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.

Upcoming events

We just finished our one-day September retreat. October is a quiet month, just regular practice, but November 20 – 22 we’ll have a two-day retreat with Zen Master Hae Kwang, we’re having a Buddha’s Enlightenment Day ceremony on December 13, and we’re very excited about a class on the meaning of our chants, the morning of Saturday December 19, with Zen Master Hae Kwang. Check our schedule for more details on all of these events.