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Shopping For a Spiritual Practice: Intro to Zen

posted by Patrick Groneman

introtozen.jpgby Patrick Groneman

Last weekend I continued my search for a spiritual practice by taking part in the Zen Mountain Monastery’s “Intro to Zen Training” Retreat, a weekend toe dipping into the Mountain and Rivers Order manifestation of Soto and Rinzai Zen Buddhism.  The monastery is tucked away in the beautiful Catskill mountains, about two and half hours outside of New York City.  After stepping out of the car I stood on the front lawn for a moment staring at a the yellow leaves of a ginkgo biloba tree fluttering in the wind. I thought about how special it felt to just watch the wind rearrange the landscape and was reminded of a quote by Suzuki Roshi:

“Perhaps the wind is just blowing and pine tree is just standing in the wind.  That is all that they are doing.   But the people who listen to the wind in the tree will write a poem, or will feel something unusual.” – Suzuki Roshi

“Buddhism is a religion”
The training weekend began with a talk by Abbott Ryushin Sensei, a tall, older man with a shaved head, thin rimmed oval glasses and a Polish accent.  “Buddhism is a religion because it addresses the most basic questions of existence…” He stressed the totality of Buddhist Practice, how it leaves no area of life untouched.  I wasn’t just coming here this weekend to do a lot of Sitting Meditation, or to eat my oatmeal very slowly; the monastery experience was one of immersion, you are expected to “swallow the whole fish.”

It’s the Rituals Stupid
As a mindfulness practitioner, living on a monastery for a weekend is like the world’s biggest Yankees fan moving into Yankee Stadium.  Every aspect of daily life was a support for my practice, from raking the leaves in the front yard, to bowing and chanting before each meal, to the practice of wearing “boring” clothing. I had previously only considered these to be supplementary to sitting meditation practice, but on this retreat I began to see how they are really integral to a more complete practice of “Being a Buddhist”.  One area that I became surprisingly enthusiastic about was the Zen Liturgy.  I began the weekend with lackluster enthusiasm for the chanting and bowing that preceded Zazen, Meals, Work Practice and Going to Sleep, but by the end I found myself looking forward to being a part of what Daido Loori calls “…an affirmation or restatement of the common experience of a community”.

If Sitting Practice for a meditator is like the Yankees fan watching the action in the baseball game, then the Liturgy is like a group of Yankees fans coming together to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  If you have ever been part of a crowd of 60,000 people singing during the seventh inning stretch you probably understand the how amazing and powerful that experience is.  Like the Yankees fans asking for “Peanuts and Cracker Jacks” and stating the basic rules of baseball, that : “3 Strikes you’re out..”, the participants in the Zen Liturgy ask for “Maha Prajna Paramita” (or Heart of Perfect Wisdom) and state the basic rules of existence: “Form is no other than emptiness, Emptiness no other than form…”  My impression of Zen practice up until this point was that it was very intellectually driven and I was wondering “Where is the Heart in Zen?”, the answer I found was that “It’s the rituals stupid.”

I Don’t Care if I Ever Get Back
“Yankees fan” is a state of being, not a shroud that can be easily thrown on or off.  After the game is over baseball fans don’t just stop being fans.  They can buy souvenirs to decorate their homes and offices, play pick-up ball and watch the games on TV (which is no match for actually being at a game!).   In the same way, as a lay practitioner leaving a monastic setting, I decided to take as much with me as would translate.   Reciting the Meal Gatha before I eat and bowing to my cushion before beginning a session of meditation are two simple rituals that I’ve brought home to re-create the environment of support that I got on the monastery.  I find that they help me generate momentum for mindfulness and intention setting when I’m not on the cushion.

Depth vs. Accessibility
I’m understanding with more depth now the conversation surrounding the transformation of Buddhism in the West.  Some say you can strip Buddhism down to essential elements and remove the cultural trappings to make it more accessible.   I was getting quite the opposite impression from the Zen community I visited last weekend; that the cultural trappings are themselves the essence of Buddhism, or to say it in a more Buddhist way:  “Emptiness is Form“.  You can’t take away the bowing and the chanting and the incense without removing something essential that has been developed over generations of deep practice.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have a more casual introduction to Buddhism via places like the IDProject and NY Insight, but what I want most now is to cast myself deep into practice.  I understand the difference between wearing robes to meditate and wearing a neon print t-shirt.  I understand the difference between silently mouthing a meal gatha to myself or chanting it out loud with a group.  The question I need to answer is, can I integrate these things into my life without living on a monastery?

What do you think?


