The Meaning of Zen Practice

At the end of a lecture in December of 1965, Suzuki-roshi said:

 Everyone knows zazen is very difficult. But we should not give up. In a busy country like America there must be some time to spare for zazen.

In the early 1960’s, a young man came to see Suzuki-roshi. He asked, “I want to know about Zen. Can you teach me?”

Roshi answered: “We sit every morning at 5:30. You can join us.”


His response to this inquiring question reveals everything, without explaining anything. It turns the seeker’s mind away from intellectualizing and thinking about what Zen is supposed to be. In his quiet invitation, he subtly asks the new Zen student to set aside pursuit of ideas about Zen but instead to physically engage directly in the practice.   And he reorients him away from himself, away from “I” and “me,” to others, to “We” and “us.”   He is encouraging him to begin the journey away from isolation to community.


In the monastery, Zen monks are not politely invited to come to the zendo to sit in meditation before the sun is up: it is a requirement. If they don’t come, they are admonished, at first, and eventually kicked out if they remain stubborn about getting to the zendo at the prescribed time.   Suzuki-roshi recognized that lay people in the U.S. could not be treated that way, but must be encouraged gently, without expectations, and left to decide for themselves what is right. But he knew that changing the start time to make the practice easier for Americans would be a mistake.


In the U.S. and the West, lay people new to Buddhism and Zen are shocked to learn that 5:30 AM is the traditional starting time.   They wonder how they can possibly fit that element of practice into their life style, with their responsibilities of jobs and families. It is a perfect koan, forcing individuals to consider what the practice means to them, how vital it is in their lives, how much comfort and convenience they are willing to give up, what accommodations they must make with family and bosses. But the most important consideration is the intensity of feeling beyond logical considerations. As it says in the “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samahdi:”


            The meaning is not in the words, yet it responds to the enquiring impulse.


We are all inherently spiritual beings, but the strong energies of our intellect and egos too often block this recognition. Yet when we do get a glimpse, it awakens the “enquiring impulse” and we want to know more, to go deeper. And this is the point of Zen practice.



At Kannon Do, we continue the traditional practice of 5:30 AM zazen. On average, ten people come to sit, while there have been as many as twenty and as few as two or three.   We recognize that it can be a real challenge to people with busy, committed lives. So we suggest that if you can’t come at 5:30 every day, come once a week. If you can’t come once a week, come once a month. If you can’t do that, come once a year.   Everyone is encouraged to make accommodations in their schedules so that they don’t lose touch with their practice.


But we should ask: why the emphasis on zazen in the pre-dawn hour, before the day has begun?   Why has this practice been important in Buddhist and other spiritual traditions over the centuries? In part, it is to teach self-discipline to young monks – mostly in their teens – to help them let go of comforts and attachments, to help them mature. Yet, if we look at the practice with a wider view, beyond its use for building character, we can recognize its religious meaning, the deepest expression of an individual’s spiritual nature. It means sitting in meditation before the mind has become engaged in the busy affairs of the everyday world, when it is most open, ready, uncluttered. It means sitting when the mind can subtly discern its Absolute nature, and feel the fundamental divinity it shares with all things,


Sitting in meditation at dawn provides a sense of being born with the new day, simultaneously giving birth to it. There is a feeling of our turning darkness to light, along with a perception of the inherent unity of everything. The mind becomes pliant and responsive, ready to face the day with equanimity and confidence. The result is peace of mind and composure.