No Place Like Home – Reflections of a Zen Home-Practitioner

Why is it so Freakin’ Hard to Practice at Home?

I think that John Daido Loori explained the difficulty best when he stated that the things you do in a home practice are the same as those you do in a monastic practice.  The largest difference lies in the amount of support you garner from the monastic environment.  Fundamentally, the practice is similar – You wake up, open your day, sit zazen, tidy up, go to work, eat, sit zazen and then go to sleep.  I am simplifying the lay-life a bit here but, mostly, you go about a similar routine.

However, two things differ in quantity: Intensity and Support.  In a monastic environment you can expect support from fellow practitioners through-out the day.  This is not the case in a home-practice.  You cannot expect your family or co-workers to support you.  They may not understand your practice or even care about it.  It is a simple and painful fact.  This is especially true of convert Buddhists in that a family isn’t Buddhist.

Personally, I fight for a time to devote to my practice when I won’t feel judged by my family/friends and co-workers.  I think my daughter gets it but she is only 16 months old.  Maybe that is why she gets it.   This is hard for a home-practitioner to intensify their practice while not receiving support.  Online communities and small grass-roots sanghas can aid in this but monastics are used to almost daily support, instruction and aid.  Home-practitioners can not count on any of that.

Intensity is an issue that is a little easier to bear.  intensity does not have to equated with legnth time practicing when it comes to a home-practice.  In a monastery, a lay-person or monk is in essence “punching a clock”.  I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense unless the practitioners begins to see it as ends to a mean or a way to pass the time.  In which case maybe a little self-reflection is in order for that particular person.  A home-practice, on the other hand, should be measured in ratios and quality rather than in spans of time. 

A homemaker, parent and/or working adult that is able to devote even a small time of intensively engaged practice out of a busy schedule is worth more than a full-time monastic any day.  Non-working college students have no excuse and can stop whining.

On a personal note, I am still working through Ango which means intensive practice (more than I usually do), increased engagement (sangha both online and “brick and mortar”), other devotional work (increasing involvement of liturgy into my practice both home and at the sangha) as well as strict following of the Precepts (I figured I’d give it a shot).

I’ve been working  hard at keeping all these things in line and at the same time keeping up my level of performance at work, being an active and mindful father and husband, complete my thesis and keep my sanity.  I planned on including some of my devotional aspects in dressing up the Christmas tree this year.  I originally planned for it on December 8th (Rohatsu) Bodhi Day and also celebrating the end of my 3 month Ango, but due to other considerations we ended up doing it on Thanksgiving. 

Well, I didn’t want to do the entire service (chanting and meditation) that I originally had planned in front of the entire family (again I guess I still have a little Christian guilt left over) so I settled on placing some prayer flags (that were kindly donated by a friend) on the tree.  When I mentioned the prayer flags to my wife her comment was “That doesn’t make sense”.  So I reacted less than mindfully, sulked and put the flags away and my Bodhi Tree goes unadorned.

Now the point of this isn’t about tradition or garlands or Zen.  It’s about practicing around people who don’t care or who aren’t concerned about your practice (and there should be no expectation that they would be).  This makes it hard for a home practitioner to practice.  It makes it hard for me.  Explaining the importance of these small things of my practice is an obstacle.

John Daido Loori Roshi puts it well, I suppose, when he states:

When we practice, life is made easier, not more difficult.  Practice doesn’t bind us; it makes us free.  Greed, anger and ignorance bind us.

I suppose that is correct.  Am I binding myself to my practice or is my practice binding me?  Illusions come in all sorts of flavors.

No illusions,

John

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18 thoughts on “No Place Like Home – Reflections of a Zen Home-Practitioner

  1. Wow John, I had no idea of the challenges you face with your practice. I guess I presumed that you and your wife practiced together. But it is true that we lay practitioners face significant challenges. My teacher told me that monks in many ways have it easy, for the very reasons you mention.

    I live in an apartment in the city, so when I’m chanting, sometimes I get this nagging feeling that my chanting can be heard by my neighbors, and suddenly I feel self-conscious rather than just letting myself go. Most of my family has a somewhat dubious tolerance about my Buddhist practice, except for one sister who has shown some interest. But they’re all atheists and have a dim view of anything that smacks of religion.

    Thanks for the post.

    • I know exactly what you mean when you talk about that nagging feeling. One of the nice things about a practicing sangha is that I don’t get that nagging feeling. I just don’t care in that environment. I used to be concerned about chanting while I drive. Now I just don’t care. Maybe, I won’t care at home at some point but I don’t know.

      You bring up another important point about bloggers that got raised in that Dharma Wars article. Bloggers (Buddhist or no) usually like to present a positive view of themselves. That usually means skipping the bad shit. The shit that makes them seem less glossy. I try to avoid that by being honest and present myself in all my crap-tastic glory.

      Cheers,

      John

      • “Bloggers (Buddhist or no) usually like to present a positive view of themselves. That usually means skipping the bad shit. The shit that makes them seem less glossy.”

        Am not sure that is necessarily true John. It seems to me some people have very focused blogs on particular topics so some of the less than glossy stuff wouldn’t be appropriate. Others who have a more open focus seem to do it in a manner similar to yours.

        I wonder of those who do present a bit more gloss do so to be seen in a particular light or if there is some kind of feeling like “people just wouldn’t care about or relate to my problems” attitude. Not wanting to be some kind of “burden” to their readers. Negative self-image kind of stuff. Or denial.

