Deepening Your Zazen: When It’s Good Not to Be Satisfied

Deepening Your Zazen: When It’s Good Not to Be Satisfied

If you’re always satisfied with your zazen, you’re probably selling yourself short. If you’re never satisfied with your zazen, you may want to learn how to deepen it.

Possibly the worst thing to do is ignore any dissatisfaction with your zazen because you think you’re not supposed to feel dissatisfied with it. It’s easy to come to this conclusion in Buddhism, where we’re taught that, essentially, dissatisfaction – dukkha – is a disease of the mind, and if we can just accept and be present with “whatever is,” all will be well. While it’s true, to a certain extent, that the key to peace, joy, and liberation lies within our own minds, that doesn’t mean we can truly attain liberation by merely wishing our dissatisfaction away.


How Dissatisfaction Can Be Good

Dissatisfaction is our friend! It’s just like a sensation of physical discomfort – it’s information, telling us something needs to be adjusted or addressed. If we didn’t feel physical pain, it would be difficult to avoid injury or know when we’re sick. If we didn’t feel dissatisfaction, it would be difficult to recognize when our approach to zazen – or life – isn’t working as well as it could.

It’s important to acknowledge our dissatisfaction with our zazen, because zazen is our gateway to enlightenment. No matter how diligent and rewarding our practice in the midst of everyday life, we need the stillness and simplicity of zazen to push the boundary of our experience of non-duality. In the depth of zazen, our usual way of going about things is called into question. In zazen, we touch our true being, and align our lives with truth.

Now, it’s understandable if you have a developed a deep faith that zazen is a beneficial practice regardless of the nature of your experience on the cushion. I know lots of people who diligently sit, gently bringing their awareness back to their breath whenever their mind has wandered. They do this, over and over – sometimes for 8 hours a day at a meditation retreat! Year after year, their zazen doesn’t really change or deepen, but they keep at it. This patient determination is admirable, and clearly zazen does have some kind of benefit even when approached this way!

However, zazen can be so much more. Just read a few descriptions of zazen from our ancestors, which suggest we should never feel satisfied with our zazen:

[Zazen] “is simply the dharma gate of joyful ease, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the koan realized, traps and snares can never reach it. If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains.” – Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)


“Now, zazen is entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha. The pure and clear mind is actualized in the present moment; the original light shines everywhere… Zazen alone brings everything to rest and, flowing freely, reaches everywhere. So zazen is like returning home and sitting in peace.” – Keizan Jokin (Zazen-Yojinki)


“Silent and serene, forgetting words, bright clarity appears before you. When you reflect it you become vast, where you embody it you are spiritually uplifted. Spiritually solitary and shining, inner illumination restores wonder.” – Hongzhi Zhengjue (Guidepost for Silent Illumination)


Working Constructively with Dissatisfaction

Now, of course, it doesn’t help to set up ideals and expectations about our zazen and strive to achieve them. For most of us, that just makes things worse and increases our dissatisfaction.

So what can we do, short of just trying not to be dissatisfied with our zazen, no matter how it is? Which amounts to being satisfied with our zazen even if we rarely ever experience it (or have never experienced it) as “joyful ease,” “returning home and sitting in peace,” or full of “bright clarity” and “wonder.”

Different Zen teachers have different answers and approaches to this, but here’s mine: In the midst of zazen, pay attention to your dissatisfaction and let it guide you toward a deeper experience. Rather than brushing away your dissatisfaction, let it inform you. Then renew your determination to taste what the ancestors have described, and unleash your creativity in order to find a way forward. All without setting up an ideal or creating a struggle within.

Okay, let me walk you through four steps in this process so you can see what I mean:


1) In the Midst of Zazen, Pay Attention to Your Dissatisfaction

This is not intellectual analysis! This is about paying attention to your direct, immediate, embodied experience in zazen. Where do you feel obstructed, or tight? What are you doing or trying that brings you “back to the moment” for an instant but then sends you off into daydreaming or dullness? What do you want? What are you expecting? What is keeping you from being completely and utterly at peace? What are you holding on to that obstructs your appreciation and joy?

