we live in, including ourselves. One usually begins by studying the various teachings about transiency, impermanence, and “no self,” and the insights into how the human mind works to create desire and suffering. Reflecting on these ideas helps the mind appreciate things with a new perspective, not simply according to appearances or what “common sense”presents. However, being limited to the intellect, ideas alone are not enough to bring about deep understanding. This takes place only when we allow our inherent, subtle wisdom to express itself.
Giving the mind a chance to be still enables composure and wisdom to arise. It is the experiential way, allowing the busy mind to feel its basic quality, beyond the conglomerate, noisy things of the everyday world. It is the subtle way of seeing the world, including one’s self and others. Without this subtlety, worldly things seem to us to be inherently either “attractive” or “unattractive.” This arbitrary mental distinction in turn creates either desire or repulsion. Known in Buddhism as duality, it is the source of confusion and anxiety. By contrast, attentive stillness yields insight into non-distinction – not exciting in an everyday sense, but subtly revealing and joyous.
Starting with the Buddha and his followers, the teacher and the community have remained vital features of Buddhism. In Zen, the teacher is seen as the one who nurtures the practice, who brings the tradition forward to the present day, maintaining the connection with all past teachers back to Buddha himself. The teacher leads and encourages others, not by relying on preaching or admonition, but by setting the example. He or she is always in the meditation hall (Japanese: zendo) for scheduled zazen. Through the wisdom of his/her own study and experience, he/she provides guidance to others in their practice, through lectures, personal interviews, and social engagement. With optimism and a supportive attitude, the teacher models ethical behavior and caring, the essential hallmarks of Buddhism.
Most Zen teachers in the U.S. have had some years of monastic training. However, in contrast to Asian countries, a good number – perhaps half – have worked, or continue to work, in the everyday world and lead a more or less secular life. Their experiences bring “real world” relevance to the practice, enabling them to respond to the oft-asked question: “How do I bring my spiritual practice into my everyday life?”
As in Buddha’s original community (Pali: Sangha), Zen practitioners bring encouragement and support to each other by practicing together, whether in zazen, work, ceremony, informal social activities, or taking care of administrative affairs. By nurturing friendship and trust, the Buddhist community provides a sense of sanctuary for its members. Sangha is perhaps the most important concept in the Buddhist and Zen world view, as it represents the universal connection of all things – their inherent, shared oneness.