What Makes a Good Zen Student?

What Makes a Good Zen Student? March 30, 2018



Yesterday I posed a reflection on Zen teachers, and who might or might not be a good Zen teacher. Links to that reflection were shared at several Facebook Zen and Buddhist groups. It generated a number of comments, and a little heat, as well. I found that interesting.

But most interesting, I felt, was someone who posted the question, “What makes a good Zen student?”

I’ve led basic introductory classes to Zen meditation and practice maybe a thousand times. I don’t know, exactly. A lot. And, I’ve watched as these people have come, gone, or stayed. It turns out I have gathered some observations and come to a few thoughts about that question. Who is a good Zen student?

Some of it involves mechanics.

First. One must learn the rudiments of Zen meditation. That’s the easiest part. You can glean much of it from a book or even online. There are some nice videos on Youtube.  Then one must do it. Without a Zen meditation practice one is not a Zen student. No matter how many books you read, how many lectures you attend, if you don’t practice the discipline, you may be interested in Zen, influenced by Zen, or any number of such things; but you are not a Zen student.

And, a bit more. You are simply exploring it if your practice doesn’t extend beyond a weekly meeting. This is not uncommon. I have had a lot of friends over the years who sit only at that single meeting. And, I think it is helpful for them. Also I hope and believe attending talks and the liturgy and the attendant social connections are useful. And. If someone with this level of commitment says they’re a Zen student but do nothing beyond this, well… I wouldn’t correct them in public, but I would have my doubts.

There is no magic formula ranging from one time a week not being a “real” Zen student and two or three or four or seven suddenly being a “real” Zen student. What is important is growing into the practice. I recommend that at the beginning regularity is vastly more important than duration. So, if you sit three times a week for ten minutes, and keep it up, you are absolutely on the way.

Being of a petty and small minded sort, I have thought a lot about minimums. In the end I believe someone needs to sit for about half an hour a day, most days, to begin to see the benefit of Zen meditation. More is better. But that half hour most days, that is a real thing, and I think someone who does that can with integrity say they are a Zen student.

Reading then becomes important. The advice to not read but just practice is useful in a very narrow context, basically if one is entering a monastic setting. Even then, eventually one should read. And attend talks. And, most of all, if one can, meet with a teacher on occasion.

I also think it hard to get deeper into Zen practice without attending longer sitting gatherings. Half-day sittings, all-day sittings, retreats of three, five, and seven days can be enormously enriching.

And, it is here that we begin to see the mechanics of a “good” Zen student. Good is a pretty laden term. But, someone who is finding some genuine depth of commitment and beginning to find the contours of a Zen life begins to emerge out of this regular life of sitting and studying and meeting with a spiritual director.

As to good. I would like to reframe that a bit. I’m more interested in successful.

What is the point of all this? Why do we practice? And what do we hope to find within it? What can we win by throwing our hearts and bodies into the way?

We begin for a million different reasons. Someone may have heard zazen can lower your blood pressure. Another might have been referred on by a therapist. Another seeks to heal some old wound. Still another has read about enlightenment.

Here’s the good news. All these motivations are fine. And, if you continue into the Zen way you will find none of these remain why you practice.

At the heart of Zen’s teaching is a marvelous bit of good news. We and this world itself are just as we are, broken and struggling. That’s a hard and we begin to discover a beautiful thing. And at the very same time we are intimately joined and all of it is perfect in a perfection that that word and all words cannot even begin to point toward. Two truths, a circle and a square that can be reconciled within the discerning heart. And the insight, the wise heart to which all the mechanics of our practice drive us.

As we throw ourselves on the pillow, as we study the guidance of our ancestors, as we meet with spiritual directors, we find our Zen life and the rest of our life becomes one thing.

Do we want to call it good? In some ways yes. In others that’s missing the point, entirely. We want to call it successful? Actually, the same thing. Right is some ways, missing the point entirely in others.

Beyond the mechanics of it, Zen becomes a way of clarification. Of loss and gain, of living into it all, in seeing how cause and effect are two things and not two things. We begin to see into the mystery of who and what we are. We learn. We realize. We forget. We start again.

The dance.

And, that, is Zen practice. And that is the way of an authentic Zen student…

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