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posted November 13, 2009 at 7:21 am

I totally agreed that If you have ever been part of a crowd of 60,000 people singing during the seventh inning stretch you probably understand the how amazing and powerful that experience is

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posted November 13, 2009 at 11:05 am

Yes, I love my visits to meditation centers, too, and Zen retreats especially. I have done two Zen retreats at Southern Dharma Center, w/Brad Warner, that involved serious chanting, lots of zazen, and some pretty profound work practice, but notsa much the religion, and no robes (tho’ Brad wears them).
Thanks to being smacked upside the head by reading CTR early in my path, sometimes Zen and long retreats function as supports to mindfulness in a bit of a weird way. I have to look at my attitude toward them very closel. CTR on Zen practice, as regards boredom:
“There are definite styles of boredom. The Zen tradition in Japan creates a definite style of boredom in its monasteries. Sit, cook, eat. Sit zazen and do your walking meditation and so on. But to an American novice who goes to Japan or takes part in traditional Japanese practice in this country, the message of boredom is not communicated properly. Instead. . . it turns into a militant appreciation of rigidity, or an aesthetic appreciate of simplicity, rather than actually being bored, which is strange. Actually it was not designed to be that way. To the Japanese, Zen practice is an ordinary Japanese life=situation in which you just do your daily work and sit a lot of zazen. But Americans appreciate the little details–how you use your bowl and how eat consciously in zazen posture. This is only supported to create a feeling of boredom, but to American students is a work of art. Cleaning your bowl, washing it out, folding your white napkin and so forth, becomes living theater. The black cushion is supposed to suggest no color, complete boredom. But for Americans it inspires a mentality of militant blackness, straghtforwardness.”
Myth of Freedom Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
I, too, find the formal supports of practice enormously helpful, both in group living situations and at home, but CTR’s words never cease to remind me to examine my attitude toward those supports VERY closely. When I use them to entertain myself, I just recognize it, and see if I can drop it. I do find that the more exotic the supports, the more likely I am to use them as entertainment mode.
I don’t think you used them as entertainment, and I don’t think CTR was dissing Zen practice at all, only certain people’s attitude toward it — which I don’t think is yours! But I love his reminder of how simple it really is. And what simple is. I need that. Thanks for reminding me!

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Patrick Groneman

posted November 13, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Ellen, thanks for the CTR reminders.
The way that he describes getting caught up in the forms of practice is actually how I personally feel about Tibetan Buddhism. I definitely have a “fascination” with mandalas, deities, ornate color arrangements and the methods of working with the Wisdom emotions. It’s all very “cool” and “interesting” to me in ways that I find hinder my concentration and sincere devotion to practice.
This is the part of picking a practice where I think each person needs to really look closely at how he or she is responding to certain environemnts. Like you said the difference can be very subtle between support and entertainment, something that no one but the practitioner could notice.

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posted November 13, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Thanks for this. I’ve tossed around going up to ZMM for the Intro to Zen weekend and it’s nice to know that you had a great experience. It’s inspiring me to do it myself!
I’ve been to the Fire Lotus Temple in Brooklyn quite a few times. (That’s the NYC extension of ZMM, but I’m sure you know that.)
Of course, one way to integrate this type of deep practice without living at the monastery is to go to the Fire Lotus Temple. They have a full schedule of zazen, retreats, half-day sits, zazenkai, and many of the same programs and teachers that ZMM has. They even have a residency program there, where you can live at the temple and still go about your daily work life.

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posted November 13, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Patrick, that’s so funny. I don’t feel much entertained by the deities and mandalas and ornate color arrangements of Tibet — but boy, can I groove on that Zen aethestic trip!
I love yr point about how each practitioner needs to be totally honest about support or entertainment and be our own arbiter there. Lojong: “Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one.” Yup.

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Patrick Groneman

posted November 13, 2009 at 7:20 pm

@ Rob
Thanks for the great info. I’ve been to fire lotus a couple of times and I’m thinking of getting more involved in their programming. Even beyond the idea of living in the temple I’ve considered things like starting a “practitioners living co-op” or some other half step between living in an apartment and living at a monastery.
@ Ellen
That’s great, we should find a way to continue exploring this topic together via blog posts and into the material aesthetic aspects of spiritual practice.
anyone else have impressions of Zen or entertainment?

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posted November 14, 2009 at 7:48 am

Thanks for sharing this experience so beautifully.
I have not spent a weekend at a Zen retreat so I can’t speak to that experience. But it does sound like you have discovered that for you at this moment in your life having some sort of physical and audible signal or reminder of the precepts and teachings is important. It does not sound like entertainment at all. No matter where you find yourself – IDP, Zen Mountain, a cave – there will be some more formal, and some more informal, version of practice going on somewhere.
As to whether these rituals are essential to Buddhism or not. Hmmm. If the core of Buddhist practice is to be aware as often as possible, and these practices and rituals are of assistance to that for you, then they are impotant to your practice, right? noticing whether they become entertainment or distractions in their own right is really subtle but seems to be at least some point of their existence.
I think where we all get tripped up sometimes is in equating our own direct experience with how things might be for other people. I do, at least. See, I just did it!!
But rather than wonder if these rituals are an essential part of the practice, and if something is lost without them, why not just embrace that for you, right now, they seem to matter a lot. And if you can co-create a community of other people who feel the same and can support each others deepening experience, that is a beautiful thing.

