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.