Monday, November 22, 2010

Playing with Formal Buddhist Practice



I've grown quite fond of Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg, who's book Breath by Breath, about practicing with the Anapanasati Sutra, our sangha studied this fall. He seems to do a great job of balancing daily life and everyday practice, with the deeper wisdom of our tradition. I love that he has enough looseness around meditation retreat practice to both advocate for it, and also see that it's not the only way in. Brilliant!

During an interview Rosenberg gave several years back, he said the following:

The message of my own teaching involves a certain boldness or directness. My feeling is that a number of people who are strongly committed to meditation are afraid of life, or afraid of relationship, or afraid of work on some level. But in my view, dharma practice is not to hide. It is not to become a hothouse plant—thriving only in a protected environment—it is to jump into life.


I was quite afraid of my life when I began practicing Zen a little under nine years ago. And in the formal meditation and ritual-heavy environment I arrived in, it wasn't long before I dived into practice, and also into hiding behind beautiful Zen words, concepts, and hours of zazen. There's no regret left for those early years, but I can see how I believed that if I sat two hours a day, did retreats and all the classes offered, I'd somehow magically be transformed into a healthier, wiser person.

I discovered a few years ago that the daily life piece is not easy to teach. There is an intrinsic difficulty that comes from the fact that all these people are running around in a notoriously intellectual environment like Cambridge and are not meditating much. My job is to constantly remind them about dharma... dharma… dharma. But also many people basically lack conviction that daily life really and truly is as valuable as, say, the walking or sitting practice. And it is; it really is. It’s not better than. It is not worse than. It is just as much of a problem to set the spiritual life above daily life as it is to consider daily life the acid test for your spiritual practice. There’s just your life, period.


In recent years, I have given over to a lot of experimenting. It's become very clear to me that without some formal form of daily practice, things start to go to shit. But what does that formal form look like? This is where I'm not a purist you might say. One day last week, the formal form was 108 full bows, offering bodhisattva vows with each bow. It's a quite rigorous practice, one that doesn't allow for much wandering mind. (If you mind wanders much, you fall over while bowing, and forget to say the vows). Another day recently, I did chanting and kinhin (or walking) practice, saying the Jizo mantra with every step. Last night, I just sat an hour of zazen, nothing fancy at all.

I have come to feel that it's important to learn how to read where you actually are, and then have enough formal tools in your basket, so that you may give an appropriate response to the situation at hand. Chanting, bowing, kinhin, and zazen are all time-tested formal forms - each one a gate with a slightly different energy and quality to them. As Rosenberg suggests above, it's vital to have regular formal practice going on in your life. It's the balance point. What I'm offering is the element of play and experimenting, to take the various forms of your tradition, enter into each, and see what happens. One woman in or sangha has developed a rich Zen sewing practice, and is now studying with the wife of Katagiri Roshi, who also views sewing as a central practice.

There's a lot of other good stuff in the Rosenberg interview worth checking out. And his book is quite excellent; I highly recommend it.

But most of all on this Monday morning, I want to encourage you to experiment with your formal practice. To play with what you've been given. And in doing so, maybe it will soak into your bones in ways you can't even imagine.

6 comments:

kevin said...

Not that I don't think that you're on to something but "...I'd somehow magically be transformed into a healthier, wiser person." you don't think you have been?

Sure the magic wasn't effortless, and maybe there was a little overkill involved, but you don't think yourself any wiser or mentally healthier than you were before you started?

I may not have known you nine years ago, but in the time I've been reading your blog, you've seem to have made many breakthroughs and developed, or at least expressed many mature attitudes.

In the past few weeks I've added the ritual prostrations and chants done at the Zen Center to my morning zazen at home, so I can see where you're going with the experimentation.

I'll have to look into the book it sounds good.

Algernon said...

It's not magic, and it doesn't depend on the form. I think of the forms as an architecture, there to help us stop, stay put, drop what we're holding, and (to use a geographical metaphor that isn't really accurate) look "deeper" and find ways to let go of what we find there, and repeat, and repeat.

When Seung Sahn was leading retreats in the U.S., we came up with his own forms and stuck to them very conservatively. He did, on occasion, make rare individual modifications when something very challenging came up, using bows or extended walking.

Nathan said...

Kevin,

I'd say most of whatever has come in terms of "wiser and healthier" has been during the past 5 years, when my practice has been more "experimental." A mixture of going along exactly as it's been set up (such as during the jukai period and the little bit of retreat practice I've done) and "playing" - bus meditation, metta offerings while walking downtown, chanting while biking, etc.

That earlier, intense period probably was helpful as well, but if I had kept on like that, I would have left the practice all together long ago.

Algernon,

"When Seung Sahn was leading retreats in the U.S., we came up with his own forms and stuck to them very conservatively. He did, on occasion, make rare individual modifications when something very challenging came up, using bows or extended walking." Perhaps Seung Sahn wouldn't have been too keen on someone practicing like me. Although when I'm at the zen center, I do what is offered, without complaining or trying to change it. This post is more about practice outside of our zen centers and practice groups.

Nathan

Dean Crabb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, nice post!

"It's become very clear to me that without some formal form of daily practice, things start to go to shit."

Too true. More than anything this is what I've come to realise. Meditation is the glue that bind everything. Not only on the meditation mat, increasingly in the last few months, I've found that being mindful all day long has developed my mindfulness considerably.

The experimentation is something I've always done, my whole nature is geared towards reading something and then applying it practically. It is about developing one's own wisdom and understanding about the meditation practice. Not meaning to self plug, but this is why my whole blog is geared towards the exploration of meditation practice.

There is one important thing to say here. I was discussing this with Bhante Jag at Santi Forest Monastery on the weekend, in experimenting with meditation you have to try a technique for about 3 months to see and experience the results of it before you change techniques again. You can't chop and change too regularly or it becomes unfruitful practice.

With Metta
Dean Crabb
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com/

Nathan said...

"I was discussing this with Bhante Jag at Santi Forest Monastery on the weekend, in experimenting with meditation you have to try a technique for about 3 months to see and experience the results of it before you change techniques again."

This is a good point. It could sound like I'm chopping around a lot, but the experimenting I mentioned are practices I've been doing for awhile - some of them for years.

I'm glad you mentioned your discussion because it wasn't a clear point I made in the post, and it's quite true that this work needs time to sink in.

Nathan