Themes in Residential and Householder Zen

About a month ago, I stumbled on this well-done essay on residential Zen training, The Freedom of No-Choice, by Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, and posted it on the moodle that we use for the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training. My purpose was to expose Vine householder students to residential practice, if just through reading, in order to inform our work together … and to stir things up, of course.

Bodhin’s article has indeed evoked reflection and heartfelt responses on the Vine moodle and in practice meetings about the freedom that comes in home practice too when we let go of choice and just get up in the morning and sit, for example.

Another issue that has continued to percolate is that of comparing householder practice to residential/monastic practice (many householder Zen students think of their practice as second-rate and have feelings about that, I suppose because so much of Zen mythology is about monastics).

When I was doing monastic practice I wrote to a friend, bemoaning my lonely life (like the monk in the cartoon). She wrote back a long description of her householder life with two young kids, the stress of both her and her husband’s self-employment, the unreliability of health and income, and the fact that they had about $5.35 between the two of them and they were on their last roll of toilet paper.

“Stay where you are,” she said, “and (something to the effect of) quit whining!”

Likewise, Dogen admonishes us not to discuss the superiority or inferiority of a philosophy but to look at the authenticity of the actual practice. In other words, not the what but the how and why – not whether we do residential/monastic practice or householder practice but how we pour our hearts into our lives and open our hearts, lifing this great life.

Easy to say, sometimes hard to let go of looking around and just do.

Bodhin identifies three themes he sees in doing residential practice: simplicity (uncluttered surroundings of space and mind); order (the seniority system); and authority (as Bodhin puts it, “With ego-resistance futile, [s/]he is all but forced to surrender to the Great Way that is beyond self and other, beyond right and wrong”).

In householder practice, the mix and flavor of these three themes is different – and authority is especially so (even if your spouse or partner is the boss of you) – and there are a couple others that I think important.

Order and authority are powerful drivers in residential practice and by surrendering to the schedule and the directions of others, we are blown along with the wind of the buddhadharma (ideally, of course). Not so for the householder. As one person who has done several years of residential training and is now a single householder said, “I found I could stay in bed for the whole day and no one would even know about it.”

For many of us, householder practice is much more like hermit practice so creatively following the live vein of dharma inquiry is one vital way to establish spiritual security in the whirl of world.

Another important theme in householder life is service. A student recently talked about the power of letting go of his agenda for the moment and just being with his son who had fallen and hurt his back and was crying. Rather than “How can I get what I want?” the issue becomes “How to serve the truth of this moment?”

And finally, for the householder, faith is vital. Faith in the triple treasure of buddha, dharma, and sangha not only as a warm-hearted feeling of confidence and humility but as something we do.

Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
  • Kogen 古 元

    Dear Dosho,

    Inspired by your own letter, I’d like to offer myself for a penpal situation! I think it’s so relevant and important to acknowledge that attaining the way by leaving home or staying home is a parallel path of renunciations. Staying home and leaving home have nothing to do with the roofs over our heads and the challenge is inside job.

    Grateful for your effort, inspired by your students.

    Deep bow,

    • doshoport

      Thanks, Kogen. Not everyday I get invited to be penpals! You can contact me at if you like.
      Best wishes for your training,

      • Kogen 古 元

        Dear Dosho,

        Oh! Since you already know about residential practice, I meant I could be a pen pal for one of your Vine students who doesn’t! Or maybe you could present questions about practice and we could reflect on how house holding/residential practice impacts the challenge. But we can still be pen pals if you want!

        • Jeanne Desy

          What, I’m not enough pen pal for you?

          • Kogen 古 元

            Of course you are!

  • Edward Lube

    “And finally, for the householder, faith is vital.”

    Interesting–I was just reading Katagiri’s chapter on faith in “Returning to Silence” this AM. Some very worthwhile things to say about actual faith. The short version is that faith is practice–no surprise!–experience, and confidence, among other things.

    Are you channeling again??

  • Agni Ashwin

    In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there is a similar way of translating the role of authority/obedience from the monastic life to the householder life:

    “Besides fasting we have other teachers to whom we can show obedience. They meet us at every step in our daily life, if only we recognize their voices. Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour” (Tito Colliander, “The Way of the Ascetics”).

    • doshoport

      So lovely, thank you!

  • Y. A. Warren

    I don’t think that it’s an accident that most religions were written and taught by men, especially by monks. Please write an entry about the Zen of vomiting babies burning up with fever at 3:00 in the morning.

    • Jeanne Desy

      That is exactly where it is.

      • Y. A. Warren


        • Jeanne Desy

          I meant, taking care of a sick baby is a householder’s practice, especially a parents’. We have total responsibility for ourselves, sometimes for theirs, like that feverish baby or sick old cat. That’s our service. And we’re so alone at times in making decisions. I think being in residence would be immensely easier, like floating along, the way retreat can be. Just follow the schedule, someone else shops and cooks the meals. I have to make my own schedule and tear myself away from all the things that need done. Study or get the car washed? This is why I think we women need to figure out how to make the good in Zen available to people living in the real world outside the walls.

          • Y. A. Warren

            So much time is spent in Sacred Adoration rather than in supporting The Sacred Spirit in everyday life. Motherhood is one of the most isolating events in America. Rare is the person, including the partner parent, who will share the actual everyday events of bringing up a baby. Women simply need to choose their partners more wisely.

          • Jeanne Desy

            So true. But what did I know at 18? Passion. . . . And the whole culture teaches that, makes sex very important. And the whole thing about big weddings adds another kind of yearning. I have a much better husband now, and it began in friendship – at a church camp.