I have no access to a Zen center or a Zen teacher.  How can I begin Zen practice?  I hear that teachers are important.

- T

Dear T,

Thanks for writing. The word Zen means meditation, and sitting meditation or zazen is the primary practice of Zen Buddhists. This is following the example of our original teacher, Shakamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), who had his great realization while practicing zazen under the Bodhi tree. Zazen is still the superb way to study Buddhism. In general, sitting with others is useful, but if that isn't possible, remember that Shakamuni was sitting alone, and know that wherever you are sitting quietly in zazen is as sacred as any monastery. In a real sense, Buddha will be sitting with you. There is no external Buddha.

For many people, just before going to bed or right after getting up are good times for zazen. Even sitting for only 10 minutes, especially if done every day, can be a strong practice which can transform your life over time. As for posture, whether sitting in one of the cross-legged postures, or seiza (kneeling with a cushion or seiza bench under your behind), or in a chair with a cushion (hips should be higher than knees), keep your head erect and spine straight with your eyes slightly open and directed downward at a comfortable angle. Your hands can be held slightly below the navel, palms up with the left hand on the right with the sides of your hands resting against your stomach, and the thumbs held up in an oval with the tips lightly touching. Relax as much as you can without sagging. Wear loose clothing and keep the breathing low in the belly, exhaling fully. Be alert and attentive, not dreamy. Become the breathing. When thoughts occur just observe them and guide your attention back to your breathing. Forget notions of self and other, of having a personal boundary. Let your ears become the various sounds that occur.

Don't limit your practice to sitting meditation. Instead of impatiently waiting in a line at a store, or for your computer to boot up, clear your mind and follow a few breath cycles in a micro-meditation. There are many opportunities for this practice. When outside, let your eyes become the pine tree, or the setting sun. See that all things and your true self are not apart. Experience that in the moment of a thunderclap, there is only BOOM!, and you and BOOM! are one. This is enlightenment, and is happening all the time.  We tend not to notice, though, because notions of a separate self quickly reappear. This is what Zen master Dogen was talking about when he said "To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things".

Your day to day practice should be natural and regular like your breathing - very important, nothing special, continued indefinitely. Don't strive for anything. Just get to know the Buddha already sitting on your cushion, listening with your ears, and seeing with your eyes.

Don't worry for now about studying with a teacher. You already possess what is essential. When we abandon self-centeredness, the song of a bird, a flower, and the moon at night all become our great teachers. Through the practice of zazen, we become more able to let go of ourselves and receive this teaching.

Good luck in your practice.

Yours in the Dharma,



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