“Zen practice” as we define it includes not just zazen (sitting meditation) but all of the other aspects of Buddhist practice such as chanting, prostrations, sutra study, and the like. We also incorporate important practices from the Mahayana school (of which Zen is one sect), the Theravada school (the oldest school) and the Pure Land sect because “zen” means “meditation” or “mental cultivation” and a zen practice is thus not limited to the practices of the Zen sect.
Eihei Dogen spoke out against Zen teachers of his day who were combining the teachings of other Buddhist schools with Zen, insisting that Zen students should practice zazen exclusively. But to focus on one sect of the Mahayana school of Buddhism to the exclusion of the other Mahayana sects and to the exclusion of the Theravada school certainly overlooks the vast world of Buddhist practices. Eihei Dogen was speaking to a small group of monks who had left home to practice in his monastery. He therefore wisely focused their attention on one very effective practice – zazen, i.e., sitting meditation.
But this website is not addressed to a small group of cloistered monks who have gathered around a Master to receive his teachings. This website is addressed to people from all walks of life, all over the world, from the deeply and fanatically religious to those who laugh at any form of discipline. To urge his students to adhere strictly to the teachings and practices of the Zen sect was fine for Eihei Dogen. But if Eihei Dogen were alive today and able to reach billions, he would teach Buddhism in all its fullness. He would be a big tent Buddhist and he would volunteer to be a Trustee of the Zen Practice Foundation even though the Foundation defines Zen practice in the broadest of terms.
I began formal meditation practice while a law student at the University of Florida on January 20, 1971, thanks to the Transcendental Meditation organization. I was looking for a meditation group, and TM and Hare Krishna were the only groups that advertised on the bulletin boards around campus in those days.
After attending a few free Hare Krishna vegetarian picnics, I learned that chanting was their primary practice so I looked up the TM group since I was more interested in sitting meditation. They charged $35.00 for a mantra; it costs a lot more these days. The TM organization taught me how to sit in full lotus and to meditate twice a day. I lost contact with them after graduation but continued daily meditation. I found a small Zen group in 1985. It was meeting at the Bodhi Tree Dhamma Center, the first Theravadan center in Florida.
Me drinking bubble tea
Chinatown, NYC, 2010, photo by Penelope, Age 4
I spoke with several people over the years who told me they were aware of our local Zen center (The Clear Water Zen Center in Clearwater, Florida), which was formed when a new location was found so that we no longer needed to impose on the Bodhi Tree, but were intimidated by the thought of going there.
I heard comments like: “I’ve heard Zen is really tough. I also figured you guys had a pretty tight-knit community and didn’t want to be bothered by outsiders.”
The fact that we had a nice website welcoming new members and put announcements in the local paper, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), every week inviting people to attend seemed for a long time to have little effect on those perceptions. But our persistence eventually bore fruit.
I am a Zen student, not a Zen master. I began writing How To Practice Zen as an instruction booklet to give to the public in the hope of attracting people to the Clear Water Zen Center. Thanks to the depth of Zen practice, the booklet soon grew too lengthy so I put up this site instead.
I frequently re-write this website to correct errors, although no one, not even a fully enlightened master, could say everything exactly correctly. Language is inherently open to interpretation and that is why even the enlightened masters say that their words merely point to the moon and are not the moon itself, i.e., the map is not the territory.
Anything that I say in this site that is stupid or that falls short of the True Dharma (if there is such a static thing) will be corrected as readers embark on an authentic day-to-day Zen practice, and learn the True Dharma for themselves.
Even the Buddha said not to take his words as absolute truth, but to test them and to reject whatever teachings were found to be false. And to embrace and practice the teachings found to be true. Buddhism is not a blind-belief system.
We start this course with easy practices so that our practice can grow naturally upon a stable foundation. When we reach the end of the course, we are practicing at an advanced level.
By presenting an entry level of Zen practice that is welcoming instead of intimidating, our hope is that we can help a lot of people get started in a Zen practice. I say “we” and “our” because this website has had input from a lot of Buddhist practitioners.
The teachings found in this website are certainly not my personal teachings.
Tranquil Wisdom meditation was taught by the Buddha and the Intermediate Zen section of this website draws attention to that meditation practice. Very few modern people read the Majjhima Nikaya where the Anapanasati Sutta can be found. And the Buddha’s words are vague and hard for modern people to interpret even if they do find that somewhat obscure sutta.
Regardless of our age, we never know when we are experiencing our last day of life in the human dharma realm.
The foolish say: “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die.”
The wise say: “Cultivate (practice Zen). He who dies before he dies does not die when he dies.”
Why should we practice every day? By doing so we are forming a habit that will lead to stronger sittings, more mindful prostrations, and more effective Buddha Name Recitations. The same applies to our chanting, our sutra study, our night sittings, and our work to share the Buddhadharma.