I can’t emphasize enough that this is not intellectual analysis, and yet it also isn’t a purely physical exploration that excludes thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. This is an experiential exploration of what’s going on in the moment without arbitrarily dividing yourself up into parts like “body,” “mind,” and “heart.” For example, maybe you are filled with grief because of a recent loss. That’s part of what’s going on for you. You can be aware of the grief, or of your desire to be free from pain, or of your self-doubt, without that awareness being merely intellectual analysis.

Perhaps an example will help. Mandy (a hypothetical Zen practitioner) has been sitting zazen for a number of years. She spends much of the time on the cushion caught up in thoughts, but when she notices, she patiently shifts her awareness back to her breath, or sound, and experiences a moment of stillness. She does this a dozen times or more over the course of meditation period. She doesn’t usually experience anything that feels very special during zazen, but finds that it helps her feel more sane and joyful in her everyday life.

One day Mandy reads an annoying post by a Zen teacher that suggests her zazen could be more. She’s doubtful, because she’s tried awfully hard to be “more present” during zazen and it’s never worked. However, she tries to pay attention to her dissatisfaction during zazen. In one moment, she’s not caught up in thoughts and just notices the sunlight on the carpet in front of her. She tries to stay present with that experience, but then starts thinking about zazen, and what Julie said about it last week, and whether Julie has special experiences during zazen, and…

As Mandy wakes up to the present again, she notices resistance within her to staying present. Her mind seems to be leaning away from the present, toward something more interesting or exciting. Staying with this reality for a bit, she realizes the resistance is reflected in her body as well, as if her energy is surging forward and upward toward her chest and head as opposed to settling down in her lower abdomen and legs. She becomes aware of a conviction that she knows what’s going to happen next.  She’s aware of this as a real attitude she’s holding, not as a thought about her experience. Exploring this attitude, she recognizes a conclusion that the present moment is boring, and staying aware of it – except for a second or two – is pointless. Therefore, she also recognizes – within herself – an unwillingness to attend to the present unless she knows there’s going to be some kind of payoff for doing it.


2) Renew Your Determination for Enlightenment

Okay, “enlightenment” is a pretty vague and lofty term, but essentially it refers to your deepest aspiration(s). What do you really want? Do you want to be free from your pain – not just temporarily, through distraction or coping mechanisms, but truly healed? Do you want to be as awake as possible for every moment of your precious life? Do you want to cultivate wisdom so you can respond as skillfully as possible to the suffering of the world? Do you want to access your innate compassion so you can respond with love to all sentient beings?

It’s okay to want stuff! Desire, like dissatisfaction, is not a problem in and of itself. As long as we work with desire and dissatisfaction appropriately – without making our happiness contingent on their resolution, or resorting to self-centered behavior in order to get what we want – they are the fuel for our practice.

So go ahead and call to mind what you truly want. Remind yourself of why you practice. Acknowledge to yourself that your current understanding and manifestation is relatively small compared to that of a buddha (which is true for all of us), and think of all the amazing experiences that lie ahead of you.


3) Unleash Your Creativity and Find a Way Forward

Many people conclude they don’t know enough about meditation to deepen their experience of it. However, while it’s certainly true that suggestions from teachers, seniors, and even peers can be helpful, ultimately we have to learn to navigate our own body-mind in zazen. We’re the only ones who actually know what’s going on in there, and we’re the only ones who can apply a particular technique or approach. You may need to tweak your body-mind in a way that no Zen ancestor or teacher has yet described.

Let’s return to Mandy’s story in order to explore this more fully. Having noticed a number of assumptions and attitudes she was holding, she tries letting go of them. She experiences what feels like a little energetic shift, but it doesn’t last long and pretty soon her mind’s just wandering again. So she returns to the sensations of resistance to staying present. She also reminds herself of her aspiration to open herself up to a deeper experience of the Divine.

Mandy remembers a teaching she heard once that in order to hear the Divine, you have to listen carefully. She works on listening. Instead of her energy being centered around her face, it now spreads more evenly throughout her body, as she settles into her somatic (embodied) experience. However, after a couple minutes her mind has wandered again because, she realizes, “nothing was happening” (that is, she didn’t “hear” anything from the Divine). She acknowledges this self-interested aspect of her experience, and it occurs to her that true devotion to the Divine involves the act of listening without the slightest expectation of a response.

