Select Page

Zen Is Not a Self-Improvement Project – Or Is It?

Lately I’ve been talking about pure zazen as being letting go of any and all effort. Even beyond our zazen, Dogen says in Fukanzazengi that those of us on the Zen path should “Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort.” In Roshi Kennett’s translation,[i] this is, “respect those who have reached the goal of goallessness.”

These discussions about effortlessness and goallessness has led a number of people, quite naturally, to ask: Is it okay to want to improve, and to use our Zen practice for that purpose, or are we “supposed” to give up any goal of improvement?

It probably won’t surprise you that the Zen answer to this question is, “Yes.” It’s okay to want to improve, and to use our Zen practice for that purpose, and the ancestors strongly advise us to give up any goal of improvement. (Stuck between a rock and a hard place, our Zen practice is rarely comfortable.)

In brief, gradually working to improve ourselves – deepening and strengthening our compassion, wisdom, and skillfulness – is essential. What kind of spiritual practice would Zen be if it encouraged you to be complacent about, or even obstinately proud of, your ignorance, selfishness, and negative habits? Humility and the desire for happiness for all beings – including yourself – is a prerequisite for practice and liberation.

And yet… how do we approach the work to improve ourselves? Usually, we have a goal in mind. Even if we’re not aiming at perfection, we’re sure aiming not to be who we are. We want to rid ourselves of some Buddhist version of Original Sin, after which point we will be okay in some ultimate and transcendent way. If we can just reach 50% perfection (or 30%, or 90%), we’ll be at peace… but we’re never seem to arrive at our destination.

In Zen, we don’t deny that the tools of practice can help you become happier, more mindful, more concentrated in your meditation, better able to deal with your emotions, etc. In fact, you’re expected to be doing that kind of work all along. That’s why we emphasize the precepts and how you conduct yourself in even your most mundane activities. However, in Zen, this is not the main point. What is the main point? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I should say that even though self-improvement is not Zen’s main point, that doesn’t get you off the hook – you still gotta keep doing it, diligently, year after year.

Okay, what is Zen’s main point? You have access to ultimate peace and perfection right now, just exactly the way you are. Liberation isn’t dependent on the degree of your self-improvement.

Many of our practices aim at self-improvement, but we must refrain from making goals out of our natural desire to improve. To set goals is to get trapped in dualistic thinking, which then keeps us separate from the absolute reality in which everything is already okay. Zen demands we operate at both the relative and absolute levels simultaneously. We don’t get to hide out in one or the other, even though they appear to contradict each other.




You Don’t Need to Improve or Get Anything to Fulfill the Buddha Way

You don’t need to improve one iota, change anything about yourself, or obtain anything you don’t already have, in order to fulfill the Buddha Way and directly experience the ultimate goal of Zen. You don’t have to lose weight, overcome your anxiety or depression, deepen your compassion, end your addictions, or improve your relationships. You don’t have to understand Buddhism, master the art of meditation, or experience special insights. No need to perfect your morality, generosity, mindfulness, self-discipline,[1] or become any more responsible or capable than you already are. Without a single improvement, without the addition of a single thing, this very moment you can awaken.

The nature of awakening is terribly (wonderfully?) ironic. It’s not about gaining or experiencing anything you don’t already have. It’s about realizing the indescribable preciousness of exactly the way things are – exactly the way you are – right here and now.

This can be difficult to grasp or accept, because of the doubt we feel about ourselves. This is fundamental doubt. It’s not just concern about whether you’re up to a particular task or challenge, it’s doubting that you have a rightful place on this planet, that you’re fundamentally worthy and lovable, that when your life is over it will have been well-spent, that you’re an indispensable part of the incredible beauty and wonder of this universe. Few of us are entirely free of this fundamental self-doubt! This is why 9th-century Chan master Lin-chi (or Rinzai) said:

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[2]

What is this self we’re supposed to have faith in? In some ways it doesn’t even make any sense to call it a “self,” at least in the sense that a self is conceived of as an inherently existing, independent, unique entity separate from all that is not-self. In Zen, sometimes we say our true self is no-self, in that all the ways we usually define self are illusions. Personality, history, habits, opinions, intentions, and accomplishments are irrelevant to our true self-nature, which is aliveness itself. We call it “self” because this particular, temporary, unique package of aliveness that we are is an active, conscious agent – creating order out of chaos, seeking ease and happiness, learning, growing, and drawn toward reunion with the greater reality of which we are a part.

What about our small, conditional self? When we awaken in a Zen sense, we then see clearly how our small self nature – our individuality, if you will – doesn’t in any way defile or obstruct our true self-nature. In fact, although our true nature, our buddha-nature, is luminous and completely unobstructed by the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives, that buddha-nature has no manifestation other than in the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives.

