Zen Practice for Everyone and More

Zen Practice for Everyone and More May 14, 2019

My wife and co-teacher, Tetsugan, and I have been noticing how participation at the Nebraska Zen Center, and probably in other Zen Centers too, falls into five types (give or take): visitor, member, student, apprentice, and successor. In this post, I’ll briefly flesh out those levels of participation.

Why? First, there are students here in Omaha that are on the edge of several of these levels of participation and it might serve them to more clearly know the lay of the land. Second, we’ve seen that issues arise at times in the teacher-student relationship due to the teacher identifying the student at one level of participation, usually because the student has said so, when actually the student is at another level. This post is intended to assist in the reflection process for student’s present relationship with a Zen community, be that in Omaha or elsewhere. It is healthy and empowering to know where we are, to speak that clearly, and then for our actions to be in alignment. Finally, I hope that aspects of this will apply more widely.

As I said, I’m speaking here from my teaching role with the in-person Nebraska Zen Center, and not so much from my teaching role with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training. The way the Vine is structured, people come in as students. However, I’ll be posting this on the Vine and we’ll discuss how this plays out in that field of practice.

By the way, and with synchronicity, James Myōūn Ford Rōshi has a recent post, Zen Practice for Everyone, with two levels: Openers of the Way and Followers of the Way. What I’m doing here is offering a way to see James’ “Followers of the Way” with more nuance. Or perhaps, as he cautions against, I’m holding “… the distinctions too tightly.” You get to be the judge.

Another piece of background is a psychological approach that I find helpful. It looks at the group dynamics at play in group membership – the FIRO Theory – and posits that people are sorting out three questions, simply put as:

“In or out?” (inclusion)
“Up or down?” (control) and
“Near or far?” (affection)


Everyone is welcome to visit the Nebraska Zen Center and check it out. These days, due to the ubiquitousness of mindfulness marketing, most visitors come looking for tools to help them calm their minds so that they can be more effective in their lives. We’ve got that. Other people are looking for something other than what we’re offering, or perhaps they don’t resonate with the way we’re offering it, so remain as one-time or occasional visitors.

I sense that many people that come through the door are looking for something, but many are not yet clear what that is. The process of Zen practice can help clarify the heart’s innermost request, and we have skills that can assist visitors through the process of clarifying intention.

And like James said in his post, “One may participate at this level for as long as one wishes. There are many reasons this might be one’s best option for a lifetime. Family concerns. Work. Those other spiritual obligations. Life is messy, and there should be no judgement. This ‘light’ connection can bring forth good fruit.”

And in the end, we’ll all visitors here.


The second level of participation is that of a member in the community. After some time checking out the community and teachers, some visitors will feel moved to support what’s happening with regular participation, a regular financial contribution, and a more regular practice, usually once a week or more. Some members practice zazen at home, and others don’t. No problem.

Hopefully, membership will fulfill a member’s need for belonging. Excellent. We live in a time of atomization and alienation, so this is not only understandable, but it is one of the services that we offer. Some people remain as members for years, and that’s fine. When a person participates at the member level, the community is more important than the teachers.

To members, we say with Rumi, “Are you stranger who just wandered in? Welcome home, my friend, welcome home.”

Some people become members as a way of taking another step closer to see if participation here in this community, with these teachers, addresses their heart’s longing to return home, and to be at home wherever they are. If that’s the case, then a member is on their way to becoming a student.


Students begin to focus more of their time and energy into “open-hearted inquiry and audacious awakening” (from the NZC mission statement). How does that look? Students show up for zazen, classes, and sesshin. They engage the teachers regularly in dokusan (brief one-to-ones that happen during zazen) and occasional practice meetings (longer, relaxed, and scheduled when it works). They become more involved in the work of the center, becoming timekeepers, liturgists, and board members. Although visitors and members are also welcome – and encouraged – to join in the work of the center, it is often students who weed the garden, oil the hinges on the back door when needed, clean, serve tea and coffee, and notice when visitors and members need help. Yet the work of a student is primarily about their own zazen, study, and engagement (living the way), and secondarily about serving others.

Some students will begin working with kōan, while others will continue with the breath. Some students will decide to deepen their involvement and commitment to the buddhadharma through focused study of the precepts, with the intention to hone their capacity to not only do no harm, but to benefit living beings. They may go on to sew a rakusu, and then formally receive the precepts (Japanese, jukai). At that point, most will choose to remain students. Some will explore a closer relationship with the teachers and become apprentices.


Becoming an apprentice involves more fully making the above-mentioned shift from “what do I get?” to “what can I give?” Apprentices answer the FIRO questions – “In or out?” “Up or down?” “Near or far?” – by saying “In,” “Down,” and “Near.” For an apprentice, zazen, study, and engagement become about clarifying the great matter so that they can help others clarify the great matter, not necessarily by becoming teachers, but by however they can serve. If a visitor needs a support cushion, a support cushion appears. If a meal needs to be cooked, a tenzo appears. If a toilet needs cleaning, an apprentice holding a toilet-cleaning brush appears.

An apprentice has a close teacher-student relationship, is devoted to daily zazen, and vigorously participates in sesshin as often as possible. In addition to classes offered through the center, under the guidance of the teachers, the apprentice also engages in a rigorous study of the sutras and commentaries that are of significance on the Zen path. We have a Formal Training Curriculum for this.

Apprentices are also expected to play through the Harada-Yasutani kōan curriculum, which serves as a trellis for kenshō, deepening and clarifying the initial kenshō, then more and more fully cultivating verification within the myriad vexations of daily life.

One of the key decisions that apprentices make is whether to undergo the training as a householder or a homeleaver (aka, Zen priest). This is a big topic beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll keep it simple. The key difference in the training of a householder and homeleaver centers around the mastery of Sōtō Zen forms or rituals. This includes how to wear priest robes, zendo decorum, liturgical positions, and conducting ceremonies. In order to master these Zen forms, a period of monastic practice is necessary.

By the way, Robert Aitken Rōshi said somewhere (I believe he did, but this is from memory and I can’t find the source, so it could be me), that he found that it took 2,500 people coming through the door for even one to stay ten years.


For both householder and homeleaver apprentices, the process usually takes about ten years. After their apprenticeship, some will become teachers, but others will not. We don’t offer this program with any guarantee that it will “make you a teacher.” We recommend to people that explore apprenticeship training to do it if it is what they love to do, and not for what they will get out of it. Especially not for any credential. After all, teaching Zen in our culture is likely to pay less than minimum wage.

Most successors will have completed the Harada-Yasutani kōan curriculum and participated in at least several hundred days of sesshin. They will be fluent enough with the literature of the buddhadharma to know how to use big chunks of it as mirrors for people who want to see who they are. Also, a successor will know how to serve people in the context of Zen practice. In order to teach, a person should have the appropriate psychological, pedagogical, and interpersonal skills for such an undertaking, as well as be in life circumstances that support it.

And they need to be ready to not know what they’re getting into.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!