But as Dharma Masters Huang Bo (China) and Eihei Dogen (Japan) warned, if we practice to get something that we think we don’t have, we have already misunderstood the reason for cultivation. We cultivate because that is what enlightened Masters do. We are as perfect as they are, but they know they are whole and complete just as they are and we doubt that we are too. Practice enables us to overcome the subject/object split that we have created, the split or distinction that gives rise to the whole mass of suffering, even though there is no sufferer.
As Huang Bo taught over a thousand years ago, meditation is not the cause of enlightenment; it is the effect of enlightenment.
As a child, I used to climb a hill near my West Virginia home and sit on a flat rock, about half-way up the hill. I called it my meditation rock. I must have gone there dozens of times over the years because I remember it well and I know I could find it again. I was about forty years old when it finally occurred to me that it was remarkable that as a ten year old I knew the word “meditation” and had sat in my own special place on a mountainside, cross-legged.
I don’t recall having any insights as a result of my efforts. Sitting there in silence without moving just seemed to be the obvious thing to do and I thought nothing of it at the time; I assumed every one sat still when they were alone.
I had never received a lesson in meditation and that word was never spoken in my home or school or by any of my friends. How did I know that word and that practice so that I could sit there like a Zen practitioner and call that flat stone my meditation rock?
Our local (Clearwater) Zen meditation group was sitting in the zendo (meditation hall) during a Sunday morning round of meditation sometime in 2007. The founder of the group, Ken Rosen, a senior student of Roshi Philip Kapleau, gave a short encouragement talk shortly after the ringing of the third bell. “There are two and a half million people in the Tampa Bay area,” he began, “and this Sunday twelve of us have gathered in this zendo at 8:00 in the morning to sit in silence, unmoving, facing a wall for two hours. Why? Week after week, year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. Why are we doing this?”
“We do this because we have done it before.”
Glenn and David at the old Clear Water Zen Center
(the blinds were never open during a real sitting – this is a glamour shot)
Buddhist teachers explain that there is no self that gets reborn as in the Hindu theory of reincarnation.
The Buddhist concept of re-birth is perhaps explained by the way one ball strikes another in the game of pool or billiards. No essence passes from the first ball to the second when the first ball strikes the second ball. The first ball simply stops and its momentum is transferred to the second ball which then follows a path determined by the path that had been followed by the first ball, by the angle of the collision, and by how much power had been imparted to that first ball.
But Huang Bo exhorts us to drop all concepts! This dualistic thinking that we are now engaged in is the very obstacle that prevents us from seeing the Buddha nature that we already have.
So there we were in the zendo, billiard balls following a course imparted to us by an earlier billiard ball, which had been following a path created by the ball that had struck it, and so on back into time.
The Clear Water Zen Center now has several hundred members who meet in a larger zendo and there are sittings at least three days a week. Dharma Master/Roshi Lawson Sachter, co-abbot of The Windhorse Zen Community, leads multi-day sesshins in Clearwater several times per year.
My only qualifications for putting up this website (and none are needed since this site does not include any teachings that originate with me) are my childhood practice of meditation, the impetus for which apparently came from an earlier life, and my forty years and counting (2015) of practicing meditation, sutra study. prostrations (my number one hobby) and other Buddhist practices as an adult in this lifetime.
My belief in re-birth, which remains somewhat shaky even now, began abruptly in 1984 when my wife and I were attending a first-Sunday-of-the-month vegetarian picnic in Clearwater. I observed that she was talking to a monk wearing saffron robes so I popped up from the picnic blanket and walked across the lawn to join in the conversation. When I reached them, the monk was staring blankly straight ahead (I think it’s called the thousand yard stare or something like that), and his mouth was open, his jaw dropped in apparent shock. “Wow!” he said after a few seconds. “That was the first time in my life I have had a vision. As you were walking toward us, everything else disappeared and I saw a monk wearing yellow robes that were flapping behind him in the wind as he approached. He was Japanese and I knew I was seeing a scene from long ago.” Neither my wife nor I had met that monk before that day. He concluded with: “I can guarantee you that you were once a Japanese Buddhist monk.”
I know that Japanese Buddhist monks do not wear yellow robes and I have often wondered if there was a time when they did. Perhaps he saw an Asian monk of some other culture and just assumed he was Japanese. I was too stupid and surprised to question him in detail and I learned a few years later that he had disrobed and returned to his home in Sweden.
This website has many co-authors even if typed up by one person. I have learned a lot about Zen practice from the members of the Clear Water Zen Center, Roshi Lawson Sachter of the Windhorse Zen Community near Asheville, North Carolina, and Ken Rosen, founder and Preceptor of the Clear Water Zen Center and senior student of Roshi Philip Kapleau and Roshi Sachter. Others from whom I have learned include the Venerable Ajahn Brahm, the Venerable U. Vimalaramsi, Master Hsuan Hua founder of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, Master Sheng Yen, founder of Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association, Master Hsing Yin, founder of Buddha Light Mountain Buddhist Association, Roshi Robert Aitken, Bhante Dhammawansha, masters Huang Bo, Eihei Dogen, and Hakuin Zenji, and others too numerous to mention.