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Patrick Groneman

posted November 14, 2009 at 10:28 am

Thanks for the encouragement. I think you’re probably right that Buddhism can be religion for those who want it to be one and not one for those who don’t want to go there. That may bring up another argument of who is more “authentic” or whatever, but like you’ve stated many times, whatever forms of practice people are into is probably the best form for them to be practicing in at that time.
In this Zen retreat I was very intrigued by how the community politics and spiritual practice were so well integrated. I’m sure there are varying degrees of discord among Buddhist monastic communities, but as a person who is interested in organization and community building it was great to see how adding a deep common sense of purpose, and vocalizing those beliefs together, can create a very free and intentional living environment.

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Jerry Kolber

posted November 16, 2009 at 7:02 am

I am intrigued by your experience. I think you share my love for the internets, but over the last fifteen years we have tended to heavily favor digital connection and ad hoc communities over physical based interaction.
I am fascinated by what you experienced as the intersection of personal practice and community politics. I wonder if what you are feeling is a result of the specific rituals of that place, or more primally a response to a physical manifestation of the intersection of ideas and community? It does sound like you had the opportunity to delve briefly into a functioning intentional community. I want to hear more.

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posted November 16, 2009 at 11:20 am

NIcely written Pat. You may have repelled some of our Boston readers, however, by equating Zen with the Yankees. Tread lightly there.
I’ve heard several times, from both teachers and practitioners, that Zen doesn’t engage the emotions in the same way as Tibetan-derived Buddhism and it’s left me with an impression that Zen is more cerebral, less heart-focused. In Zen, emotions are just more thought-material to dispose of mindfully. Did your retreat give you any insight in to that? Any thoughts/reactions?

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posted November 16, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Here’s a Manhattan zendo that retains the strengths of ritual without going overboard into the realm of entertainment:
There are morning and evening sittings, all-day sittings (zazenkai), and several weekend retreats (sesshins) each year, including one held “in place” – “Sesshin in the City”. Still Mind has two resident teachers and a very cohesive (and welcoming) sangha, all of whom avoid over-intellectualizing.

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posted November 16, 2009 at 9:34 pm

p.s. Still Ming hosts intro sessions on Tuesday nights (call in advance) and the biannual weekend retreats include a “Zen for Beginners” component, both great.

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Patrick Groneman

posted November 18, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Thanks for the resources, I am checking out Village Zendo this weekend and will plan a trip to Still Mind after the holidays!
I had a similar impression of Zen before the weekend retreat, but I can be certain to say that there was no lack of heart feeling on the monastery. What I can’t be certain about is where it came from (we did a lot of different practices), and how structurally Zen might diverge from other forms of Buddhism in working with emotions (I hope to address this directly with a teacher in the next few months).
The reason for leaving out more complex forms of “working with emotions” in early stages of Zen practice may just be for simplicity. I found the directness of practice to be very powerful, but I think this is where the discussion really starts to depend on the inclinations of the practitioner. Like I was discussing with Ellen, I get caught up in “doing things”, so the less there is for me to do, the more effective I think the practice is for me. “Keep it Simple Stupid”.
@ Jerry
I can’t explain the power that I feel liturgy brings to a community. It might be best expressed in a word like “Clarity” or “Synchronicity”, but there is also a layer of spiritual connection that is entirely beyond words. I felt this connection as a child going to Catholic Mass every week.
This retreat showed me that setting group intention often and out loud goes a long way to create momentum within a community, and what I feel is lacking in many of my adult interactions.

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Patrick Groneman

posted November 22, 2009 at 10:42 pm

I went to the Village Zendo this week for the Sunday Service and Roshi O’Hara’s Dharma talk gave more insight into Zen’s relationship with Emotions. She emphasized the goal of practice as accessing a spacious mind that can “see everything as medicine”. She used the example of Manjushri and Sudana (Link here:
This left me with the impression that in Zen emotions are like any other phenomena and can be used in an enlightened way when perceived by “Big Mind.”
I’ve personally experienced how Metta practice for oneself can be extremely helpful so I would be interested in asking a contemporary Zen teacher directly what they thought of Tonglen or Brahmavihara practices.

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