Introduction to Zen Meditation

Posted by on May 15, 2013 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Introduction to Zen Meditation

Talk given by Lee Shields – May 12, 2013

Bloedel Reserve Japanese Garden

Bloedel Reserve Japanese Garden

Welcome to those of you new to Three Treasures (TTS), to Zen, and welcome to all my old friends in the dharma, joining again for a day of Zazen – Zen meditation. In my talk today I wanted to specifically offer an introduction to this practice of Zen that has meant much to me in my life. While my remarks are intended for people new to our group or new to Zen, I will leave it to old friends to see if you can find anything of use to you as well. I think there is some value to sometimes reflect on things we’ve done for a long time to note the motivations we have now taken for granted. Motivation is important too, even if the information is not new. I’d like to touch on two general topics: How do we practice Zen, why do we practice Zen. Let me start with how. Already this morning we’ve all had a crash course or review in the “how” of our practice, that is, the forms and rituals that are the observable manifestation of practice. Our form may appear to be foreign; in fact in many cases it is. Much of what we do has been passed down from generations of Zen students in other times and countries. But I suspect every corner of our practice has also been adapted in small steps along the way. There is nothing magic in our turning clockwise in the dojo, or even in bowing. The forms may appear mysterious, daunting, and I hope also lovely. As a practical matter, the forms support us in doing Zazen together while maintaining simplicity. Wooden clappers announce that a period is about to begin, so we prepare. With three bells the timekeeper lets us know a sitting period has begun. Two bells informs us that the period has ended and it’s time for kinhin, walking meditation. All day we respond to the signals from the timekeeper, the chant leader, the cooks, and others. At retreats sometimes it has seemed to me we are all part of an exquisitely slow choreography, in which the light and shadows moving across the floor from morning to night set the time scale of the day. The ritual helps to create an atmosphere minimizing external distraction. There is infrequent need for interruption or talking to keep us on track. At least after a while, questions are few, so our focus on Zazen can remain. That isn’t to say there is anyone in the room remains focused through a day, let alone, a single period. We all have the capacity for distraction, due to the car going by, our personal to-do list, or regret list, and whatever we think of how someone else in the room is doing it wrong. Still, the form itself can be something of a given, here for our benefit. The ritual is also a personal practice. It is a reminder to focus, like the counting is to breath-counting practice. We all make mistakes with ritual just as we all become distracted. I think it’s safe to say that all of us leading the rituals can be counted on to miss a step here and there. After publically missing a step, it is then our practice to return to the next movement, bell, breath, as called for in the next moment. We practice ritual the same way we do breathe counting; if we lose count, there is no need for recriminations or self-doubt, returning to one is all that is necessary. It is still helpful to try and learn the form, but it seems to me that in our culture we more often are unnecessarily harsh about mistakes than we are unnecessarily lax in trying. There is another benefit from the form that arose for me over time, and I expect it would for others as well. Many times over the years I entered different places of Zazen, looked to a figure on the altar, whether Buddha, or the Bodhisattva of compassion as we have, or others, and then I sat down, settled, and often relaxed, sometimes felt a deeper falling away. When I started I wouldn’t have guessed that now just seeing the face of a Buddha or Bodhisattva anywhere affects me like the ringing of a bell to begin the sitting. It is no longer the calm face of the image, but my face. Bowing is then a natural response. But bowing is also problematic for many from Judeo-Christian backgrounds. And I recognize that I’ve been shamelessly using the word many times in this talk. If any here are disturbed by bowing, please bring it up in the discussion so we can see how people in the room have worked with it. More fundamentally, though, the ritual is not for any purpose. When entering the dojo, I bow, no more, no less. No need to define it as ritual or not, right or wrong. Each step in kinhin, each syllable of each chant, the sound of each bell is complete and an expression of true nature. Which leads me directly into the next topic: why practice Zazen, why do any of this? Why Practice? I would not want to presume to answer for anyone here, but I will offer some thoughts on a couple of common reasons people are drawn here, or to any of the contemplative practices in town. I know a lot of people that seek meditation for relaxation. The busier and more demanding our lives get, the harder it is to find pockets of peace and ease without putting it on the calendar. When time is tightly scheduled, it is easy to fill our days with all those measurable tasks that can be observed and named, laundry, shopping for food, cooking, cleaning, work, helping family members and friends, paying bills, as well as showering, flossing teeth, and sleeping. When these things become the warp and weft of life, having a quiet time, for Zazen can bring a necessary balance. What more culturally radical activity can we have than to set aside a period of time to unplug, do something that can’t be measured, and which releases the ubiquitous demands upon us? Our culture is very good at doing things, encouraging us all to do things, some obligatory, some wonderful. Our culture seems to be less good at “being.” To take time, sit Zazen, and relax can be an act of faith. It requires faith that those things we would think are critical that we do right now, can actually wait. At least some of that faith is needed in ourselves; we have to believe that we’ll be able to take care of things well enough even if we take time to relax. If we don’t believe we can take even a few minutes to take a break reasonably frequently, it may be worth asking, is that really true? When it first occurred to me to find a meditation practice, it was not the need for relaxation that drew me, though. It was a different time of my life when I was not so heavily scheduled, and did not have many obligations. But at the time, my idea of my place in the world, who I was, crashed, and with it, all senses of meaning and purpose for life. I know I’m not alone in that experience. We can arrive at a crossroads of meaning from many directions. Some people may have this experience after being fired, or divorced, or when recognizing a weakness kept long hidden from one’s self. Or the opposite – after reaching goals long imagined, now what? Was it all I hoped? I know people who found themselves here through illness that led to the loss of functions central to their senses of their place in the world – a physician losing the needed dexterity for his specialty; a woman with cancer accustomed to caring for others now needing caretaking; a man no longer able to make a living because of change of an industry or health; someone in pain all or part of the day; someone who lost the ability to walk, or use a bathroom without assistance. Maybe there are some (other) cultures in which children grow up without learning rules about who they are supposed to be, but not ours, I think. There was a Monday morning years ago when, Craig, a friend and colleague showed up at work with a troubled expression. He said he watched his son play on a baseball team over the weekend; his son have been about 10 or 12 at the time. His son struck out, and for the first time, shrank inward with shame. Until that time he said his son was disappointed, frustrated, but not ashamed. Craig was clearly grieving that his son lost a kind of innocence and joined the rest of us in measuring ourselves as sufficient and insufficient. We all learn things like, I should be kind, strong, thoughtful, in control, successful, forgiving, knowledgeable, gracious in failure, gracious in success, expressive. Perhaps it’s even a good list, of things you value and to which you aspire. But none of us is any of these all the time. Zen practice does help some people to better satisfy their lists some of the time. It doesn’t directly assist us in these goals, but it can do so by helping us to release them (and free us). Releasing ideas about who we are can leave enough room for us each to recognize true nature. Sometimes thoughtful, but regrettably perhaps, sometimes not so much.  Sometimes strong, and sometimes vulnerable, weak. In writing about why we practice, the founding teacher in our lineage, Robert Aitken said the “engine of practice” is Bodhichitta; “Bodhichitta is the aspiration for realization, the aspiration to understand the wisdom of the world and to take it upon one’s own shoulders.” When we focus on just this breath, just one, just two, just this bow, from time to time we see beyond concept and word, as it is, whether we are aware of it or not. What is the nature of this experience? Our ancestors over and over again sought ways to express the question and answers to it. There is a collection of such exchanges between ancient followers of the way that has been passed down to us that is called the Gateless Barrier. They are stories of our ancestors, and they are koans, a part of our practice for students who choose to work with them; koans call for an intimate response rather than intellectual understanding. Case 32 in the Gateless Barrier involves a question put to the mythical Buddha, and it goes like this:

