After reading something I recently wrote about Zen and Zen training, a friend who is a long time Zen priest raised the question as to what should be considered a “real” Zen practice.
She cited as an example people who go to a weekly group, sit a period and then discuss a book they are all reading. And then wondered aloud whether that can be counted as a real Zen practice? Or is it really just a lead-in, a sort of bait-and-switch, enticing people to the monastic experience of her own primary training. Which, she wondered, maybe, possibly, is the only real deal.
As it happens I have views on this subject.
When I instruct people in Zen meditation after going through the basics of posture (sit up straight), eyes (open), and breath (let the breath be natural. And it can help to count; inhale one, exhale two, on up to ten, then start over again), and then say there is more, but this is enough to start. I then add, “Of course, coming to a Zen group and meditating once a week is not a Zen practice.”
I go on to explain that I personally am a petty and small-minded person. And I am always interested in what the bare minimums are. And out of my years on this path I’ve observed movement of the heart, actual changes in how one encounters life that can be associated with Zen meditation – if one sits at a minimum about half an hour a day, most days.
There are some other things that really should be part of the package. Checking in with a spiritual director on the Zen way seems critical. Reading is important, highly recommended. And, if you can throw in an occasional retreat, no doubt that can greatly enhance the practice in profound ways.
And there’s koan introspection. Anyone can do that. And if you can find someone competent to guide you on that way, whether you’re sitting a half hour a day most days or are committed to a lifetime of retreat in a Zen monastery, I strongly, strongly recommend it.
If you’re doing these things, you are practicing Zen. It is real Zen.
Is devoting more time to the pillow, as we sometimes describe Zen meditation, better? Yes. Are there uniqe gifts to be found by throwing one’s life into that pressure cooker that is an ango, a ninety-day emersion? Yes. Is the life of vow and sacrament that is the ordained Zen life an amazing gift? And worth a lifetime? Yes.
Now, we need to look a bit at those phrases “movement of the heart” and “changes in how one encounters life” and what they are meant to point to. After all Zen loves to play the cute card and assert how one gets nothing out of Zen. So, what are these things, particularly “movement” and “changes?” And what do they have to do with the “nothing” we’re supposed to be getting out of Zen?
The project of Zen is awakening. Awakening is learning for oneself that we are unique and passing and emerge out of a mysterious play of causes and effects in a way that means our existence has a beginning and an end and never was born and never will die. Words. Meant to point. The deal of awakening is like tasting water and knowing for oneself whether it is cool or warm.
And awakening comes to us like a thief in the night. There are no hard causal associations. Although, zazen seems particularly to be associated with those erruptions of insight. Zen meditation is an anchor, the anchor of my own spiritual life. One teacher hints at this when he said zazen is awakening. But, that’s a koan. And, yes, koans, really digging into koans, are a great thing. As are zazenkai, half day or one day sitting retreats. As are sesshin, three, five, or seven day retreats. As are ango, ninety day retreats. And, very much, that life of vow and sacrament that we call Zen ordination. These things all hover in the general direction of awakening.
But, awakening itself comes to us like a thief in the night.
So, no bait and switch. Just a promise.
Sit down. Turn the light inward. Notice. Let it be. No need for anything more. Just notice.
All will be revealed.