Suddenly, Mandy’s energy settles down and even seems to penetrate into the earth. For a moment, she experiences a warm, embracing silence – as if she has, indeed, returned home to where she belongs. She has a sense that this supportive embrace is always present, even when she’s caught up in thoughts or self-interest. All she has to do is offer her awareness up without the slightest agenda in order to rest in it. A few minutes later, Mandy’s mind is wandering again, and for the remainder of the zazen period she doesn’t have another experience of embracing silence quite as deep as the first one – but the impression of the experience remains, spreading a kind of peace throughout her zazen.


4) Celebrate “Moments That Make You Dance” – and Then Let Them Go

Recommending that you “work on” your zazen is potentially confusing and harmful, I have to admit. Watch out for whether this recommendation makes you judge your zazen or yourself and get discouraged, or invites you cling to ideas about what “deep” zazen is like, or causes you to compare yourself to others, or makes you dwell on the “special” experiences you’ve had and try to recreate them. If you find yourself doing any of these things, though, these are just more examples of dissatisfaction that you can work with.

Unfortunately, struggling against ourselves doesn’t usually result in anything other than frustration. So it’s not advisable to set up an ideal and then strive for it – setting the part of you that holds the ideal against the lazy or stubborn parts of you that would rather get lost in thought or sleep on the zazen cushion. The kind of exploration and work I’m recommending you do in zazen is not like this. Rather, it’s a whole body-mind activity where, throughout, it’s just “you,” aware of your full and direct experience, curious and determined to push the edges of the zazen you already know.

So when, or if, you have an experience of zazen like the ancestors describe – a dharma gate of joyful ease, bright and clear, like returning home and sitting in peace – it’s important to appreciate it but then let it go. If you set it up as an ideal and try to recreate it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to chase the experience away indefinitely. Try to trust that these “moments that make us dance” have informed and changed us at a deep level. They are like a beautiful sunset – you’re never going to get them back, at least not exactly. Future moments that make us dance will be different and new, and we can’t predict what they’re going to be like.

We keep ourselves open to deepening our experience of zazen by doing the work I’ve described: Not just waiting passively for something to happen, but also not striving to make something happen. Instead, we navigate the dynamic Middle Way, staying alert, curious, and determined to master the elusive art of Right Effort.



Why Does God/Buddha Nature Let Bad Things Happen?

Why Does God/Buddha Nature Let Bad Things Happen?

Humans have been struggling with this dilemma for ages: God is good – even synonymous with love – and all-powerful, so why does God let bad things happen? Why does He continue to allow such suffering in the world? For a Zen Buddhist, this question is phrased like this: All being is Buddha-nature and this empty world is inherently precious and without defilement, but still the world is full of suffering. It feels as if there are two separate realities – and much of the time it seems they have nothing to do with each other. How do we integrate them? Is it possible?

Here’s the good news: the need to integrate what can seem like two separate realities is just one of the many stages of the spiritual path. Which means it’s possible, there’s more to come, and it’s worth forging ahead.

Note: the struggle I am talking about here is not about doubting whether God is good, or whether all being is Buddha-nature. That’s another struggle, and a fruitful one. What I’m talking about here is learning how to live wholeheartedly once you have a deep, personal conviction there is a profound and redemptive foundation to everything that embraces all the suffering and makes it, somehow, okay. This is conviction is wonderful, but at some point simply taking refuge in it, however comforting, begins to seem hollow and unhelpful.

I once wrestled publicly with this dilemma of two realities (see Wearing My Heart [and Doubt] On My Sleeve). After that event, my days were been consumed by normal, mundane activities like emails, databases, housecleaning, and worrying about money. At times it seems the doubt had dissipated, or was only a dramatic description of a momentary experience, but it was still there. It lurked like grief, which stays with us for a long time but can lie dormant, waiting for the right thing to wake it up.

Then one evening, happily munching on a veggie burger and not thinking any particularly deep thoughts, I was reading a passage from Ross Bolleter’s Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment. (1) My husband sat next to me reading his ipad, and I asked if I could interrupt him to share something. As I read the passages out loud from Bolleter’s book, I started to tear up. I couldn’t quite finish the section I meant to share because the words got stuck in my throat. (Fortunately, my husband is used to this and wasn’t alarmed.)

