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.

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.

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.