But I must add that these teachers do not endorse this website and probably are not even aware of it. If I waited for everyone who has helped me learn how to practice Zen to approve a website, no website would ever get uploaded.
Having spent more than a decade on mantra meditative practices, my formal zazen practice didn’t begin until 1985. That was only thirty years ago so I am not an authority on the vast subject of Zen practice.
Some people think thirty years is a long time. I am reminded of the encounter between Henry Kissinger and Chou En-Lai in the 1970s when Dr. K asked: “What, in your opinion, were the effects of the French Revolution?” referring to the unpleasantries of the early 1790s. The Prime Minister of China replied: “It’s too soon to tell.”
If you incorporate the three easy steps of Beginning Zen into your daily life, Contact Us and let us know.
Some long-time practitioners of Zen may find it offensive to characterize Zen practice as “easy.” However, it’s our thinking that makes things hard or easy. One thing we learn when practicing Zen is to see things just as they are without putting labels on them. The only hard part of the program is to practice every day and to stick with the practice over time.
This website is slightly more Chinese Ch’an influenced than Japanese Zen. For example, Buddha Name Recitation, encountered in Intermediate Zen, is not practiced in American Zen centers that are in a Japanese lineage, as far as I know. In Japan, Buddha Name Recitation practice is the most popular form of Buddhist practice, but it is considered a separate sect (The Pure Land) from the Zen sect.
However, American Ch’an (Zen) centers that are in a Chinese lineage routinely include Buddha Name Recitation as a part of Ch’an practice. It doesn’t conflict with Ch’an/Zen practice if performed with the understanding that Amitabha Buddha is not an other; it is our own Buddha nature. We recite our own name to help us remember who we are. Thus, it is the Buddha who recites the Buddha’s name.
This course is also very influenced by the Theravada school of Buddhism. Although most Zen teachers will strongly disagree, my own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the simple method of meditation taught by the Buddha is still the “best” method. The Anapanasati Sutta recites the sixteen stages of that type of meditation and it has become the one I most often practice and recommend.
Sixteen steps may sound daunting but if we learn the Beginning Zen practices, we will have already completed the first of the sixteen steps which is to put mindfulness up front. That leaves only three more to learn because establishing mindfulness and three other steps make up Mindfulness of the Body. The remaining twelve steps flow naturally and require no memorization.
Perhaps the one original contribution of this website, if there is any, is found in step nine, the second step of Advanced Zen. There we harness the results of Anapanasati practice and turn it onto whatever koans our teacher might assign to us.
None of the people or institutions pictured or mentioned in this website participated in the physical building of this site and I did not ask anyone to provide their consent to be pictured or mentioned. For example, Venerable U. Vimalaramsi is a hero of mine but I suspect he has no knowledge of this site.
Wherever harsh or confusing language is used, or the Dharma is not stated with sufficient clarity, that is a product of the lay origins of this site. But the language gets better, or at least softer, as the site ages and undergoes re-writing.
We have tried to take off the rough edges by attenuating some of the rhetoric but the site has a different tone and style than would be produced by an ordained Sensei or Roshi.
One idea behind this course is to lower the bar into Zen practice so that more people will try it, i.e., we are trying to reduce the intimidation factor. This is a course that lay people can take, even in the midst of a busy family and school or work-dominated life.
Another idea behind this course is to provide concrete steps that a layperson can follow to develop a Buddhist practice. Great websites like www.buddhanet.net provide enormous amounts of information by publishing the written works of many learned scholars, many of whom are monks and nuns, but the gist of most of the articles is that the reader should meditate, follow the precepts, study the sutras, and otherwise practice the Buddhadharma.
But concrete, comprehensive instructions are often lacking. Typically, a teacher’s instructions advise us to sit without moving. Beyond that lies philosophy and very few instructions on how to practice Buddhism in all its fullness, especially if the teacher is focused on a particular sect of Buddhism.
So we are trying to fill a gap by laying out a course in three levels that includes concrete steps and not just philosophy or exhortations to practice more. And even that approach would not find favor with Master Huang Bo who taught that as soon as we begin seeking for the Buddha Dharma, we have already missed it. It is not outside of us and we need not look for it because we are that which we are looking for. If you can follow Master Huang Bo’s exhortation to drop all conceptual/dualistic thinking and see the undifferentiated thusness/suchness of reality Now!, you have no need to read on. And you will stop practicing the steps that follow when you drop all concepts and realize your inherent Buddha nature.
Speak one sentence less of chatter,
Recite once more the Buddha’s name.
Recite until your false thoughts die,
And your Dharma body will come to life.
With gassho, metta, and deep bows,
The Zen Practice Foundation