Updated: Oct 9, 2022
Last week, as I was excitedly talking to my Zen teacher about the Fall and Winter Schedule at Rising Lotus Sangha, I had a moment of awakening. As I was chattering on, she patiently waited until I came up for air. She then very gently told me two things: 1. You’re serving your Sangha well. (Thank -you🙏)
2. Don’t forget to keep it simple.
That reminder is a blessing. We read and study so much in Zen, but at its core,
our practice is simple:
Sit down. Be quiet. Breathe. Do this for 20-30 minutes. Repeat.
Isn’t reading, studying, and discussing Zen texts important?
Here is Dogen (founder of the Soto-Zen school of Buddhism) on this subject:
“Nothing can be gained by extensive study and wide reading. Give them up immediately.”
He wrote this in The Primer of Soto-Zen. Many of Dogen’s writings are peppered with instructions to stop the study, don’t be concerned with how much you (or other people) know, and just practice Zazen. I totally agree with this teaching, but I have to chuckle because this is the dude that wrote what would become Shobogenzo, which is one of the great Zen bodies of work we study!
To get lost in studying all the books though, is to miss the point. I think this is what he meant. Don’t worry so much about the books and all the stuff (incense, bells, fancy cushions, etc.), especially in the beginning.
In the beginning, just carve out a little bit of space. This space can be in the corner of a room. Just a place to come away from the busy-ness around us, and then 'just' learn to sit in silence. It’s harder than you think. Most of us don’t like silence or sitting still for any length of time. Many people try it once or twice and give up.
When I work with people who are new to the practice, I tell them to start slowly:
Start with five minutes. Find a sitting group. There’s an energy, a camaraderie or connection we find when we practice together. In Zen, we call this Sangha (community).
Even when established sitters find that they are falling out of sitting practice they can return to basics and build back up to 20 minutes. We acknowledge that life ebbs and flows. We don't overly judge ourselves, just realign ourselves with Right, keeping it simple.
What does all of this “just sitting” do for us?
Looking at Dogen again; his chapter of Shobogenzo called 'Fukan Zazengi' or 'The Universal Recommendations For Zazen':
"Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now. …”
So again, he tells us to stop with the studying and just be. Take the backward step, I think this is the thing we resist the most. We want to go forward, do more, learn more, be more, say more. He tells us to stop and simply sit down, be quiet, and look inside. Be with yourself, no matter who that is in the moment.
Give it at least five minutes. You might be surprised. If you hang in there, just breathe and sit. Let any emotions, anxiety or antsiness just abide… just let them be there - but you don’t have to react to them. You don’t have to do anything.
In a few minutes, you might feel your shoulders relax. You might feel a release of sorts - a calmness take over your body and mind.
This is what “just sitting”, the practice of Zazen does for us. It allows us to be in the present, with whatever is, without reacting to it.
We’re aware of and acknowledge the reality of our circumstances. It’s just that in these moments, during Zazen, we don’t have to react. And if we practice this consistently, the hope is there will be a change in the way we deal with the reality of our lives. The good stuff and the not-so-good stuff.
So, the heart of our practice is to just sit - and we should remember that
And get out of our own way, and stop complicating things. Keep it simple.
Check our YouTube channel (and subscribe!) to watch a live panel discussion on starting a home practice and subscribe to our blog. Next week I’ll be posting about how to take what we learn from Zazen out into the real world.
May we all be a blessing