How to Practice Zen

On one of the list serves to which I belong where the participants are all Zen teachers the question has been raised whether in our communities we sit facing into the room or out toward the wall. This question is inspired by our ancestor Bodhidharma’s famous “wall gazing” practice.

And worthy, no doubt.

But, recently I was visiting with someone who has undertaken both Vipassana and Zen practices over the years, and is now in declining health and discovering she cannot undertake any kind of formal sitting, whether facing into the room or toward a wall.

And it was her question that has pushed me.

What is the practice of Zen when all the externals are taken away from you?

Now that’s an interesting question.

Of course, what is an external is always worth probing.

But what immediately leapt to my mind was something from the western esoteric tradition.

For me the Zen way, the practice of intimacy is like the tarot card the Fool.

A youth, heedless, looking all around, a flower in one hand, with his or her (not completely certain in most images) worldly goods bundled on a stick and balanced on a shoulder, a small dog yapping at the heels (boy I know that one), stepping out over a cliff.

Says it all for me.

Exposed to the ten directions.

Saving the many beings.

Just this…

Nothing more…

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  • Transient and Permanent

    If this were Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese Zen, the teacher would almost certainly recommend that this person practice nembutsu in this situation. This is especially true if the person is a layperson, but it still holds true for monks and nuns as well. I’ve encountered just this situation in Japan and China on multiple occasions, and that’s the standard solution.There’s been some speculation (with some evidence to back it up) by McRae and others that the myth of Bodhidharma’s wall-gazing came from a later misinterpretation of earlier sources. If I’m recalling the situation correctly, the earlier hagiographies say that Bodhidharma sat in deeply-concentrated meditation “like a wall,” while later versions seem to have misread/mis-transcribed the Chinese characters to say “facing a wall.” Not meant to trivialize the issue–after all, experientially I find these two forms (facing in/facing out) to be different.Your Tarot reference is interesting, I’ll have to think about that one for a while. Best wishes.

  • James

    That is my understanding of McRae’s thesis, as well, Jeff.And turning toward a simple calling is worthy, as well. No doubt.But for me, even yet, facing life and death as the most intimate thing it is the step away from the hundred foot pole that most clearly reveals the matter at hand…

  • Anonymous

    Do you consider the mantra “Om mani padme hum” to be equivalent to the nembutsu? Both are invocations of Celestial Deities. If someone has being saying a mantra for many years, changing it at the end of life (or at any time, for that matter) is probably not a good idea. If I am invoking a bodhisattva instead of a Celestial Buddha, would I know the difference?Best wisesDudley

  • Ellen Etc

    It raises for me the question of practice in general — more than “how” to practice, but “why.” I seem to need an actual practice. I haven’t found freedom within my typical behaviors. To say there’s nothing to strive or work for would be to give up practice because it isn’t going anywhere, so why bother? If ordinary mind is “it,” then pour me another drink, barkeep! Insightful thoughts about the Fool aren’t the same as stepping off the cliff. So even when externals are no longer possible, I personally want a practice, not thoughts about practice, or reassurance that there’s nothing to “do,” which would merely justify instinctive and habitual behavior for someone who wants something else beyond that. Maybe carrying around the Fool card would be enough?

  • James

    I’m not knocking sitting. Love it.And no, dear Ellen, carrying the card around won’t do.But stepping off the cliff will…

  • Tim

    The MUUS (Meadville Lombard UU Sangha) had wall-gaze Wednesdays, but the rest of the week we faced each other, recognizing that we sat in community. At home I prefer a wall just because I’m alone and easily distracted by shiny things in my indistinct gaze.

  • Barry

    James, you might be interested in today’s post on Ox Herding – which addresses this issue (and the mind that creates it) head-on. for your wonderful blog.Barry

  • Tom Armstrong

    Yes, the tarot card of The Fool is me. Fool, and all — including what looks like a softball about to hit The Fool on the head.Yes, and I am about to stumble over the cliff (rather than leap with any sense of intention from the 100′ pole). That’s me.And there’s the talking dog at my heels, saying, “You’re supposed to move TOWARD the sun, not away from it, you fool.”Yep. That’s me. Bragging that that’s me.

  • Uku

    What is the practice of Zen when all the externals are taken away from you?No Method! :) (from Barry’s latest blog’s post, link above)Thank you, James. Important post.

  • Dosho Port

    The Soto practice of facing a wall does the usual Soto thing of making the metaphor concrete, and inseparable from no technique. Peace out.

  • Harry

    James,When I was a youth like that I was tossed around by the waves of mental whimsy and intense sexual desire coupled with crippling shyness around girls… and acne.The idea (ideal?) is nice, but, in the real world, it may represent the view of naturalism, of revelling in the senses, as preached by the non-Buddhist Senika.Dogen liked to beat on Senika’s hapless ass in Dharma talks… poor chap was way too dead to defend his thesis!Regards,Harry.

  • Glenda

    The Wise Fool:One aspect of the fool is a beginner’s mind. The tarot depicts his journey; he is a hero archetype. He passes through different stages/states and settings throughout the major arcana. Some decks place him at the beginning, others at the end; but in tarot the end *is* the beginning. The softball-like-thing is actually the number zero. Nothing….going nowhere.

  • Glenda

    Hi All,Lesson learned: I really shouldn’t try to make comments late at night after a long day. Sorry, Tom for missing your point-already-made on the softball thing.Gassho,Glenda

  • David Clark

    “What is the practice of Zen when all the externals are taken away from you?” Zen without externals is called Zen. In “Three Pillars of Zen” there is a very interesting correspondence between Harada-Roshi and one of his students, a young woman named Yaeko Iwasaki who attained kensho shortly before her death. Being bed-ridden and dying didn’t stop her from her practice.

  • Anonymous

    James-”Like a fool, like an idiot” a very good point; But if you hold up the fool as the prime example to aspire to, you are only seeing half, hopping around on one foot, instead of strolling through the garden on both feet: intention and release. How about Shakyamuni as inspiration?Jodo