        So I think it’s a little more complicated than a generalization can cover. Similar to the Dharma Wars piece which painted us all as screaming bully banshees (hey someone insinuated that about me once-I like banshees especially the Siouxsie type!)

        • Of course, Nellalou, it is a generallization of a wide and diverse universe of bloggers but one that I generally find true of bloggers as well as most social nertwork users…from my experience.

          Social Networks (including blogs) allow individuals to “craft” themselves in a more positive manner. I never infered that there wasn’t a reason to do so, only that it was a general trend that I noticed.

          Unlike the “Dharma Wars” piece though, mine was a quick reply to a comment on a blog rather than a piece of journalism meant to represent a demoraphic and presented with an air and expectation of authority. Huge difference.

          On a lighter note…your avatar has boodies!

          Cheers,

          John

        • Yes. Quite so. I just wonder about the intentionality of it though. Sometimes I’ve noticed also people trying to paint themselves in the worst possible light (photos of them puking in the toilet after a party, looking all messed up and such) Seems like a lot of work for some attention either way.

          The avatar-that’s a photo. Completely unretouched. Really!

  2. My wife isn’t a practitioner either. Her mother recently gave her a cabinet for our bedroom. She didn’t know what to do with it and I instantly thought, “Butsudan!” I mentioned it to her and she is cool with it, though as a former Christian she isn’t too hot on the ritual stuff that I do, like chanting and lighting incense (especially the incense… it cancels out her expensive scented candles).

    I’m reading Loori’s “Bringing the Sacred to Life” for the second time after finishing it… it’s such a quick read. Great stuff… Loori was a hell of a teacher.

    • I love Loori’s book “Bringing the Sacred to Life”. I am planning on posting and discussing a few passages from it next week.

  3. Why don’t you try to do a small bodhi tree in the backyard where we put up the little stone alter? the prayer flags would look nice and what better place to ideally practice than in nature? Just a thought, although any impending snow may ruin it. We could build a little shelter for it! Anyway trying to be helpful 🙂

    • I considered it but my donated flags are all made of paper. If someone would be interested in donating some fabric ones though…

  4. Hang the paper flags and watch them weather away. That could be quite beautiful. Or will you always keep them in some perfect state? Why do you need fabric squares donated to you? They will weather slower. What of that?

    • I was kidding about the donations! I do however, still hate to see things weather away (I know, I know). I can imagine my wife’s reaction to pieces off paper hanging from the trees in my backyard. 😀

      My “Buddhas” in the backyard already look like gravestones…

      Thanks for commenting!

      Cheers,

      John

  5. Oh good!
    I found you on Twitter and enjoy your posts. I don’t read many blogs, but this entry was so easy to relate to.
    Thank you for keepin’ it real.
    After years of retreats, a small sangha, and fairly regular daily sitting, I gave up. Not much changed.
    Now I dance to center my mind. Moments of clarity come and go.
    I commented on the flags, because I learned the most about impermanance from closely watching Tibetan monks create beautiful works of Art and then destroy their own work.
    I’ll follow your musings!
    –JanesTeapot

    • Beautiful! I love when people find the Dharma in something and then practice it with glee and compassion.

      Metta!

      John

      ..and thanks for the compliments. I appreciate them.

  6. I noticed my chanting voice fluctuating last night to the sound of the upstairs neighbor’s footsteps. When I felt she had gone from the room above me, I chanted louder. When I thought she was above me, I chanted softer. And really, given our history (I spent over a year working to get her to turn down her TV) this wasn’t just an attempt to be respectful. There’s definitely more things to think about with a home practice, even if, like me, you also have a practice center you regularly attend. I have to have a home practice – it just doesn’t make sense to me to not have one. But it’s tricky, like you said, and brings up all those old internal issues of self-image, guilt, etc. In a way, a great field to practice in, and also a great pain in the ass at times.

    I will say this, though. “Punching the clock” mentality can happen anywhere, so we have to be aware of that regardless of our circumstances.

  7. I wondered if your wife was Buddhist, but it’s not polite to ask.

    I suppose I’m lucky that my wife and I made the choice of “conversion” together rather than just one of us deciding it was the best thing for that person.

    Does your wife actively particpate in some other religion that may cause conflict with your daughter?

    I’m not trying to pry, John. It’s just something to think about and not necessarily something you really even need to answer.

    The Dharma can be present in many places. I have witnessed it being practiced by the most devout Christians and I’ve seen it ignored by “devout” Buddhists.

    Metta,
    ~Andy

  8. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I was trolling through Google today nervously looking for solutions to a particular problem (relying on ‘words and ideas’…)

    Any way now that I’m here, home practice and monastic life is both challenging and rewarding. I wouldn’t agree that monks have it any easier. I remember being told that when Daido Loori first started the Zen Mountain Monastery it was a very challenging and difficult life. The money was scarce and each day was uncertain for all the monastics.

    From this I would say Here and now, time and place.

    Both home and monastics get ‘loaded up’ with all kinds of GOOD stuff. One difficulty with home practise for example is what happens when either one throws a wobbly and doesn’t want to sit with the other? This can and does happen.
    If anyone else is like me with regards to becoming attached to routines then this can be down right painful. Even with many years of sitting to be all of a sudden aware of the gap, and all the stuff that comes up that one thought had dealt with. Very difficult.
    In a monastic setting its somewhat simpler. The person is asked to shape up or ship out. However in home practise that could mean the end of a relationship or marriage.

    So what is the solution? What is right action here?

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