This week’s posts will consist of the questions I received from a student writing a paper on Buddhist practice. My answers were supplimented slightly before posting with additional info, links and quotes. So anyway, I hope my answers can be of some benefit and maybe promote some conversation (maybe even an ‘A’). See Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
What is Zazen (if that is something you practice)?
Zazen is only one of many forms of Buddhist meditation but it is the central practice of Zen. It is the introspective practice of placing your “self” on equal ground with your perceptions by not giving it the free range that it ordinarily has. It is really a process of training the mind. One can be seated in any number of ways. The most preferable method is to sit in full lotus but half lotus, quarter lotus, Burmese, or sitting in chair is also utilized depending on personal preference. Personally, I do not have the flexibility to sit without discomfort in the full lotus so I prefer quarter lotus. Individuals will hold their back straight but not inflexible, chin out with gaze directed to a point on floor 3-6 feet ahead. Hands are held in cosmic mundra and focus is on the breath. Some count inhalations or exhalations and many simply focus on the breath without counting. Thoughts are not actively discarded but rather they are allowed to enter and then leave on their own time.
Generally we see our body, our breath and our mind as separate entities. Zazen helps us unite them from their diaspora into one reality. Usually our thoughts and energy keeps us separated from our daily lives and from ourselves. Through the process of sitting, our minds can slow down and focus naturally like eyes adjusting to a change in light (darkness or light make little different when time is required to adjust). Far from the common misconception that Buddhist practice promote detaching from reality – zazen practice leads to a clearer and deeper connection with the current moment. If I were blindfolded and in darkness, I would still remove the blindfold to allow my eyes to adjust. We are allowing our minds to adjust by removing a blindfold. We may not like what we see but now we provide tools to be able to meet it on our own terms.
To roll out another clichéd analogy: Our minds can be seen as a body of water like a pond. When wind blows over the surface, ripples form and nothing can be seen clearly underneath. Once the ripples are removed we can see ourselves reflected. Zazen removes ripples. You can’t fight this process or will it into submission to still your mind since that just causes more ripples. You just gotta sit. The crazy part is that through that work we need to realize that we are only seeing a reflection. If we are the reflection, what is the water. Give it a name.
How do you feel about contemporary issues such as environmental activism becoming interwoven with traditional Buddhism?
I think that it is inevitable for spiritual practice to become interwoven with current events and issues. But to assume that “traditional” Buddhism never became intertwined with the political and intellectual climes of a region or period is an idealized notion. Buddhist application has become varied and diverse as the needs of a people or region changed – it melds with local customs and indigenous religions – it oscillates between atheistic and devotional but it always remains practical and pragmatic.
I think that some core Buddhist concepts such as mindfulness, dependant origination, interdependence and cycles do color the way that we, as Buddhists, view and interact with the world around us. It is a necessary after-effect of our practice. We move further away from an anthropocentric view of the world to one where we are a part of a natural system and not a dominant force.