Strange – before trying to speak the passages out loud I knew I related to them, but I didn’t realize how deeply. Someone was putting words to my experience. Even more importantly, someone was identifying my experience as part of a larger process of awakening to reality and learning how to be a full and authentic human being. The depth of my doubt didn’t mean I was a spiritual failure, or that my spiritual path is ultimately useless. In fact, it was a sign that deeper understanding and integration was possible.

I want to share with you the passage in Bolleter’s book that so touched me, but it needs a little introduction. In this particular chapter Bolleter is talking about the fourth “rank,” a place in spiritual practice where we have personally experienced something transcendent (in Zen it is a realization of emptiness, in other traditions it might be an encounter with the divine, or a personal relationship with Christ) and now we are trying to integrate that experience with the often brutal or bleak reality of life.

In Zen, the transcendent is called the absolute, or essential, and the reality of daily life is called the relative, or the contingent. Bolleter offers commentary on a line of ancient poetry that describes the fourth rank, “No need to dodge when blades are crossed.” He writes:

“Crossed swords represent the opposition of darkness and light, which correspond to the essential and the contingent, respectively. Given that advance or retreat are equally impossible, we stay put and open to life where we are… Forgetting emptiness, we face up to hard-nosed particularity and oppositional circumstance, treating them as all there is. Yet, although we avoid taking refuge in emptiness, we nonetheless deepen and mature our experience of emptiness by facing up to the challenges we encounter…

“The image of the crossed swords may also symbolize a dilemma: we encounter the crumbling edges of our life and practice, where we sense that whatever we’ve realized can’t light up the darkness and grief of estrangement, or magically resolve our inability to forgive. We must respond by allowing this dilemma, filled with painful confusion and uncertainty, to be just what it is. This is the crux of the matter of not dodging when swords are crossed.”

All of this may sound rather academic or philosophical, but it’s not. What it means is that when I go to visit my friend who is a more or less housebound with extremely painful rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, I refuse to comfort either her or myself with platitudes about how life is ultimately precious, or how if we can just appreciate this moment our suffering is just a concept. These observations about the essential or the transcendent are true, and we may need to take refuge in them at times in order to sustain ourselves. However, they do not make the suffering go away. They do not in any way make the suffering less real.

The way forward, is through the suffering. Not turning away, not reaching back for comforting convictions. Meeting the suffering directly, on its own terms. And I’m not just talking about the acute suffering involved in physical pain, disease, death, injustice, etc. I’m also talking about the daily suckiness of anger, confusion, and the general frustration of being unable to grab hold of lasting peace and happiness.

Heading into the suffering seems crazy, right? Isn’t the whole point is to alleviate suffering? It may be completely counter-intuitive, but according to the teachings of our great spiritual masters, leaving behind our answers and throwing ourselves into direct relationship with the messy, ambiguous nature of the contingent eventually allows us to function even more effectively at alleviating suffering. It does not mean turning our back on the divine, the pure, the transcendent, because that is not actually possible. Our convictions are part of who we are and will manifest in everything do even if we do not consciously hang on to them.

Wow. Maybe, just maybe, if I learn not to “dodge when blades are crossed,” I will someday be able to experience the fifth rank, where (according to Bolleter) “all that we have regarded as the essential and the contingent are found to be none other than each other. The polarities of the earlier modes are annulled, and the algebra of the spirit disappears without remainder into our lives lived as the Way.”

Don’t you think the defining characteristic of a compassionate sage is functioning in the fifth rank, where essential and contingent, divine and human, are realized to exist simultaneously – occupying the same space and time without separation? Think of the saints and other radiant people who have seemed more awake to the world of suffering than most of us, but who also seemed to be not of this world. As long as I let go of any idea that “I” might become such a person, the way forward seems clear.

(1) Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment by Ross Bolleter. Wisdom Publications, 2014.



