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Zazenkai Practice


From one perspective, a zazenkai might be considered a very special day.  It is a day devoted to nothing other than the practice of awareness.  We have gone to quite a bit of trouble to get away from our usual routines, business and pleasures.  We give ourselves to a strict schedule, detailed procedures and a traditional method of training said to be “tried and true” for helping us to wake up.   We sit for many hours, a daunting prospect for newcomers.    We do this as a community of practitioners, a group of people all committed to the same thing.  Traditionally, we are considered like snakes in a bamboo tube.  Whether this is a first zazenkai or one of many intensives, it is a privilege and an uncommon opportunity for all who participate!

Yet from another perspective, a zazenkai is a very ordinary day.   We aren’t doing anything spectacular.  No trip to Italy, no day at Disney.  We sit still, we walk, eat simple food, do manual labor.   We are living our lives with more or less awareness.   We observe thoughts and experience body sensations.  We touch, smell, listen, look.  In one way, the awareness practice we undertake at a zazenkai does not necessarily differ in kind or degree from any other day.  It is our life, in one sense, not a practice.  Dogen says, “the zazen I speak of is not learning meditation…” But for most people, there is a lot of difference between how aware we are during a zazenkai, and how aware we are during a non-zazenkai day.

Our usual way of working with concerns, problems and suffering in our lives is to try to think of a solution or an escape. (And wanting a “solution” is often an escape.)  We depend on our thinking and consultations with friends and advisors to guide us.  We may feel helpless, and stuck with worrying, fear and anxiety.  One way to begin a zazenkai is by deliberately surfacing a short list of our biggest concerns.  Next, gather them together (those not listed as well as those itemized) and place them on the altar, symbolically speaking, next to the flower, incense, and other offerings.  Vow to take care of these concerns this day by attempting to practice awareness wholeheartedly each moment throughout the entire zazenkai.  This practice calls for a clear, firm decision not to intentionally spend time thinking about these matters.  It asks us to embrace a zazen way of life, a way of allowing life, each moment, to teach us in its own way and time.    In early years of practice, we may not know that this way can be trusted.  We need to experiment or test to see “if it works.”  In later years, we still resist, forget or don’t see how to practice in a particular situation.   If we wait until we have no pressing problems to distract us, or until we don’t have a cold, or until we are not so tired, it may be a long, long time before we actually practice Zen awareness for any extended time frame.   Try it out!

If you choose to have your own zazenkai or intensive day of awareness, how does it differ from your experience at a Center with a group of practitioners?  Were you able to sit long hours?  Were you able to maintain stillness, even when your knees were aching?  Were you able to be as aware as often while eating, working, walking, etc.?  One of the guys we knew at Donovan Penitentiary asked me for a detailed zazenkai schedule.  We were unable to get the permissions to have a zazenkai at the prison for the prison group, so he wanted to try it on his own.  He did do one, but he said it was very difficult, and I’m not sure if he did another one.  It made me especially appreciative of our community and our environment for practice.    Traditionally, a zazenkai is a day of informal practice, without a talk, oryoki, individual instruction and so on.  It is often held in-between sesshins.  Our zazenkai is essentially a sesshin day.  Our zazenkai help to make intensive practice more accessible for new practitioners and also help to prepare people for the longer intensives.

How else does a zazenkai relate to the rest of our lives, to other days?  How does a zazenkai relate to Zen practice overall?  There is a more basic question about whether we want to consciously embrace  a way of living that deliberately and consistently seeks liberation from the self-centered dream, and appreciation of life as it is.  Do we really want to wake up?  Do we want to be steady about practices, situations and resources that will help us to do that?  This is a lifestyle.

One 1997 poll of how the average adult American spends his or her free time indicated that 15 hours per week goes to watching TV, almost 6.7 hours to socializing, 2 ½ hours reading, 2.2 hours to recreation and sports, and only .9 hours per week to “religion.”   That is 54 minutes per week.  Although I am not an admirer of President Bush, it is noteworthy that according to Newsweek, he finds the time for spiritual study and prayer each day before his exercise and taking a cup of coffee to his wife.  He and a group of 10 men met weekly for Bible study through a national program.  They spent one year on the Gospel of Luke (about 30 pages) and another year on Acts.  I found it significant that his friend was motivated due to a setback in business;  Bush was motivated by a drinking problem.   Do you spend time each day on your practice?  Do you spend time each week with others practicing?    Are you more busy than the President?

This is what is at stake….are we nursing our delusions, or are we taking every opportunity to open to life?  Let’s use this day together to wake up and to appreciate our lives.