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.

How can I know that Zen practice is right for me?

Well, only you can tell, and only on the basis of your own direct experience.

Buddha taught that every spiritual practice should be evaluated on the basis of its results. Nothing is to be taken on faith, nor does Buddhism make any claims to being the one true way. This means that practitioners need to decide, after making a sincere effort, if the practice is proving to be efficacious — beneficial to their lives as individuals and in their interactions with others. Zen meditation practice is directed toward helping us wake up to our true nature and help this world. If that is your direction, then Zen practice is certainly worth trying. If you practice with a good teacher hard and steadily for a good amount of time you will be able to know if Zen practice is right for you.

I try to find peace through meditation, but whenever I practice my mind jumps all over the place and I can’t make it be quiet.

If you try to quiet your mind then of course it will dominate, because you’re trying to quiet your mind, which is just another form of chasing after it. Don’t worry about whether your mind is noisy or quiet, just do your practice — counting your breaths, mantra, great question, whatever your practice is…. Do your practice with a noisy mind. Do your practice with a quiet mind. Doesn’t matter. Just keep doing your practice. Do your practice and stick to the same practice. Don’t jump around from practice to practice. For days, weeks, months, years. Sure your mind will jump around. Just don’t follow it. On its own, your mind will start to quiet down. It will start up again. It always does. But you don’t have to follow it. That’s the point.

 

It’s exactly in the exercise of not checking the quality of our mind — is it noisy? is it quiet? — not getting trapped by our thoughts, it’s in the exercise of just doing our practice, that we have an opportunity to discover our true self, our true nature, which is more fundamental than all that activity in our frontal lobes.

When I first started practicing it felt really good, but sometimes now it’s hard. Does it have to be that way?

Sitting meditation, the heart of Zen practice, can be pleasant and refreshing at first and in short stints. In the long haul, the many hours of sitting in an intensive retreat and of many retreats over many years, the practice is undeniably austere. It is so by design and necessity. The direction of our practice is not to make us feel good but to bring us face to face with what we really are, and this can only be done by cutting through the layers of self, layers stronger than cast iron set in concrete, that our unremitting desire to feel good has created. This is hard work, hard enough and sometimes dry and tasteless enough, that we want to quit. But it is the only way, and in our deepest consciousness we know it, know that hard training is the only way to break through the wall of the self.

Is Zen a religion?

In the Middle Eastern traditions which dominate in Europe and America, a religion is a system of beliefs and practices which claims truth and demands loyalty: you cannot simultaneously be two of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. In Asia, at least until fairly recent European influence, the concept rather was that of ways or paths. Over millennia there was a lot of cross-fertilization among various spiritual practices (which we now call Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc. — “ist” and “ism” are European concepts) and it was possible to move among them without abandoning one for another. For example, in Japan it was common for people to be married by a Shinto priest and buried by a Buddhist one. There is no concept of conversion from one religion to another. You simply practice one way or another or even many at the same time. Why not?

 

Zen is part of Mahayana Buddhism, so is a religion in the way that all forms of Buddhism are. But it has no belief system one has to adhere to. Buddhist precepts are promises about behavior: not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, and so on — five to start off with, and hundreds if you become a nun or monk. There is no precept about what you believe. Which is why you can find Zen practitioners and even teachers who practice various monotheistic traditions. There are Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis who are Zen masters.

 

So the answer to your question is: it depends how you define “religion.”

Why should I practice with a group? After all, Buddha awakened after sitting on his own. Isn’t it more authentic to simply meditate without any other religious trappings?

 

Yes, Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni sat on his own before being known as the Buddha. But this was after many years of practicing with teachers in community. His first teacher was Alara Kalama, who eventually asked Gautama to co-teach with him. But Alara Kalama’s teaching did not resolve Gautama’s deep questions. So he left and practiced with another teacher, Uddaka, who also eventually asked Gautama to co-teach with him. But again, Gautama’s deep questions were not resolved. It was only after many years of practice in communities of renunciates headed by recognized teachers who both acknowledged the maturity of his practice that Gautama went off on his own.

 

There are good reasons for this. Without community our practice can very subtly reinforce our sense of self and reinforce our karmic habits. Without guidance from people who have deep experience with practice our opinions can seduce us into thinking we have understanding. As for what this question calls religious trappings, these are simply practice forms that arose in order to provide a container for our practice, a container that is not dependent on our personal likes or dislikes, our opinions, or our ideas. The ones that have stuck around are the ones that people have found useful. In Buddhism these are called expedient means, and it is said that there are 84,000 expedient means. This means that there is a wide variety of forms and a wide variety of communities in which to practice — if one doesn’t happen to fit you, you can probably find another one that does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do I begin practicing Zen? Is there something I should do first?

The best way to start practice is… to start practice.  Yes, there are meditation forms to learn, bowing forms to learn, how to walk during walking meditation — we even have a form for holding the chanting book. These forms support our physical and mental stability. Most Zen centers have dedicated opportunities for beginners to learn their forms — ours is at 9 a.m. essentially every Sunday (unless there’s a retreat or ceremony). You can come and learn these forms and then stay for practice. No other preparation is necessary.

 

Where does Zen come from?

The word “Zen” comes from dhyana, a Sanskrit term for meditation. The various Buddhist schools we call Zen emphasize meditation more than the sutra study or devotional practices that characterize other schools of Buddhism

 

According to tradition, Zen comes from a long line of ancestors, starting with the Buddha, and was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma, the 27th ancestor in the lineage.

 

The Zen tradition developed in China in the 6th century, where it was known as Chan (the Chinese pronunciation of dhyana). There was strong mutual influence between Chan and Taoism. From China it went into Korea (where it was called Soen), from both Korea and China into Japan (where it was called Zen), and from China into Vietnam (where it was called Thien) — all of these names are local pronunciations of Chan. The first teachers of this tradition in America and Europe were from Japan, which is why we call it Zen.