The Importance of Sangha Part 5 of 5 – Sangha As Service

The Importance of Sangha Part 5 of 5 – Sangha As Service

Part 5 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4):

There are many, many more benefits of Sangha I could go into, but I’ll end this series of posts with how Sangha can become a practice of generosity and service to others. Let’s say you’ve been part of a Sangha for many years and your Zen or Buddhist practice is strong. You have a pretty good understanding of the Dharma, you can see your Dharma friends outside of Sangha events, and you’ve experienced a fair amount of polishing from potato practice (whether within Sangha or elsewhere in your life). Why keep participating in Sangha?

A short answer is this: as a strong practitioner, you strengthen the Sangha with your mere presence, and thereby make it a better refuge for others. Putting aside the relatively superficial differences between Sanghas in terms of overall flavor and style, healthy, mature Sanghas tend have a certain energy or tone. They feel stable and resilient as a group – and therefore able to accept new members and endure upsets and changes without fracturing. Strong Sanghas have a clear sense of their purpose and their commonly-held practice or tradition, so newcomers are less likely to be able to hijack Sangha discussions or events (this sometimes happens when new people bring particular agendas with them).

A strong Sangha will also feel – and this is a little difficult to describe – sane. Individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can sometimes feel to others, energetically, as if they’re vibrating at a higher or a discordant frequency, or, alternatively, as if they’re a drain on the energy of others. The more sane, strong practitioners there are in a room, the more the overall energy of the Sangha will feel sane – grounded, tuned in to reality and the experience of others, and able to behave appropriately.

This is why it’s important us to keep participating in Sangha even if we don’t feel so much of a personal need to do so: our sane presence grounds and strengthens the Sangha so it can hold people even when they’re new, uncertain, anxious, neurotic, on a soapbox, oblivious, obnoxious, or struggling with tragedy or mental illness. In other words, people who are really suffering need our support. A teacher or priest can’t provide a wholesome, stable, safe container for vulnerable or vibrating individuals all by themselves, so – ironically – the stronger and older your practice is, the less you may feel you need Sangha, but the more you have to offer the Sangha – the more Sangha needs you. Even when you don’t have a special role to play at a given practice event – or even especially when that is that case – you make a substantial contribution with your steady and enthusiastic participation.

I’ll close with some words about Sangha from revered Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Taking refuge in the Sangha means putting your trust in a community of solid members who practice mindfulness together. You do not have to practice intensively – just being in a Sangha where people are happy, living deeply the moments of their days, is enough. Each person’s way of sitting, walking, eating, working and smiling is a source of inspiration; and transformation takes place without effort. If someone who is troubled is placed in a good Sangha, just being there is enough to bring about a transformation.”

– Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, from Cultivating the Mind of Love


The Importance of Sangha Part 4

The Importance of Sangha Part 4

Part 4 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1Part 2 and Part 3):


Potato Practice: Benefiting from Friction with Others

Being asked to include everyone in the Sangha with an open heart is a very, very different scenario than “out in the world,” where for the most part everyone picks and chooses who they want to spend time with based on their preferences, without feeling the slightest need to look any deeper than that. In Sangha – ideally, at least – everyone belongs as long as they have a sincere interest in the Dharma, behave with a basic level of consideration and respect, and don’t pose a threat to others. This means an open Sangha of any significant size is inevitably going to include people who annoy you or even who trigger negative karmic reactions in you.

You may experience a negative reaction to someone as soon as you walk through a Sangha’s door, or only after many years, but it’s important to recognize this as an opportunity and not as sign that the Sangha treasure isn’t working for you. It’s tempting when we feel negatively about someone to take off, or ask the other person to change, or try to maneuver things so you don’t have to encounter the person much. However, if you stick around and face your interpersonal friction or conflict instead, you may be able to resolve major issues that would otherwise follow you for a lifetime!

The value of learning from interpersonal friction is actually so central to Zen practice, we have a term for it: potato practice. If you ever need to wash a whole bunch of potatoes, float them all in a big sink full of water and then tumble them against one another with your hands. By bumping into one another, the potatoes become amazingly clean! Another commonly-used analogy is that practicing in Sangha is like being a sharp-edged rock tossed in a rock tumbler with a bunch of other sharp-edged rocks: Eventually, we polish one another until we’re shiny and smooth (or, put in practice terms, self-aware, humble, authentic, compassionate, etc.).