Our particular, peculiar manifestation in this life becomes our vehicle, our gift, and our learning experience. How can we make best use of who we are? How can we unravel our karmic knots and move more freely? How can we more fully enact the fact that our true self-nature is everyone’s self-nature, and we’re all part of something greater? What more can we learn? What have we not yet seen? The ways we can grow are infinite, and as long as we’re in a human body we will experience greed, hate, and delusion in some measure. This is why Shunryu Suzuki roshi famously said, ““Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”[3]

When we know our fundamental worthiness doesn’t depend on the outcome, our daily practice to improve ourselves can be done more lightly – even with joy.

(Want to read more on this topic? Read or listen to Domyo’s podcast episode on it: click here.)

Watson, Burton (Translator). The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[1] It is essential to work on this as well, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
[2] Watson, pg. 23
[3] Suzuki is widely quoted as saying this on the internet, but I couldn’t find any references to a book in which this quote can be found. If you know, email me!

Two Sides of Practice Part 2: When We Neglect Karma Relationship

Two Sides of Practice, but Only One Reality

I’ve heard people say karma relationship work is about the “relative world,” while samadhi power is about the absolute. There’s some truth in this statement, in the sense that relationships between beings and things are part of the relative aspect of reality. From the absolute perspective, there are no inherently-existing, separate beings and things that can be said to interact, and discriminations such as good and bad, right and wrong, don’t apply.

Still, it’s problematic to speak in a way that implies we can do some work in a “relative world,” which exists separately from some sublime, if confusing, “realm” of the absolute. Relative and absolute are two levels of truth about the exact same reality. Therefore, our work on karma relationship must be informed by, and reflect, absolute truth; this is what results in compassion, selflessness, and equanimity, because we’re empty of any inherent, separate self-nature, and all phenomena arise and pass within one, seamless, luminous reality. And our awakening to absolute truth must never be disembodied and removed from the relative reality of life. If our samadhi power feels disconnected from the mundane experience of everyday life, our work isn’t done. We have to learn to manifest our insight about the absolute, or the insight is incomplete and of limited usefulness.

What we’re ultimately looking for in Buddhist practice is integration of absolute and relative, or samadhi power and karma relationship. Our practice is maturing when these no longer appear to be two separate things. However, we can’t just skip to that point because we intellectually know absolute and relative aren’t separate! We have to walk our own path of practice, and – as my teacher was fond of reminding me, to my chagrin – it will take as long as it takes. No use comparing ourselves to others, or to ideals. As we practice, then, it’s extremely useful to keep in mind that we need to devote ourselves to samadhi power and karma relationship.


When We Neglect Karma Relationship

If we neglect either samadhi power or karma relationship, our practice will stagnate or go awry.

When we neglect karma relationship and focus on samadhi power, there’s a strong possibility we’ll become rather cold – emotionally distant, rejecting our own human limitations as well as those of others. We may be obsessed with spiritual insight or meditative experiences, as if they’re more important than anything else, or will solve everything.

Based on whatever understanding we have of absolute truth – even if it’s primarily intellectual – we may draw conclusions about life that cause pain and suffering from a relative perspective. For example: Ultimately, everything is “just-as-it-is” and precious, so there’s no compelling need to address injustice or work for positive change in the world. Because, in an absolute sense, distinctions between right and wrong don’t exist, you can do anything you want. It’s possible to be free from suffering by just letting go of attachment, so the people you hurt can just get over it. This kind of delusion – springing from an overemphasis on samadhi power and neglecting karma relationship – is part of what lies behind the problems you may have heard about happening in some Buddhist communities, where male teachers suddenly figure the rules about not getting sexually involved with students don’t apply to them. Trying to apply absolute truth at the relative level of reality is like cutting a finger off the hand we discussed earlier because in an absolute sense fingers don’t inherently and independently exist. Ouch!


Attachment to Absolute Truth

In addition, when we neglect karma relationship, we may become attached to whatever insights we have had about absolute truth. We dream longingly of our past sublime experiences, and resent the necessity of responding to the demands of daily life. Karma relationship may seem like an irrelevant drag, or a practice for beginners who lack the profound understanding we have. Many Zen stories about interactions between teachers and students involve the teacher provoking the student in order to get him or her to let go of attachment to the absolute and come back to earth. This isn’t just about making sure students don’t hide out in enlightenment experiences and avoid their mundane responsibilities; as long as there seems to be a separation between enlightened and mundane, your insight is still dualistic and not complete.

It’s certainly possible to overemphasize samadhi power even if you don’t think you’ve had any special insight or meditative experiences. Then you’ll probably either keep hoping something really cool will happen during your meditation, or you’ll feel inadequate and discouraged, and conclude samadhi power isn’t in the cards for you. It’s tempting to idealize spiritual insight and the people who have supposedly “awakened” to some degree or another – imagining that a direct experience of absolute truth gives you access to an alternate reality where everything is beautiful and easy. It’s good to resist this temptation to idealize insight as much as possible. Basically, if you don’t think you’ve had a personal experience of the ultimate aspect of life, such an experience isn’t what you think it is.


