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What Is Meant By Zen “Practice”?

If you have spent any time in a Zen community, or reading Zen books, you will have encountered the term “practice” countless times. Zen ancestors and teachers exhort us to practice diligently. Fellow practitioners talk to one another about their practice: “I have been practicing 20 years,” or “I just started practice,” or “Lately my practice has been focussed on an acceptance of change.” We say it is hard to practice without a Sangha, or community. When facing challenges in life, we say, “It’s good practice.”

If you asked 100 Zen practitioners what they mean by “practice,” you probably wouldn’t get 100 different answers, but you would probably get about 25 different answers. With the word “practice,” some people are referring specifically to the things they do that can be clearly identified as “Zen,” like study of Buddhist texts, participation in Sangha, or meditation. Most include these things but also are referring to the day-to-day efforts they make in their own minds and hearts to understand and/or manifest Buddhist teachings.

Knowing my definition will change over time, I’ll nonetheless take a risk and offer a definition of “practice:” inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest questions, longings and fears, in order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense. Below I will explain this definition, phrase by phrase.

Inquiry and behaviors: In general there are two paths of practice, understanding and manifestation. Inquiry leads to understanding, and the adoption and cultivation of certain kinds of behaviors leads to manifestation. Many people have more affinity for one path than the other. Some of us want to understand – not just in an intellectual way, but also in a deep knowing that comes from personal experience – before we fully commit ourselves to action. Others of us are primarily drawn to manifestation or action and want to start living out our values and aspirations as soon as possible; understanding can come later as a side effect or bonus. Of course, most people are interested in both understanding and manifestation, and ultimately our practice must include both. The Buddhist ancestors have taught many times that no matter what behavioral practices you adopt, if you don’t understand the great matter of life and death you will not really have achieved liberation. On the other hand, what good is understanding if you don’t manifest what you have learned? 

Undertaken to address and resolve one’s deepest spiritual questions, longings and fears: Our secular societies and other spiritual traditions typically offer us two options with respect to these issues: 

  1. Don’t ask troubling questions, there aren’t any answers, so just try to fulfill your longings and cope with your fears; and
  2. Here are the answers to your questions, as well as instructions for what to do about your longings and fears.

Zen is a radical tradition in that is proposes:

  1. There are indeed answers to your deepest spiritual questions, including ones like, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How can there be so much good and evil in the world at the same time?” and there is no limit to the depth of the questions that can be asked and answered except your own courage and perseverance;
  2. It is possible to address and resolve your deepest longings and fears, including longings like those for meaning, security and connection, and fears like those of death, loss or annihilation, and again there is no limit to the depth of that which can be faced and transformed except your own courage and perseverance;
  3. The answers and resolutions cannot be taught to you by others or read in books, they must be personally explored and experienced. While Buddhist teachers have taught about the answers and resolutions for well over 2,000 years, you do not need to accept anything they offer without personal verification, and if you do, it will not be of nearly as much good to you as your own personal experience. Answers and resolutions occur, come into being, only when lived. 

In short, Zen dares you to address and explore spiritual matters that may make you quiver in your shoes, and is a method, not a system of answers.

In order to live the best possible human life in a spiritual sense: What does this mean to you? According to one Buddhist teaching there are five kinds of “energies” within us, and for most of us one or two energies predominate. Each energy is associated with a different kind of spiritual preoccupation: 

  • intimacy (with other beings but also with everything we encounter)
  • stability (or security, the sense of being real, strong and substantial)
  • order (the universe has a structure that is, or should be, reflected in everything)
  • efficacy (ability to move, act and interact with universe in a impactful and efficient or graceful way)
  • transcendence (a sense of the “more” beyond the details of our everyday lives)

With each of these spiritual longings comes an accompanying set of typical fears and tendencies. 

Whether the particular breakdown of human spiritual preoccupations offered above makes sense to you or not, it makes clear the variety of ways people will conceive of “living the best possible human life in a spiritual sense.” One person may think of living a moral life with a maximum of benefit, and a minimum of harm, to others. Another may think of rich, meaningful, intimate, brave relationships with family and friends, and an general open generosity to all beings. Another may think of developing a deep understanding of the universe and human life, and creating things that reflect their understanding of the beauty and order they have discovered. What is common to all of these is a liberation of human potential from the bondage of misunderstanding, longing and fear.

You certainly don’t have to accept my definition of “practice.” In fact, if you don’t, if you argue with it, it will be of just as much – if not more – benefit to you than if you find it true or useful. The important thing is engaging everything wholeheartedly in the spirit of practice – inquiry and behaviors undertaken to address and resolve…

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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