Saturday, October 18, 2014

Zazen in the Modern Age

Finding time for zazen is a challenge while living in the modern world. However, since few of us can retreat to a monastery to pursue our studies, we must find ways to do so within 'the real world'. This is especially important for anyone who – like me – leans towards the Soto school, which stresses the primacy of zazen in Zen practice.

One of the hurdles many people may face is finding the 'right' place in which to sit. There is tendency to gravitate towards a quiet spot outdoors or a room where we can listen to special music or a table where we have candles and a Buddha statue. Time of day can have an impact too, as we tend to prefer sitting when outside noise or interruptions are at a minimum. These preferences partly stem from popular images about what serious meditation looks like. However the preferences also arise because, when we first learn to sit in zazen, it's easier to do so in a controlled environment. After a while, this preference becomes habit and then hardens into practice.

The problem with this is that zazen is how we learn to discipline the mind. As a result, we should be developing the discipline to sit in zazen and reach samadhi in less than ideal situations. If we never learn to do so without pretty candles, the right music, and/or total quiet, then we clearly are not developing much control over our mind and thoughts. It isn't really zazen. It's an emotional indulgence with no more spiritual power than getting a foot massage, taking a hot bath, or indulging in a chocolate dessert. These activities also induce a sense of peace or happiness, but they do not teach mental discipline or help us get to Everyday Zen.  

Candles, music, lighting, and favored quiet spots are crutches. They can be justified - perhaps - for the beginner but, as we learn to discipline our minds, we shouldn’t need the cooperation of the world to practice. We shouldn’t need do-dads or gizmos or pretty sounds to create the right ambiance or 'get in the mood'. A fundamental point of Zen is that our environment does not dictate our mental state; we do! So, ultimately, a truly disciplined practitioner would be able to sit in zazen and achieve samadhi with bugs crawling all over them, a jack hammer rattling away, and the smell of garbage wafting about. 

My arrival at this realization was probably very atypical. It happened because my first experience with the power of zazen occurred almost twenty years ago, long before I was a Zen Buddhist or had engaged in any form of meditation. Far from being achieved while I was sitting in a quiet room with wind chimes tinkling around me, my first conscious experience of samadhi was while I was sweaty and gross and in the middle of practicing karate in a dojo.

So here's the story. In the dojo, our sensei would have us do forms - that is, a specified series of blocks, kicks, and punches done in smooth succession. He'd correct or make us start over again depending on any errors we made, because we had to get the forms right to be allowed to test for the next belt. As a student new to martial arts, I really had to focus because it's not just doing the moves in the right order but making sure form is correct throughout: How's the angle of my back foot? Is my fist at the right height when I punch? Are my fingers making a correct fist? Am I facing the correct direction? You get the idea; it's a lot to get right over the course of ten to twenty moves.

One day, I came to the dojo pissed off (about what I can't remember). I was steamed and annoyed and tense, and I'd been that way most of the day. After class, though, I had completely calmed down. I had simply stopped thinking about and feeling about whatever it was that had riled me. Obviously, the physical exertion of practicing karate was an outlet that must have helped. But, as I thought about it while leaving the dojo, I realized what had really led to my change of mood was not a gradual change due to physical exertion. It was a relatively quick change that occurred while I had been practicing forms.

What happened? The focus required to do forms in the proper manner forced me to rein in my mind. Instead of letting external situations and my emotions dictate my mental state and carry me away, I was focused on what I was doing in the moment...and nothing else. There was no past, there was no future. All I was concerned with was my forms. And it was a healthy focus. I was not worried about doing well, stressed about it, or anything like that. The focus of my mind was simply limited to the action of the moment. In fact, while I was very alert about what I was doing, I'm not sure I was thinking about anything at all.

As I walked home, totally sweaty and tired, I nevertheless felt mentally reinvigorated and was very happy. At the time, I'd read a tiny bit about meditation though I knew nothing about Zen Buddhism. I specifically remember thinking as I walked home that "there's something to this" and that I needed to explore it.

So I learned very early that we can practice zazen and reach samadhi in non-traditional environments, and we don't necessarily need a ton of training to do it. Doing it is important, not only for ensuring we really are learning to discipline our minds, but that we can practice Everyday Zen. So if it's hard to find time to sit in zazen, think about some time during the day that may not seem ideal but that actually should be. Getting off the bus a few stops early to walk, eating lunch at your desk, sitting on the train. And, importantly, don't mourn about the noise and distractions around you. Use them to help you hone your discipline. 

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