The word Zen conjures up a variety of ideas in our culture. It sounds exotic, yet at the same time “Zen” is commonly used as an adjective to describe feeling relaxed (I’m feeling really zen after my massage) or a skill that requires focus (zen and the art of….). In fact, the word itself derives from the Chinese Chan to simply mean the practice of meditation. However, Zen is not just any kind of meditation. It involves specific tools and techniques, carefully designed by trial and error, over hundreds of years to help a person awaken to their true nature. If you read Zen literature, that is the stories of masters and their disciples, generally collected as koans (public cases), you can often see evidence of a teacher’s efforts to find the right tool to awaken his or her students or a student begging a teacher to give them the push needed to “break through.” What is this all about? What is this break through, what does it mean to awaken?
What is the Purpose of Zen Practice?
While any practice of meditation can train the mind, can train a person to concentrate better, or to relax and let go of concerns and tensions, in addition to these benefits, Zen has a specific intent. This intent is to aid a person to awaken to their true nature, to see themself clearly. Dogen Zenji, the Zen master who brought Soto Zen to Japan, famously said:
To study the Way is to study one’s own self.
To study one’s own self is to forget one’s own self.
To forget one’s own self is to be enlightened by the myriad dharmas.
To be enlightened by the myriad dharmas is to let one’s own mind and body as well as that of all others fall off.
The myriad dharmas here refers to “all the things of the world”. When you forget yourself, even the feel of your dog’s cold nose against your hand or the sight of leaf drifting in the breeze can shift your awareness out of an ordinary state of mind. The ordinary state of mind is one where what we see and hear is conditioned by our expectations and beliefs rather than what is truly before us.
What Methods are Used in Zen
I cannot enumerate here all the various methods of Zen but there are a few that are universal and a few that are very common. The following are methods or characteristics that must be present for something to truly be considered Zen practice.
- Regular Zazen (sitting meditation)
- The guidance of an authorized teacher, fitted to the individual
- Regular dokusan (private encounters) with that teacher
- Aspiration (the pull that holds a student to their practice)
- A Sangha (the group of people practicing under the guidance of a teacher who support each other’s practice and share their energy (joriki))
There are other methods that are almost always present but their emphasis, frequency and role vary depending on the school of practice, the teacher’s own experience and the needs of their students.
- Weekly Zazen with the Sangha
- Public dharma talks (teishos)
- Longer periods of Sangha practice from a partial day (Zazenkai) to several days (Sesshin) with a variety of activities (Zazen, Kinhin [walking meditation], chanting, teishos, dokusan, physical work etc).
- Use of Koans
There are hundreds of other techniques a Zen guide may draw upon to help a student breakthrough. A good teacher will bring forth whatever technique is apt based on their checking of that student during dokusan. One other element that is a crucial sign of authentic Zen practice is joy. This practice is difficult, even painful at times, but it connects one to a deep fount of joy.
Can Zen be practised without a teacher?
One of the hallmarks of Zen practice is dokusan, the private encounter between a student and teacher. The purpose of dokusan is for the teacher to check the student’s state of mind in order to guide their practice and to point out misunderstandings. It is similar to when a doctor checks a patient’s pulse before prescribing medicine. Except, that is it not possible to check oneself without many decades of practice under a clear teacher first.
While these days, many people read about Zen and try to practice on their own, they will invariably invent ideas about what they have read that lead to misunderstanding. In fact, even in Zen literature, one can read about great personages who started out on their own, practicing for many years but then met their teacher and discovered they had completely misunderstood. Of course, this also happens under the guidance of a teacher. It is another characteristic of Zen practice to be willing to let go of what you think you know about the practice and realize “I have completely misunderstood everything!” I myself have had this experience 3 or 4 times over the course of my thirty-five + years of practice. Without a teacher, I would not have realized my error.
Can Zen be taught virtually?
There is a great experiment underway right now which may answer that question. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the regular in person activities of most Sanghas have been put on hold, interrupted or postponed in most countries for most of the last eight months. Sanghas all over the world are meeting virtually, holding regular Zazen, Zazenkai and even multi-day Sesshins, with teachers offering teishos and dokusan through various virtual platforms.
It seems evident that there is some benefit to this activity. It appears to be much better than no events at all. In fact, it has some benefits over in person events in allowing more people to participate despite distance or health issues. There is something wonderful about doing Zazen with people from across the globe. However, there is also no question in my mind that it is not as effective as in person encounters. I can think of dozens of experiences that were pivotal to my own practice that could not have happened virtually.
What we don’t know yet is how much is being lost by not being able to meet in person. Are some people being disadvantaged (new students for example, or those who interact differently with technology?) It will take much time for this to become clear. In the meantime, my advice is to take advantage of the virtual opportunities but seek an authorized teacher near where you live so that when the pandemic is over, you will have an opportunity to work together in person as well.