An outsider asked the World-Honored One: “I do not ask for the spoken; I do not ask for the unspoken.” The World-Honored One just sat still. The outsider praised him, saying, “The World-Honored One with his great compassion and mercy has opened the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.” he then made bows and took his leave. Ananda asked, “What did that outsider realize to make him praise you?” The World-Honored One said, “He is like the fine horse who runs even at the shadow of the whip.”[1]

And another example can be found in a passage of the sutra we just chanted, from DAI-O KOKUSHI: ON ZEN:

There is a reality even prior to heaven and earth; Indeed, it has no form, much less a name; Eyes fail to see it; it has no voice for ears to detect. To call it Mind or Buddha violates its nature, For it then becomes like a visionary flower in the air. It is not Mind, nor Buddha; Absolutely quiet and yet illuminating in a mysterious way, It allows itself to be perceived only by the clear-eyed.

The text points to an experience available to each of us right now, in each sound, scent, and thought. And at the same time enticing us with something for which to aspire. And it warns us about bringing words and conceptualizations to bear on the fundamental experience in question, even using Buddhist terms in a Buddhist context. Then, later in the same sutra, we are told something about the path by which we can personally attest to this experience:

It is Dharma, truly beyond form and sound; It is Tao, having nothing to do with words. Wishing to entice the blind, The Buddha has playfully let words escape his golden mouth; Heaven and earth are ever since filled with entangling briars. O my good worthy friends gathered here, If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma, Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts, For then you may come to recognize this one essence.

