Zen for Beginners

An Introduction to Zen

by Anne Rudloe

This selection is from "Butterflies on Sea Wind: Beginning Zen" by Anne Rudloe, Ph.D., Abbot Cypress Tree Zen Group, Kwan Um School of Zen. It is available in bookstores or it can be ordered directly from Amazon.com or from the publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, Mo.

Many of us today are over stretched, trying to balance too many things. We all want to be happy but too often it's out there, somewhere over the horizon, something we'll get to in the future. When things don't work out in accordance with our desires, we move on, change partners, change jobs, or trade in whatever isn't right for a better model. It's always easier to keep moving than to stop and face the fundamental questions -- Who am I? What is really happening here?

Spiritual practice is the quest to answer these questions. It is both the highest adventure that life offers and simultaneously the most intimate of all human activities. A journey through all the nooks and crannies of the human experience, spiritual inquiry is the effort to connect with a larger reality, to master the self and its endless puzzles and boundaries. It's the never-ending question of "What is this? What's the point? Why am I here?" that won't go away or be ignored.

Zen practice is a powerful method of spiritual exploration. Even though Zen originated in Asian monasteries over 1000 years ago, this spiritual path is still relevant today. It can help us to maintain a viable balance between our personal needs, career obligations, and the deep-seated need to understand our role in a vast and starry universe.

Zen is not based on faith in any revealed truth or dogma but in the direct immediate experience of our own lives. Zen means to sit with an open heart, asking --Who am I? What am I? What is it to be human? What is our relationship to this shining universe?

In Zen meditation, we learn to be still and allow the neglected intuitive forms of consciousness to operate. To do that, we first learn to pay attention, to be fully present in each moment and aware of the nuances of life. It takes a while, but every bit of improvement in this skill is a wonderful gift we give ourselves each day. And it's done by relaxing, not by forcing. When it doesn't have a specific job, we let the mind rest quietly rather than chatter compulsively to itself, endlessly raking through its collection of possessions, desires, likes and dislikes, plans and memories. Achieving that quiet mind isn't quick or easy. The mind dearly loves to talk to itself.

Nevertheless, if we persist, this practice can dissolve our ignorance and the confusion and pain that ignorance inevitably brings. And once all that is gone, then happiness and peace are simply there. We begin to live with more clarity and to act with more compassion toward all of our fellow beings. In time, the clarity may get a little worn and frayed so then we come back to the meditation hall and work under retreat conditions to restore it.

Like science, Zen practice is a way of trying to comprehend the larger reality that exists beyond our personal affairs. Unlike science, however, Zen is equally concerned with human affairs, does not try to divorce the humanity of the observer from the rest of the universe being observed. It focuses precisely on the relationship of the individual to everything else, asks the question `what is a human being's job in this vast and starry universe?'

Beginning Zen practice as a lay person through a series of small retreats interspersed with affairs of work and family is the path most American Zen students encounter. Most of us will not do the long years of intensive practice necessary to become a Zen Master. However we can use the powerful techniques of Zen practice to make our lives more whole and sacred and to find our Way in the midst of our daily lives.

The centuries old monastic practices of Zen are designed to realize the intense focus and energy that is inherent within each of us. We preserve and use these techniques in formal retreats. But meditation is not some kind of self -centered spiritual hobby. How to apply what we have learned in retreats and what to do with it will come to us after we have come home again. We learn to bring the focused attention that we've practiced in retreats to other activities in our lives. Instead of the traditional monastic lifestyle, the circumstances of our own individual lives provide the raw material for spiritual growth.

Beginning a Zen practice can be a sink or swim business. Books on Zen philosophy don't often give much indication of what it's like to actually sit down on a meditation cushion and begin to practice. Reading about Buddhist or Zen philosophy divorced from practice is a recent western innovation. For the first time in the long history of the Zen tradition, teachings are widely available in print and huge numbers of people are literate and can study them privately. This is a huge shift from previous generations when serious in depth teaching was always included within the context of intensive meditation retreats and monastic practice.

While this shift makes these concepts much more widely available than they ever were before, there is also a need to be careful. It's beneficial to read, study and discuss ideas and philosophy, but if that's all one does, it's rather like reading the label on a medicine bottle and debating what it says but never taking the medicine. Serious Zen practice includes meditation, precepts, chanting, and engagements with a deeply realized and experienced teacher who can see and challenge all of the ego's endless protective games and encourage the student to maintain a deeply questioning mind of humility and openness.

Yet, in the west today it is very common for people to refuse to consider the possibility that there could be anything gained by studying with a teacher or using traditional techniques in developing a spiritual practice. Many people read books about Zen, but only a few actually practice in a rigorous setting and almost nobody trusts a teacher enough to work with them long term, in a one-on-one relationship.

There are several possible reasons for such reluctance. Modern western culture is extraordinarily individualistic. Perhaps we fear the intimacy required in a relationship with a spiritual mentor. Sometimes our egos can be affronted at the idea that there is anything we can learn from anybody else on such a personal matter, or at the idea that our personal situation could be in any way similar to someone else. Many people may distrust their ability to distinguish a true teacher from the hordes of self-serving spiritual hustlers who are unquestionably out there. We may respect academic or scientific credentials and expertise because we have some understanding of what those credentials mean. However, we may distrust spiritual credentials because we don't understand what they represent in terms of training.

Nevertheless, after doing some reading, we may finally decide to jump in and sign up for an Zen retreat. There, more often than not, the rationale for the methods used is not explained and a group of strangers sitting in silence may seem intimidating and unwelcoming. The schedule is exhausting and it may seem impossible to survive the day. In addition, traditional Zen teachings, which come from a monastic tradition, often have little to say about the primary issues most of us face today such as earning a living and raising a family. It's not surprisingly that many beginners flounder in confusion and frustration and then give up.

Nevertheless, despite the steep learning curve at the beginning, it is well worthwhile to keep trying. Sometimes a moment of clarity and spiritual awareness arises in the midst of daily living, spontaneously, unexpectedly shimmering like a spring flowing deep in the forest. Compared to that, formal Zen practice is rather like drilling a well. It works, it finds water too, but it works slowly, painfully, and requires enormous effort and commitment. Not a very good method, compared to finding a spring. But those springs rarely appear for most of us. If we want to reach the water, maybe we better start drilling.

Staring at that silence and stillness long enough, merging with it, we eventually come to realize that the answers to our questions are within that stillness. We don't penetrate the silence, it penetrates and dissolves us. Once that experience begins to occur, continued practice widens and deepens it. We practice because our lives are beginning to work better. We realize that everything is our teacher, if we just pay attention. And we discover that there is no conclusion to Zen practice.

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