This benefit from interpersonal friction within Sangha happens whenever interactions between people provide a “mirror” of sorts for one or more of the people involved, allowing them to become more aware of their behavior and views. For example, potato practice happens when an overbearing Sangha member eventually notices no one wants to work with them, and they finally get some gentle but honest feedback about their behavior. It happens when a new person arrives and you feel a powerful negative reaction based on some aspect of their personal appearance or manner of speaking, revealing a “sharp edge” of yours that may be tied to past experiences or an insecurity of your own. You don’t get to exclude someone from the Sangha just because, when you’re around them, you feel annoyed, judgmental, defensive, inferior, needy, etc. As long as you don’t exclude yourself from the Sangha, you have a chance to experience some spiritual polishing!

Note: The fact that potato practice is valuable doesn’t mean anything goes in terms of Sangha behavior – that no matter how outrageously someone acts, it’s just an opportunity for you to examine your own karma and learn not to be reactive. Taken to extremes, potato practice can result in abusive and dysfunctional situations in Sangha. (This has happened, particularly in Zen communities, so watch out for it.) Sometimes what you need to learn from potato practice is how to skillfully and appropriately speak up and ask for what you need, or to point out how harm is being done.

On the other hand, the vast majority of human interactions that cause friction or conflict are not actually serious matters. Most people – including myself – could benefit from erring on the side of acceptance, non-reactivity, and inclusiveness about 99 times out of 100 when we feel a negative reaction to someone or their behavior.

Resolving Lifelong Karma through Relationship

If you’re part of a Sangha for many years, you will probably get a chance to experience an even more significant aspect of the “potato practice” discussed above. Chances are, you’ll encounter at least one other long-term Sangha member you just can’t get along with to save your life. They may bug others as well, or just you, but once again you’re faced with an opportunity for deep practice and transformation. When we have powerful, negative karmic reactions to certain people, it’s usually because our unresolved issues are butting up against their unresolved issues. It can be an uncomfortable process, but as long as both of you remain in the Sangha and do your best, eventually you may be able to help one another recognize and overcome significant inner obstacles.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share an example from my own practice. My monastic Dharma brother and I had to live and practice together at a very small Zen center for many years – we’re talking about encountering each other just about 24-7 for meditation, work, meals, everything. I triggered him in ways that made it difficult for him to trust me, probably in part because of my extroverted habit of demanding responses from him that would validate me in some way. This made him withdraw, which only made me more insecure and desperate for approval. All of our interactions felt to me like complete misunderstandings at best, and stressful struggle at worst. In order to mitigate the tension, our teacher mercifully assigned us daily work that would minimize the amount we had to interact.

Eventually, I recognized my lifelong pattern of gravitating toward people who I felt judged and rejected me, in order to impress them and ingratiate myself with them. I tended to judge myself on how well I was able to anticipate what would generate disapproval in the person, and then adapt my behavior in order to shift the reaction to approval. Recognizing this tendency at last, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. Instead, I began reminding myself, whenever I perceived disapproval (real or not) from my Dharma brother, it was his responsibility to tell me if he had a problem with me. I would try to act respectfully and kindly, but not twist myself in knots over someone else’s reactivity to me. This helped a lot; it let me relax, and therefore it helped my Dharma brother relax!

Eventually I took practice with this problematic relationship one step further: I realized I wanted my Dharma brother to love and respect me, but even more than that, I wanted him to assure me that was the case. I wanted him to address and overcome my doubts. Sadly, he took my barely-camouflaged demand for reassurance as a sign that I didn’t trust him! So, one day, I decided to recklessly act as if he loved and respected me. I mean, if I really thought about it, I had to admit he probably did. Doing this felt a little scary, but heck, I was really tired of my old way of operating. Beautifully, miraculously, my relationship with my Dharma brother opened up and blossomed. Mutual trust grew, and we remain deeply grateful for the valuable interpersonal lessons we taught each other.

