Why Do We Practice With Our Eyes Open Instead Of Closed?

There are several schools of meditation in which the eyes are closed, the idea being to turn the awareness inward and shield it from sensory distractions. Sometimes this is called pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. There is even a yogic mudra in which the fingers block the eyes, ears, and nostrils.

But in Zen our direction is to wake up to this world and perceive directly that there is no inside and no outside, that we are not separate from all beings. Zen Master Seung Sahn taught that when we sit everything that we see becomes clear, everything that we hear and smell and taste and touch, every bodily sensation, pleasurable or painful or neutral — all becomes clear. A Buddha is literally someone who is fully awake. Being awake to this world as it actually is naturally gives rise to compassion. So if we sit with our eyes open, our ears open, all our senses open, our minds and our hearts will also open.

Why do we say the four great vows? They seem so impossible.

Here are the four great vows:


  1. Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.
  2. Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all.
  3. The teaching are infinite, we vow to learn them all.
  4. The Buddha way is inconceivable, we vow to attain it.


Every morning practice at the Zen center begins with the four great vows. My morning home practice always begins with them. I strongly recommend that people start their practice by saying them. They remind us of our direction, that our practice is not about ourselves, that it’s not about our likes and dislikes, that it’s not about feeling better. They remind us that our practice is a lot bigger than our usual idea of our lives.


And yes, taken literally they are impossible. That’s the point. There’s no time and place where we can say: okay, got it, done, finished. When the Buddha saw the star and awakened, he didn’t go back to the palace and hang around with his buddies drinking the ancient North Indian equivalent of Bud Light. When the Buddha awakened he realized how much work there was to do and he started doing it. That’s our job too. The four great vows remind us of this.

Why should I practice at a Zen Center when I can meditate at home on my own?

Sit on your own and you can achieve all kinds of mental states, some of which feel really good. Sitting with other people also can feel really good. But hang out long enough with anyone and your karma will appear, boom. There you are, really annoyed at someone. There someone is, really annoyed at you. You know where this usually leads, and it isn’t any place you want to be.

But in a Zen center, when this happens the context is a practice of liberation, not just of ourselves but of all beings. Instead of getting solidified, our karma can start to dissolve. Most of the time we live in a hall of mirrors. Escape isn’t easy. It’s by practicing in community that we can break free.

What is enlightenment?

The short answer is: a bad translation of a word that means “awake.” It’s not that the Buddha attained something we call enlightenment. It’s that he woke up. It’s like when you’re dreaming — you think you’re walking on water, or flying over Mars, but then you wake up and see where you are — oh, I’m in bed. There’s the closet. There’s the door. When you wake up, you see what’s actually there and not what you think is there.

Buddha’s waking up was like that, except what he woke up to was his original nature, which is your original nature, which is the nature of the universe — things as they actually are and not as our thoughts distort them.

You can wake up too. That’s the point of Zen practice, to help us cut through the distortions of our thinking and wake up, just as Buddha did.

And, just as every night you fall asleep and have to wake up again every morning, waking up is something we do over and over again. It’s not something we do once and then say: okay, been there, done that. It’s something we keep doing throughout our lives.

Help us decide our schedule of retreats

Our retreat schedule has been pretty much set for a long time: every year we have one 5-day retreat, four 2-day retreats, two 1-day retreats. But does this meet our current needs? In particular, should we add more retreats to give more options and/or more opportunities for intensive practice? And if so, which kind(s)? Your feedback would be greatly appreciated. Please take our very brief survey.

To practice Zen do I have to believe in rebirth?

The short answer is: no. There are no doctrinal requirements in Zen practice.


The longer answer is: what is there to be reborn? I.e., what is your fundamental nature? what is my fundamental nature? what is every human being’s fundamental nature? That is the basic question, independent of any belief or disbelief in rebirth. Zen practice is a way of perceiving our fundamental nature, fully realizing it, and acting accordingly. This nature is independent of any doctrine, independent even of speech and thinking. There are a lot of words and explanations out there about it. But you have to find it yourself.

Does Zen give you any special powers?

Stories about magical powers are certainly not unheard of in Zen — tales about great bodhisattvas and Zen masters who were able to do such things as make waterfalls flow back upstream or transport a woman to the Tushita heaven. These powers are sometimes classified as “freedom from cause and effect.” They are said to appear after long practice and the attainment of deep samadhi, a trance-like state in which everything is experienced as oneness or zero. But they are not the point of practice. Wanting them or attaching to them is a problem. Magical powers are in themselves delusional or lead to delusion. We practice to attain our true nature and help all beings. And if our minds are clear we see that the natural world and our ordinary activities are wondrous just as they are. All of this is beautifully summed up in the Kuo-an’s last poem accompanying his ten Oxherding Pictures. It is called “Entering the Marketplace”:

Barefoot and shirtless, enter the market

Smiling through all the dirt and grime.

No immortal powers, no secret spells,

Just teach the withered trees to bloom.

There is so much suffering in the world. What good does meditation do?

Zen flowered during the Tang dynasty in China, at a time when central control was breaking down and the many parts of the country were overrun by warlords and rebellions. Think of Syria with knives and swords instead of barrel bombs, drones, and automatic weapons. At one time during this period about 1/3 of the deaths were caused by the direct or indirect results of war, such as disease and starvation. Yet instead of taking up arms, our Zen ancestors took to the mountains to practice hard. They could see around them the result of confusion of mind. It wasn’t pretty. It still isn’t pretty. They realized that the real enemy is exactly this confusion. Not confusion because you have the wrong opinion. But confusion because you have an opinion, and you’re sticking to it, and you’ll mow over anyone who stands in your way.

So that’s where Zen practice was formed: in the crucible of tremendous suffering, as a way to end suffering, not just your own suffering, but the suffering of all beings. We practice to clarify our minds so that our actions alleviate suffering instead of causing more suffering.

How can I stay in a state of bliss?

Why would you want to do that? A state of bliss distorts our perceptions as much as a state of sadness. Bliss feels good, but still it is a distortion. Mental states come and go. Trying to hold on or push them away just adds to our confusion. But our true nature was never born and never dies. When we become awake to our true nature, we are free to enjoy moments of bliss, we are free to cry when we are sad, but there is never any need to identify with them or with any mental state. We no longer are so caught up in our desires, our anger, our ignorance, our joy, our happiness, our bliss, that we can’t see what has to be done, moment by moment, to help this suffering world.

Does it matter which meditation technique I use?

In Zen there are a number of techniques that are commonly recommended. Among them are attention to the breath, counting breaths, slow mantra repetition, fast mantra repetition, and holding a question such as “What am I?” I usually recommend working with a great question, but any of these methods can be effective for a given individual. It is best to work with a teacher to choose a practice that will work for you. But more important than which meditation technique you use is how dedicated you are in your practice. Once you have settled in with a certain technique it is important to stay with it and not jump around trying other techniques, committing yourself whole heartedly and persevering through the inevitable dry spells. Then your practice will be like water dripping on a rock. If it always drips in the same place, eventually an opening will appear.