Herein is the heart of Zazen. Each moment we focus on the task, we sit, walk, cook, eat, garden, and clean, and with that focus exhaust words, like sit, walk, cook, eat, garden, and clean. Each activity is enough, is IT, is both the aspiration and the goal. As I was walking to my office this week I saw a couple individuals with intense focus. There is a house on my way that has chickens in the yard, milling, about, colorful, and clucking. There at the fence were two kids maybe 2 or 3 years old transfixed by these creatures, gleeful and in awe. It seemed their parents were no longer in their awareness, it was just chickens. Perhaps to act on this aspiration for realization we need another kind of faith: faith that each of us has the capacity to realize true nature. By the way, I know some people have disturbing associations with the word “faith,” triggering old and hurtful memories of religions perceived as judgmental, or exclusionary. In our context today, “faith” can be replaced by “trust” as well, and the meaning is not lost. Coming back to the faith/trust in the ability we each have, I would offer several things. First, the Zen tradition has been transmitted across the world and through centuries based on that premise and its existence here is testimony to its truth. Second, try it. You don’t have to trust me, or trust the tradition. Engage in your own sitting practice and see in your own body if you can tell the direction this practice leads you. Third, remember it. I suspect you’ve had experiences of focus like those children – where everything else fell away and you were no longer measuring in your mind, no longer separate. Where you were intimately engaged with your surroundings. We are not doing anything esoteric here, just setting the conditions to foster the experience to which you aspire, or the awareness that it is right here, always available. Make it your own Early this morning we talked about the very specifics of how we practice Zen here at Three Treasures, in the tedious detail of choreographed moves in the dojo. Early in this talk I spoke of how the form strengthens our practice. Then I spoke of why we practice, for relaxation, for freedom, as an expression of our aspiration for realization, and as the expression of true nature. But I could see how this could be perceived as a strait jacket, or oppressive in its demands. Before closing my remarks and opening for discussion, let me address this – I don’t believe it has to be that way. As we’ve said many times today, you are not expected to remember all – or any – of the myriad of rituals we have demonstrated. We fully expect that every one of us forgets various aspects, and everyone just spaces out. Please feel free to learn your way, overtime, watching others and making mistakes. Ask questions, we will offer suggestions, and all of it is Zazen. It is Zazen whether messy or pretty. Let me add two stories. The first is about the mythical Buddha; he was asked by a musician how he should apply his mind to meditation. The Buddha asked how the musician tuned his stringed instrument. “Not too tight, not too loose,” the musician answered. The Buddha said, “That is how you should use your mind in meditation.” Apply yourself to the form and the breath-counting with this middle-road attitude. I also note that every musician when tuning has to go back and forth between too tight and too loose to find attunement. Let yourself experiment to find your appropriate effort. Though no matter the effort, be kind to yourself; this is a practice that takes time and it has seemed to me that people are always surprised at how distracted their minds are. Don’t be discouraged. The second story occurred a couple of decades ago after a retreat I did in southern California with Maezumi Roshi. There I met a woman who told me she felt about the practice there just as I described a couple of minutes ago – she was chafing at it, it was foreign and restrictive, and felt to her to be externally imposed. She went to Maezumi Roshi in Dokusan – individual interview – and told him of her perceptions, ready to quit forever. Telling me the story she imitated Maezumi Roshi’s manner and accent and related his response. With a kind manner he nodded his head and said, “Hmmm…I see, I understand. Go back to the dojo and do it completely your way!” She was shocked, but understood him to say she should continue to follow the form, but within it she was absolutely free to find her way to make it her own. She told me the story 10 years after her exchange with Maezumi Roshi and she was still there; she did make it her own. I’ve heard Zen described before as a disciplined body and a free mind – there is something fitting about that. I offer the story to you as well so that you can make this practice completely your own. The Japanese Haiku poet, Basho, wrote:

At our moon viewing party, not a single beautiful face

Basho was able to enjoy the moment with friends, each just as they were. With humor and it seems to me, affection, he was able to observe the moon, himself, and companions, with no gilding needed.  Nothing I have said should be taken to mean any of us has to be more than he or she is, quite the contrary. Forgetting the self leaves only this body, this mind, this… no more, no less. I include the haiku in our introductory talk because I’ve been struck more and more in recent years as to how deeply self-doubt and shame run through so many of us growing up in the United States. For the practice of Zen, let me say two things succinctly: You are not alone in your doubts. At one time or another I suspect most people in the room have taken a turn thinking he or she is the worst Zen student ever. Secondly, when it is your turn, you can smile to yourself for the uncomfortable folly of it all, and bring your attention back to the breath without need to further comment or resolve. No need to worry about the truth of the feeling – there is a lot of competition. As you sit, there is no need to extinguish the thoughts that arise, abandon them instead, place your attention on the counting of your breath. It is the returning to the breath that is important, not so much the concentration. Even if you never get to 5! Don’t worry about it, just return as soon as you notice you’re mind has wandered. I even had months when my mind was constantly distracted for reasons I could not fathom. Persisting through it, sitting anyway, only after dull and seemingly fruitless months, could I tell something was happening all that time. Only then could I see it was like practicing a tennis serve. Your body learns with each serve even if we can’t see what’s going on. I will stop here today. Please, ask any questions you have about things I’ve said today, the practice, or anything else.

[1] Case 32 of the Gateless Barrier, translation by Robert Aitken.