The Importance of Sangha Part 3

The Importance of Sangha Part 3

Part 3 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1 and Part 2):

Forming Dharma Friendships

Most of us also find social connection within a Sangha. It’s very precious to end up with friends who share your aspirations and the language of your spiritual practice. Personally, I find it very rare to have conversations outside of Sangha that are as deep and meaningful as the ones I regularly have with what I call “my dharma sisters and brothers.” I remember being amazed when I first joined a Sangha that adults anywhere would get together, admit they weren’t perfect, and sincerely discuss their aspirations to work toward greater wisdom and compassion. I continue to be amazed that I can talk with people in the Sangha about the profound bliss that can be found gazing mindfully at a spot of sunlight on the carpet… and have them understand!

Practice in the midst of everyday life is challenging, and it can be valuable to have a trusted friend – or two, or three – to talk to about it. Friends can give us inspiration, encouragement, and comradery – and sometimes they’re the ones who can ask us the most useful questions. A teacher may be of some support to us, but sometimes it’s easier to be totally honest with friends – we let them hear us complain or despair or express anger. A good Sangha friend will hold what we say in confidence, without judgement, but also without entirely believing us, either. They know our aspirations and encourage us to remember them. In the Mitta Sutta, Shakyamuni Buddha described a good friend:

“He gives what is beautiful,
hard to give,
does what is hard to do,
endures painful, ill-spoken words.

His secrets he tells you,
your secrets he keeps.

When misfortunes strike,
he doesn’t abandon you;
when you’re down & out,
doesn’t look down on you.”[1]

Another profound aspect of Dharma friendship within Sangha is that gradually, over time, the people in Sangha get to know us. If we allow it to happen, we end up being seen for who we really are – including our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It can be incredibly healing and encouraging to find we’re still accepted by the Sangha despite the end of our anonymity, and regardless of the fact that – eventually – we let our guard down or fail to keep our act up. Many people carry around the fear that they will be rejected if others find out what they’re really like – but wonderfully, that fear tends to be unfounded because we’re our own worst critics.


Taking Responsibility for Our Social Issues and Reactions

Of course, while it’s lovely to think about Dharma friendships and healing acceptance, few people find social interactions easy. In fact, the realm of interpersonal relationships and communication is one of the most challenging places to practice! It brings up all kinds of issues for us: the need for validation and approval, sensitivity to criticism, judging others, competition for popularity, fear of rejection, avoidance of intimacy… you name it. Whatever social neuroses, habits, and conditioning you had before encountering Sangha, you’ll bring with you when you participate in one.

For all their aspirations, I don’t know that Zen and Buddhist practitioners are, on average, any more socially skillful that anyone else. In fact, Zen in particular tends to attract introverts because the central practice involves silent meditation – so it’s not at all uncommon for people new to a Sangha to end up standing awkwardly by themselves during informal social breaks! The introverts who have been in the Sangha longer have finally managed to find friends, and the last thing they want to do is try to chat up a stranger. If you find yourself feeling socially awkward or isolated in a Sangha, the best thing to do is find someone who looks even more awkward and isolated and offer a friendly word.

What’s beautiful is that, within the Sangha, we have a wonderful opportunity to examine and work through our social issues. The basic premise of Buddhism is that we’re responsible for what happens within our own minds and hearts – that we’re touched and influenced by the world around us, but ultimately nothing outside of us has to make us feel or react in a certain way. When we’re practicing, we look within ourselves for the cause of a negative feeling or response before we place the blame outside.

Therefore, it’s not enough just to say you don’t like someone; you need to ask yourself what within your own mind causes that reaction. It’s not enough to say you don’t like a certain social environment, you need to explore what makes you uncomfortable about it. Once people have been doing Sangha practice for a while, they’ll be asking themselves the same thing, about their reactions to you.

The result is an environment where, for the most part, people aspire to accept and embrace all Sangha members equally, and then take responsibility for their own negative feelings and reactions. Naturally you’re going to gravitate toward particular people, but the background aspiration, based in Buddhist practice, is learning to let go of our attachments and preferences, and to treat all beings with openness and compassion. Particularly if you struggle with social anxiety, this invites you to relax, because if someone has a negative reaction to you, that’s their practice. If their reaction is about something you’ve said or done that needs to be addressed, it’s their practice to let you know. You can stop worrying about others, and focus on what you can influence: your own mind.


[1] “Mitta Sutta: A Friend” (AN 7.35), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 July 2010,




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