Trying to “Skip Over” Karma Work

Finally, some practitioners of Buddhism hold on to hope that if they can just get enough spiritual insight, the problems in their daily lives will resolve themselves – so there’s no need to waste time working with karma relationship directly. Karma work gets complicated and messy – much better to skip over it and fix everything by sitting in meditation or studying profound teachings! Unfortunately, this isn’t how spiritual practice works. If you’re making a mess of your life by acting carelessly and selfishly – indulging in anger, greed, or addiction; stealing, lying, etc. – you’re extremely unlikely to be able to cultivate the stillness of mind and body required for samadhi power. All those self-centered activities, and their consequences, are too agitating, and reinforce the delusion of an inherently-existing self-nature.

Even if you’re really good at meditative concentration and able to push the circumstances of your life out of your mind in order to achieve some kind of spiritual insight, you still have to learn how to apply that insight to your actual, daily life in the relative sense. Skillfully navigating the relative truth of our existence requires a whole different skill set. This is a brutal surprise for people who strive hard for awakening experiences and then have to face their messy lives after the experience fades. How to face this challenge is the subject of Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. On the other hand, if we’ve done our karma relationship work all along, we’ll already be living in a way that’s more consistent with absolute truth – so any insight we achieve will be more easily integrated and manifested. Then we’ll just have the satisfaction of personal insight to back it up and inspire us further.

Next week: When we neglect samadhi power, and how the two sides of practice complement each other

Two Sides of Practice Part 1: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship – Definitions

Buddhist practice can be seen as consisting of two parts, and both are essential. The first part is cultivating “samadhi power,” or our ability to perceive – or be awake to – the absolute aspect of reality. We do this through practices including meditation, mindfulness, and studying teachings such as impermanence and emptiness. The second part of our overall practice is working on “karma relationship,” or learning to live our daily lives in an enlightened way. We do this by working with our karma, keeping precepts, honoring relationships, and understanding how the absolute aspect of reality corresponds to the relative aspect.

In this episode I’ll explain more about what I mean by “samadhi power” and “karma relationship,” but I won’t go into great detail about how we cultivate each side of practice. Instead, I want to concentrate on how it’s important to recognize each side, and not neglect either one. Most people have the tendency to dwell on one aspect more than the other, and consequently face difficulties in their practice.

The terms “samadhi power” and “karma relationship” are ways my Dharma grandmother, Roshi Jiyu Kennett,[i] described the two sides of Buddhist practice. I’m not sure whether she more or less made them up, or whether they have their origin in Japanese terms. (If you happen to know, please send me a note!) I suspect Roshi Kennett innovated in using these particular terms to get across an important message about Japanese Zen practice to an English-speaking audience. However, even though these particular terms may be relatively new, or aimed at westerners, they refer to aspects of Buddhist practice that have been present from the beginning.


Defining “Samadhi Power”

Samadhi is an ancient Sanskrit word, and according A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, it literally means “establish, [or] make firm.”[ii] The Concise Dictionary then goes on to define the term as a “nondualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing ‘subject’ becomes one with the experienced ‘object’ – [and therefore] this is only experiential content.” The dictionary also explains that while samadhi is often translated as “one-pointedness of mind,” “samadhi is neither a straining concentration on one point, nor is the mind directed from here (subject) to there (object), which would be a dualistic mode of experience.”[iii]

I agree with the Concise Dictionary’s definition. Samadhi is about a direct, real-life experience of the nondual aspect of reality. In Zen, we refer to this as the absolute, or ultimate, nature of existence, as contrasted with its relative, or phenomenal nature. The absolute and relative aren’t two different realities, or even two different experiences of one reality; they’re two simultaneously-true levels of truth.

Here’s an analogy that might help you understand how absolute and relative truths apply at the same time: at the one level of truth, analogous to the relative, each finger on your hand exists. Each one is different, and separate, which is what allows them to function. At another level of truth, the fingers are inseparable from one another, or from the hand of which they’re a part. Each finger only exists in order to function relative to other fingers, and therefore each finger’s existence is in part defined by the existence of the other fingers. And where does a finger actually begin and end? What about the muscles that are necessary for the finger to function, but extend into the rest of the hand? It’s meaningless to conceive of a finger existing utterly independently of a hand; even if removed, a finger is identified by the relationships it used to have. At the larger level of truth – analogous to the absolute – things are considered as a whole. This hand analogy is, of course, very simplistic. However, it points to how absolute and relative are just two truths about one reality.

