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Zen: Committed or Convenient

Committed Zen- Convenient Zen with Seiso Sensei

How do you approach Zen practice?  Zen has become very popular over the last several years and has taken on many meanings from the deepest to the most superficial. For some people its a matter of lifestyle and convenience. For others, its a matter of life and death and is accompanied by the deepest level of commitment. These individuals “practice as if their heads are on fire.” For some very pragmatic individuals, its a matter of “stress reduction.” They want immediate results. Others understand the true meaning of Sawaki Roshi’s admonishment that “zazen is good for nothing.” For others, its a matter of making a wholehearted effort to actualize the Bodhisattva Vow to save all beings. In this regard, Zen has many diverse meanings for different individuals. You have heard the increasingly common expression: “I had a Zen moment.”  What is a Zen moment? Strictly speaking, what we typically and commonly think of as a moment, from the Zen perspective is made up of thousands of instants. I saw a billboard advertising a new condo on Sixth Avenue in NYC.  The ad noted: “For a Zen lifestyle, come live here.” What is a Zen lifestyle? Is this new condo a monastery? Is it a Zendo? Does it have a meditation hall? I think not. Just a high common charge for understated upscale city living. Everything has the potential to be co-opted by mass culture and transformed into mass merchandising dollars. I’m reminded of jeans in the early 60’s they were a political statement and a sign of taking a step back from the larger culture. By the end of the 60’s they were a fashion statement and a sign of conformity. Sooner or later, not unlike other popular trends, Zen will fade out of the spotlight. Who will remain standing? Or should I say sitting? Only the committed practitioner. The committed practitioner will keep on, whether it’s “cool” or not. As one teacher used to say to me, “just keep practicing no matter what!” So, what is convenient Zen and what is committed Zen?

Convenient Zen

Convenient Zen goes something like this: Here is an example. Some time ago, I ran into an acquaintance who considered himself to be an expert on Buddhist theory and meditation. I said: “Tell me about your practice.” He answered, I’m very busy, but I practice sometimes when I am riding home on the train. Another person said “I was planning to practice but I didn’t have time today. “Oh, why not?” I queried. He said: “I met a friend for coffee.” Variations on this theme include practicing when a person has nothing better to do on a Friday evening. A trip to the zendo might substitute for a trip to the  wine bar or making it to the latest popular singles scene. Any invitation might pre-empt the visit to the zendo. In short, practice is contingent on convenience and maintains a very low priority. its a fill-in when there is nothing “better” to do. It becomes part of one’s “experience collection.” Something one can say one does.

Committed Zen

Committed practice on the other hand, is a commitment to Buddha, dharma, sangha and vow.

It is also a statement that we make to the world at large: family, partner, friends, community, environment and the world one moment at a time, one breath at a time, but mostly to ourselves. Committed practice will radically change your life and the lives of those around you. A non-practitioner, spouse of a highly committed practitioner, said: “I benefit by my partner’s practice.” Perhaps over time, such individuals will begin to see that benefit of their own practice – if they take it up. Whether or not, this individual still benefits through the partner’s practice. This practitioner takes the wisdom experience that evolves on the cushion and in their studies into their relationship. They both benefit. This brings the abstract Mahayana notion of “for all beings.” into concrete lived reality.

This is something that we need to take responsibility for, if we are willing to. Sallie King describes our responsibility in the context of Buddha Nature as follows:

“Our world is the way it is because we are the way we are; we are he way we are because  of the way the world is. The two arise together and mutually creative. However, it is stressed  that this interplay may be broken by transforming oneself and the way one perceives the world, something over which one has total control and for which one’s responsibility is also total.”

We can begin to take responsibility through a committed practice. Here is the challenge. Pick a time for nothing but practice. It can be 10 minutes; it can be 40 minutes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you be decisive and say, “this is my time for zazen and for nothing else – no matter what!” When you stick to this time all relationships will begin to gradually change because any activities that you plan will have to be arranged according to your practice schedule. Practice is no longer convenient, it becomes central. Sometimes it can be a big pain in the neck, but you do it. Its the center of its own time. It is its own time. Pick a place. If you have the space, it can be a room that is used for no other purpose. If not, how about the corner of a room. A spot that you can reserve for nothing else. I know someone who set up a zendo in a closet and found somewhere else to store what was in the closet.  In any case, whatever the conditions, the point is, as I noted before, just keep practicing, no matter what!

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