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Embracing Wholehearted Zen Practice: A Journey Through Ango

Ango practice period, which began on August 13 at Obon,  ended this past week on December 8th, Rohatsu, celebrating The Buddha’s enlightenment. Ango kindles a sense of dedication and a love for Zen practice. The term "wholeheartedness" encapsulates the essence of my Ango journey, yet I acknowledge that, like the ebb and flow of tides, my practice experienced moments of waxing and waning. Nevertheless, here I am, still hanging in there as we approach the conclusion of Ango, steadfast in my commitment to this practice. 

During the latter part of Ango, I started reading "Zen Odyssey: The story of Sokei- an, Ruth Fuller Sasaki and the Birth of Zen in America,"  by Janica Anderson and Steven Zahavi Schwart. I was surprised to read that Sokei-an didn’t offer zazen to the people who came to his weekly dharma talks. He didn’t think Americans could handle sitting in stillness and he was afraid he'd drive people away. Ruth Fuller Everett admonished her teacher, Sokai-an. In fact, they had quite a few heated discussions over this point of contention between them! Ruth emphasized the indispensable and foundational nature of Zazen, insisting that true understanding of Zen cannot be understood solely through dharma talks or literature. The wholehearted students, she assured, would be present. He relented, and indeed, they were. 

Wholehearted practice has been a recurring theme in my reflections during this Ango, and perhaps these words alone – "Wholehearted Practice" – invite us to think about the depth and sincerity of our commitment to the path each day. Norman Fisher's wisdom reminds us that even when we can offer only a fraction of our heart, we should do so wholeheartedly, without self-judgment, always aiming for complete dedication.

In my journal entry from August 13, during Obon, I expressed a desire to embrace Ango with wholehearted practice. Maezumi-roshi said, “Being fully present in our actions embodies the liberated mind.”  He also encouraged us to become one with whatever we do.

In Dogen’s Shobogenzo, the fascicle Bendowa underscores the idea that the inconceivable and vast dharma exists within each of us, but requires practice and realization for it to be actualized in our lives. Enlightenment exists within every individual, yet it is through wholehearted practice and experience that the dharma becomes tangible and transformative.

Although Dogen's teachings in Bendowa center around Zazen practice, we can see the significance of both stillness and mindful activity in gaining clarity. Zazen provides stillness for the mind, and mindful daily activities (as Dogen established at Eihei-ji) offer to still the mind and bring peace, and clarity. Both are essential to identify and overcome obstacles to liberation - the mental habits that cause suffering.

The historical background of Bendowa, written by Dogen at age 32 after returning from China, reveals his zeal for introducing Zazen to a country unfamiliar with the practice. He was eager to share what he had learned. Although his earliest writing, it was not discovered until the 1600s in a temple in Kyoto.  Many believe that this little fascicle contains the core of the entire Shobogenzo.  

While "Bendo" literally means Zazen, a more expansive interpretation might be "training." This aligns with the broader perspective of Zen practice, where life itself becomes the ground for training. Zen is life. Daido Loori's Eight Gates of Zen offer a holistic approach to the Wholehearted Way, a path for spiritual practice, and is still today the basis for training monastic and lay people at Zen Mountain Monastery. 

  • Zazen: The foundation of practice, providing stillness for the mind.

  • Dokusan or Sanzen: Face-to-face meetings for raising questions arising from practice.

  • Buddhist Academic Study: Well-rounded study in both classical and modern topics.

  • Liturgy: Chanting with wholeheartedness to connect with the sacred.

  • Right Action: Practicing the Buddha Way through precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Art Practice: Contemplative practices such as traditional drawings or even cooking.

  • Body Practice: Caring for the body through Tai Chi, Martial Arts, walking, or yoga.

  • Work Practice: Extending spiritual practice into everyday life, including careers and volunteering.

As we celebrate and express gratitude to the Great Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha, let us remember his perseverance under the Fig tree.  His wholehearted search and practice offers us a road map - a way to alleviate our (mostly) self-imposed suffering. May we, too, wholeheartedly practice, on our cushions and off, and diligently work to manifest our own inherent enlightenment. May we each be a blessing.

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