Be A Student: Some Aspects of Beginning a Zen Practice

Be A Student: Some Aspects of Beginning a Zen Practice July 16, 2021



There’s an old tale in many versions. The drift is someone is caught up in the midst of a catastrophe, often a flood. People come by and warn him and later to offer to get him to safety. He declines all the offers, saying God will help me. It happens six times. Finally, in the flood version, he drowns. In heaven he confronts the divine in all its majesty. I have been known to say I would be happy to find there was an actual deity, as I have a long complaint list to discuss. In this story, there he, she, it, you know, that majesty is there. And gets an earful. But it boils down to, I gave you my trust, and you left me alone to drown. Of the many correct answers the majety could have responded with, it chose to say “I sent you help six times.”

Earlier, I mentioned how when I was a youth, I wanted to know God. Desperately. With all my heart. I even prayed that if God would reveal himself, herself, itself – in the next moment he, she, it could kill me. I meant it.

What I got was silence.

It took me a long time to notice that silence was one of my opportunities. Perhaps the greatest of them.

Part of the problem for me at the beginning, was I how I had no idea what I was actually seeking. It was some sort of inchoate longing where the best I could articulate it was, is God real? For me it was just a slice this side of impossible for me to notice there were questions within that question. And, truthfully, it would have been very easy to get silence and to see no response.

In one sense, after all, that is what happened. I looked and found nothing. And, as they say, not the good nothing.

Once we’ve noticed there is a problem, and we’ve decided to take off on the great pilgrimage of the heart to the heart, on to the intimate way, then what? Well, then and, actually, before, and all along the way, we need to notice we aren’t doing this alone. There are people who preceded us. There are companions right now. And,they’ve all marked the trail.

So, one thing is to read. Somewhere along the way in our Western Zen communities, people got it in their heads that you weren’t supposed to read. Okay, there are reasons. Words are traps. Easy to make them into little shrines, offer some incense, and be on your way. But, within the vast literature there are many important pointers.

Reading a little of the canonical literature of Buddhism and in particular Zen, can be enormously helpful. Canonical because it’s been curated, this is the collective wisdom. And there are mountains of first-rate commentarial literature. Ask a friend. Get some reading lists. Go for it.

You want a place to start? Begin with the Platform Sutra. It tells the story and is available in scholarly and more popular editions. In his Lectures on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, Yamada Mumon mentions the “four texts of the Zen school.” One is the Ten Oxherding Pictures. In addition to Mumon Roshi’s version and commentaries, there are numerous translations online and in print. As is true of the other three texts, “Faith in Mind,” the “Song of Enlightenment,” and the “Principles of Zazen,” sometimes rendered “Universal Recommendation for Zazen.” I would add the Heart Sutra and encourage a deep reading of the many commentaries. For more, there are numerous good reading lists available online.

Although, I’ll add this. If you want to take on a big reading project, I think there’s some good guidance to be found among our Chinese ancestors. When the flood of Buddhist sutras, all purporting to be the words of the Buddha appeared over a fairly short period of time in the early Middle Ages, the Chinese readers were confused. How could all these different books be about the same thing? Many flat out contradicted each other. And the quality and styles of presentation were all over several maps.

Finally, they concocted a story. The sutras were all true. And they didn’t actually contradict each other. Rather what happened was that after the Buddha had his great awakening, he preached the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Flower Ornament Scripture. And no one understood. So, he started over. And here we get a rough ordering of first the Pali texts associated with the Theravada tradition, and then the Sanskrit Mahayana texts. And, finally, as the completion of the whole thing, the Sadharmapundarika Sutra, the Lotus Sutra.

So, the Flower Ornament and the Lotus might be taken as the most important. But the Flower Ornament is vast. The principal translation is published as three very big books. And, the Lotus, well, the lotus is a confusing mess. It circles and circles and never quite gets anywhere. The renowned Hakuin Ekaku wrote how when he first read the Lotus, he dismissed it as trash. Much later, it opened critical doors for him. And after that he never stopped praising it.

Either of these would be big projects. And, perhaps not for right at the beginning.

But don’t settle just for Buddhist texts. Read the mystical literature of other world religions. And more than that. Look at art. Really look at art. There’s an icon of the Holy Trinity painted in 1425 by a Russian artist, Adrei Rublev. In my view it points directly to the great mystery. Listen to music. Seriously listen. There are those who say Beethoven’s 9th symphony justified the whole of human existence. They might be right. Take walks. Lots of walks. Learn how to saunter. Volunteer in a Catholic Worker soup kitchen. Attend a High Anglican Mass. Attend a Quaker silent meeting. Look at people’s hands. Watch children playing. Smell the morning air.

And. Learn how to sit. Learn to just sit. That “Universal Recommendation for Zazen” is a great text for this.

All the while try not to interpret what you’re experiencing too quickly. Be curious. Let it all rest in your heart. As others say, stay hungry.

Be a student.

And a hint for the beginning of the intimate way. The heart of the Heart Sutra is found in the phrase “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” You need to understand what form is within Zen Buddhism. You need to understand what emptiness is, within Zen Buddhism. Read into it. Be wary of drawing conclusions. But know what the teachers of the way have to say about it.

Be a student.

Awakening comes. But, without context, it becomes easy to miss the real import of what has happened. Or, put too much on what really is of less or even sometimes no value. So, taking up practices of presence, and very much, some serious study of the intimate way, most of all as given by the great Zen teachers, but cross referencing with Sufis and masters of Vedanta and Jewish and Christian mystics can provide new wrinkles, other angles, and, sometimes, corrections even to the masters of the way.

So, after noticing something is wrong, thinking just maybe there is a right to be found, making that promise to take up the way, and now adding in practices such as meditation, participating in a community, seeking true friends, and reading: then what?

What you may find, passingly, or, perhaps more deeply is how things begin to present themselves. A fork. A flower. An old love. They might take on a new sense, a richer presence. Perhaps a moment of deep peace. Maybe even a glimpse into something that feels deeper.

It’s important to let these things be. Notice. But don’t chase after. They rise and they fall of their own accord.

There are traces everywhere. A blaze has been cut in the trees pointing the way.

Notice. But don’t pause.

Keep going.

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