Developing a Practice

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Of Buddhist practice’s “Three treasures” or jewels — Buddha, Dharma and Sangha — the one often ignored among new Western practitioners is Sangha.

Historically, sangha has referred to the followers of the Buddha — the monks and nuns. Nowadays in the West we use sangha to describe people who practice together and, in a far broader sense, to include all the followers of the teachings, all the practitioners.

The Buddha is the one who realizes. The Dharma is what is realized. And the Sangha is the harmony of practice, both communal and individual, in accord with the Buddha-way. In this way, all relationships teach us, even as we appreciate and polish each other, endlessly.  Maezumi Roshi

Ultimately, sangha points to the very fact of interrelatedness, of interdependence — that everything functions together. That’s the sangha principal.

I can not emphasize enough the importance of sitting with others — as well as on one’s own — and practicing together with a qualified teacher and a community group of practitioners. It’s really a shame that many people who are interested in practicing meditation have little sense of the importance of working or sitting or communing with a group of like-minded others.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice if you live far from a Zen community. But at some point it becomes really really worthwhile to say “OK, I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten with my solitary practice and now it’s time for me to find a teacher, to find a group, a sangha with whom I can relate, so that aspect of my practice can develop.

In the old days you’d have to travel abroad. Dogen traveled to China ("to dusty lands”). In the West we have a rare opportunity, as there are a growing number of qualified teachers and many of us need only travel a few hundred miles to attend a sesshin or meditation retreat.

Sitting at a Zen center

If you do have access to a Zen center and decide to sit with that community, here are some things to keep in mind that will help you adapt to the communal sitting environment.

At many Zen centers the periods of sitting are usually between 30 and 35 minutes in length. So a half hour is a sitting period you can aim for as you’re developing your own practice.

At Zen Center of Los Angeles we sit 35 minute sessions. We recognize that newcomers who are sitting shorter sessions at home may experience some unavoidable difficulties.

Don’t fidget!

Let’s face it, not everyone can sit comfortably and motionlessly for long periods of time. Practically no one can when they first start! When sitting alone you can build up both the length of your sitting periods and your ability to sit still. But what about when you sit in a Zen center, among more “experienced” sitters and even a teacher? There are two considerations: your practice and contributing to a supportive environment for everyone sitting together

When you’re trying very hard to be "a good zen student," you sometimes make unrealistic demands of yourself. If you can sit reasonably still for a period or two, that’s fine.  "Reasonably still" doesn’t mean perfect motionlessness. It means you’re not frequently wiggling around. It means that you’re not gasping or sobbing (too much) and that you’re not groaning silently to yourself.

Intensive training

Group practice in a Zen community usually includes daily practice, intensive training periods, and the special meditation retreat called sesshin.

If you live near a Zen center take advantage of the opportunity to integrate some of your practice with the center's.

Most Western training centers also schedule intensive training periods which include a strong emphasis on sitting as well talks by a teacher, individual study and contact with a teacher. You may find that in temporarily setting aside the usual routines of your life and engaging in such practice, you gain new awareness of your strength and flexibility, and the perspective that emerges through training can help you to deal more creatively with families, friends, and fellow workers.

Periodically Zen communities hold intensive sitting retreats called sesshin. The word “sesshin” comes from two Japanese words: setsu — " to collect” or “to regulate” and shin —“heart” or “mind”.. So a sesshin is a special time devoted to collecting or regulating the heart/mind.

It has been said that one who has not sat sesshin has yet to fully experience Zen practice.

Three to seven day sesshins provides an opportunity to live, eat, sit, work, and sleep inside the monastery or Zen center. While the emphasis is on sitting — usually about eight to ten hours daily — there is also work-practice, chanting, talks by the teacher, and daily personal encounters between teacher and student.

Such immersion offers an important change of pace and focus from everyday life that can have cumulative and far-reaching impact on your life and practice. It can bring you closer to yourself and can build strength and self-confidence. Sesshin can also awaken you to the preciousness of time.

Sesshin leads you through confusion and scattered energies past the ego, and beyond dualistic thought. It is a rugged and sobering trek, with deep valleys and high peaks. But it is in the making of the journey that the individual and the community discover and create themselves from moment to moment. In a fashion you may have never experienced, sesshin relieves you of the need to break concentration even briefly. Every moment, every action can be experienced as arising from the moments and actions preceding and following it. In sesshin you can explore explore what it really means to pay attention, moment after moment. And as this awareness sinks in, you may begin to wonder how much of your so-called “everyday” life passes unnoted, unappreciated, unused.

Sesshin is an opportunity to discover life anew, and, with this discovery, what it means to be alive.

The word sesshin also implies unifying or harmonizing ones’ individual practice with that of the larger group. The experience of sitting, working, and being with diverse yet similarly-attuned group of others serves to greatly heighten the sense of immediateness and personal relevance of sitting, and to afford a far more visceral appreciation of Zen practice. And in the process, your sense of relatedness to others—and to the teachings and the practice itself—is greatly enhanced.

It is common for us in the West to see individual and group activities as polar opposites, and we tend to feel that we must choose between them. But in sesshin, it becomes clear that both are real and compatible, and that the deepest harmony occurs when both are accorded the right appreciation and expression.

[To learn more about sitting in sesshin, see Zen Meditation in Plain English.]