(If you want to study more about absolute and relative, there’s a link in the show notes on the website to a chart I made, which lists and defines a bunch of terms used to describe the two sides of existence, including principle and phenomena, equality and difference, and emptiness and form. I also discuss the “two truths” teaching in depth in my episodes on Dogen’s Genjokoan.)

Buddhism offers many ways for us to deepen our direct experience of absolute truth, or cultivate samadhi power. We meditate, or sit zazen, learning to let go of our discriminating thinking and just be. The more still our mind becomes, the less we differentiate self from all things “other” than self, and the sense in which we aren’t separate from anything else in the universe becomes palpable. We meditate regularly, but may also seek to deepen our meditation in a profound way by participating in silent, week-long meditation retreats. In addition, we practice mindfulness throughout our day, letting go of our mental commentary and narrative in favor of directly experiencing the fullness of this moment. We challenge our beliefs that relative objects, concepts, and relationships are inherently real by studying Buddhist teachings about the absolute side of reality.

When we manage, even for a moment, to drop the conceptual filter we usually hold over our experience of life, we wake up to the absolute aspect of reality. This isn’t a far-out, transcendent, event we force to happen by working ourselves into a rarefied spiritual state; rather, it’s waking up to a truth that’s always there, but we can’t usually see it because we’re so busy thinking, and looking out for ourselves. Our impression of absolute truth, when we experience it, isn’t always the same, but it can usually be described by words like infinite, boundless, luminous, precious, complete, full, or unconditional. Learning to perceive the absolute aspect of things, and strengthening our ability to perceive it at will, gives us great solace and strength.

The “power” in Roshi Kennett’s “samadhi power” doesn’t refer to power in the sense of control or dominance, or to supernatural abilities you could use to impress people. Instead, “power” refers to the ability to drop your dualistic thinking, allow subject and object to fall away, and experience the absolute aspect of reality. The term “power” also points to the energy, strength, and effort required to cultivate samadhi – which is ironic, because samadhi is more about not doing than doing. It actually takes great effort to allow ourselves to settle into a nondualistic state of consciousness, because our habits of clinging to discriminative thought, and pushing for self-centered agendas, are very strong.


Defining “Karma Relationship”

Any experience of the absolute aspect of reality passes, and we become more aware of relative truth again. Even profound and astonishing experiences of samadhi don’t instantly transform us into saints. Frankly, this fact is, perhaps, one of the more surprising, confusing, and initially disappointing parts of human spiritual practice. Once you see clearly how all is One, or how luminous and precious all of existence is, or how all beings have Buddha nature, or how God is present in everything, you’d think you’d subsequently spend the rest of your life walking around blissed-out and sublimely compassionate. But you don’t. At least, not forever, and usually not for long. Which is why we have the other side of practice: Karma relationship.

Karma is another Sanskrit term, and it literally means action or deed. Over time, however, it has come to refer to the universal law of moral cause-and-effect – so, in other words, in encompasses not just a deed, but the effects of that deed. According to Buddhism, the effects of any action are determined a large part by the intentions behind the action. So, for example, if you accidentally cause a death, the results are very different than if you commit murder. Traditionally, Buddhists believed in the cycle of transmigration, or rebirth, and figured that even if you didn’t reap the negative or positive consequences of your actions in this life, you’d experience them in a future life. Because of the disruption and problems harmful actions caused for self and other, the Buddha was very clear: moral behavior was a prerequisite for any progress on the path to liberation. Appropriate action, speech, and livelihood were included in his first teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The idea of karma relationship as an essential aspect of Buddhist practice doesn’t require a belief in rebirth, of course. What’s important is an emphasis on paying attention to our actions and their consequences, and aiming to minimize suffering and maximize wisdom, true happiness, and compassion for ourselves and others. Working on karma means taking responsibility for our behavior, cultivating an intention to do better, and carefully observing the process of cause and effect so we develop an understanding of how to do better.

I suspect Roshi Kennett added the word “relationship” to karma in order to make it clear she wasn’t suggesting we need to study the law of karma in some abstract sense. Instead, working on our karma relationship is all about real-life relationship – with other people, other beings, objects, roles, effort, ideas, our sense of self, and even law of karma. There are many parts of our Buddhist practice where we work on karma relationship, including following moral precepts, the practice of vow, and interacting with other people in the Sangha, or Buddhist community. We also work to strengthen our mindfulness so we can be aware of our own mind states, intentions, and behaviors, and notice their consequences. This awareness is a prerequisite for us to undertake any kind of change.

Next week: How samadhi power and karma relationship are really just two aspects of the same reality, what happens when neglect either side, and how the two sides of practice support each other.

[ii] Fischer-Schreiber et al. Samadhi definition.
[iii] Ibid


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.



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 focused 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…