Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Being (Or Not Being) "The Good Zen Student"


Recently, I met with our head teacher to talk about my practice (as well as some zen center board-related issues. Fairly early on in the conversation, she asked me point blank,"Why don't you do 'group practice' anymore?" The question was followed by a number of possible reasons she had come up with, but at a certain point she stopped that and waited.

I paused. Looked inward a moment. And then said, "Well, I'm not sure what you said is true. I'm still coming to Sunday services. Attending classes when I can. Etc. What you're really asking about is sesshin, right?"

After confirming this, I basically responded, "I feel called to practice in the world right now." And then I went on to tell her about how, for example, I meditate and/or do chanting practice before (and sometimes during) protests and rallies. And that I do a lot of "public" zazen, meditating on buses, park benches, in fields, in my garden during spring and summer ...

But really, what it comes down to, is that for the most part, I'm over worrying about what constitutes "being a good Zen student."

For most of the past three or four years, I have been skipping out on retreat practice. I have done a few half day retreats and some more intense periods of practice with others at Zen Center, but none of the multiple day or week long sesshins. It's kind of blasphemous to admit, given that I've been on the path over a decade now, and past the kind of initial fears folks have about meditation retreats before experiencing a few of them.

Lately it has occurred to me that doing meditation retreats is something that many Buddhist communities - including my own - view as part of being a dedicated practitioner. Which is totally understandable. Buddha's path to enlightenment flowered open after intense, sustained meditation. However, "dedicated" is really just another word for "good" when you look at it closely.

For a long time, I got hooked when it came to wondering what my fellow dharma brothers and sisters were thinking about my absence from retreat practice. It's kind of silly - wanting to be "seen" as a "good student" - because in the end, Zen isn't about that at all. Being respected and elevated within a community doesn't mean squat when it comes to breaking through greed, hatred, and ignorance. And yet, like the rest of life, outward markers easily get mistaken for wisdom and depth.

It's so easy to forget all that when you've spent much of your life trying to be liked and cared for by others. I occasionally still get tripped up by this stuff when I'm at zen center, talking with my dharma friends.

Odds are, there will be another period in my life when lots of inward reflection and retreat practice of some sort will call me.

For now, I will go with what is moving me. This experiment of practicing in the middle of the swirl of daily life.

There's a natural ebb and flow movement between "inward" and "outward" that, once you recognize, you can allow yourself to move with it.

Form and emptiness, emptiness and form. Every breath can be a sesshin, if you allow it to be.

6 comments:

Robyn said...

Of course doing sesshin so as to be perceived as a "good" student is not really doing sesshin! But to not do sesshin because of some other fixed idea about ourselves...hmmm....sounds like the opposite side of the coin.

There is nothing especially meritorious about doing sesshin - we do it to do sesshin, nothing more, nothing less. How lucky we are to have this opportunity to practice like that! A rare thing indeed.

red shift said...

Lots of clueless prithagjanas (worldly people) practice sesshin. Many of them wear robes and shave their heads and lead sanghas. If the point of sesshin is that we already are the awakened Buddha mind, and have merely forgotten, to look at sesshin as a method is another form of attachment. Methods are conditions. Buddha mind is unconditioned.

Kogen 古 元 said...

“Separation between the two aspects of activity and stillness simply does not arise. This is harmonizing”

- Dogen Zenji


But can't dedicated just be dedicated, good and bad at the same time? Dedication reminds me of vow, and it's all that get's me moving some days. It's not for me who doesn't want to do it, or for me who does want to do it- I hope it's only a Buddha and a Buddha.

Nathan said...

"But can't dedicated just be dedicated"

Certainly. It's interesting. My dharma name translates to "Devoted to Enlightenment." Devoted. Dedicated. Very similar. Nothing wrong with the word, just how it sometimes gets distorted.

"But to not do sesshin because of some other fixed idea about ourselves..."

Maybe I have a fixed idea, maybe not. I'll keep investigating.

" Methods are conditions. Buddha mind is unconditioned."

Yes. This seems to be forgotten a lot of the time.

Helmut said...

"Every breath can be a sesshin, if you allow it to..."
That's absolute nonsense. Being fascile is a problem when trying to be honest with ones self and its very hard to let go of. I know.

Nathan said...

I can see plenty of ways that last statement could be misused. At the same time, I see no problem with it as it stands.

Thinking only in linear time is a major trap for us humans.