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Zen – A Beginner’s Guide to Practice

As a member of the Melbourne Zen Group, i rewrote the existing orientation notes that were given to beginners or new members some years back. The Practice Facilitator’s group of more senior, long-term students then helped to edit the new version into publishable format. This guide is the result and it can also be found on the MZG website at http://mzg.org.au/zen-practice/.

What is Zen?

Zen is meditation. This Japanese term traces back to the word chan in Chinese Buddhism, and further back to the word dhyana in Indian Buddhism. As with the change in word, zen is a Buddhist practice that draws its inspiration from a number of traditions, each time taking shape in the culture it finds itself in. What is consistent, though, is the emphasis on meditation.

Many people have a preconceived notion about what zen is or isn’t, formed from things they’ve read or heard about it. The only function of zen, though, is to practice it. So what we are here for, in the Melbourne Zen Group, is zen practice.

There are four parts of the practice we will introduce: sitting, walking, chanting, ritual and living your life as the most important practice of all.

The fundamental point of all these exercises is the concentration of attention and mindfulness. This is necessary to keep ourselves from wandering off, blown about in our awareness. Emotions, thoughts, and sensations can capture our attention, and if we follow our automatic reaction to them we will be their servants. Our ability to concentrate allows us to be mindful of what is actually happening. These two, concentration and mindfulness, are two sides of the same coin, which is practice.

This mindfulness and concentration in the midst of everyday life is explored in regular sitting and deepened at sesshin (meditation retreats). As it is strengthened, our way of life in the world can be transformed, attuning the mind to a contemplative awareness of our Buddha nature.

So what’s the chanting and ritual about?

One of the first things you’ll notice about a formal zen practice is that it may seem just that – formal. The aspect of ritual involved in zen practice is not an empty imitation of Japanese or Chinese traditions, however, but acts as a mirror to the kind of alive attention that embraces every moment of our (mostly) silent practice.

At the beginning of our zazen, the group chants a few verses that are highly regarded in the zen tradition for their wisdom and ability to awaken compassionate awareness in the heart. The Heart Sutra is a much celebrated text in Mahayana Buddhism and is widely considered to be one of its most succinct formulations of spiritual insight. Some of our chants are in the language of their origin (for example Sino-Japanese) and in these cases there are English translations alongside them. These chants help us to remain aware about the goals of our practice, and the rituals that accompany them – the ringing of bells, bowing to a figure of the Buddha on our altar – likewise aid in the concentration of our attention on the moment.

Like an orchestra, when we follow the forms, it concentrates our group effort, too. An orchestra playing in tune does not have to play hard to sound powerful. Similarly, when we sit and practice together with each other it creates a powerful impetus for our practice.

Finding your own way

The practice of zen is designed to help us to find our own way to enlightenment. “Zazen teaches zazen,” we are told. The idea of zen is that you are not learning a path or way to enlightenment by rote, but are instead inspired and guided by both a historical record of teachings as well as by qualified zen teachers to discover your own truths. In traditional zen practice, beginners were often left to themselves somewhat, and were expected to sharpen their perceptions as they watched and learnt from others. In our modern Western group, we try to show a warmer welcome to newcomers, and offer to orient them to the practice of zen as helpfully as possible.

Posture

The following posture points are meant to keep you upright and relaxed, upright in concentration but without tension. The physical posture is often the first point of practice for new sitters. The effort to stay still and sit upright, after a lifetime of distraction and slouching, can give us an opportunity to see how we fall into aversion or attraction. Notice your attention when you shift to a more upright position. Notice how the quality of your awareness changes with the quality of your posture, breathing and relaxation.

     Zazen:

Sit with your spine slightly elongated and relaxed while maintaining its natural curvature, like a baby. Your head is balanced on top with the chin lightly tucked in. Your eyes are half gazing at 45 degrees to the wall/floor. Your tongue is on the roof of your mouth. Your hands are positioned thus: the back of the left hand over the right palm, and the back of your right hand resting on your lap with your thumbs describing an oval, lightly touching. Your hips are raised (with help of cushion) and tilted slightly forward. Keep your belly soft and relaxed. Your knees are resting on, or close to, the ground with legs folded. (When sitting on a chair, ensure that your feet are placed flat on the ground and that the hips are slightly higher than the knees.)

     Kinhin:

At the end of each sitting period the Jiki rings a bell. Stand for kinhin. The posture for kinhin is the same as zazen, except that we do it while walking – remaining upright, relaxed and mindfully aware but not self-conscious about how you take your steps. Walk your meditation, naturally, taking one step at a time. Step normally, in time with your breath and with the pace of the kinhin leader or the person in front of you. Your left hand closes lightly about the right fist. The forearms should be parallel to the floor, and shoulders down, elbows out. Use this position whenever you are walking around the dojo or in public places during sesshin and zazenkai. Your posture when walking through the dojo helps to hold the practice space for others.

     Gassho mudra:

Palms together in front of your heart, forearms upright and parallel to the floor, elbows out. It is a common mistake to allow the forearms to droop and the shoulders to roll forward. Can you notice how your chest, shoulders and breathing open up when you assume a more upright posture?

Hope you found that useful!

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