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DEAR ZEN: Hakuin's Baby
A single dad asks, "How would someone with extremely limited resources further their practice?"
Today, I’m responding to a question from a reader via my advice column, DEAR ZEN.
How would someone with extremely limited resources further their practice? I have meditated for years and genuinely considered monastic life. If I wasn’t a single father, I am almost certain I would have pursued monastic life somewhere like Chozen-ji. I would like to go on retreat and focus on my contemplative practice at some point but it’s just extremely difficult to save the hundreds to thousands of dollars to pay for the roundtrip flight and registration fees to make that possible.
Over the millennia, there have been many religious aspirants with family obligations that have kept them from being able to become monks or train deeply as lay people. Often, they've received the same advice, whether in Buddhism, Christianity, or otherwise, and that's to use their daily lives as opportunities in and of themselves to train.
Here are a few ways to approach this:
1. The central building blocks of Zen training—and arguably our whole lives—are our breath, posture, and concentration.
Whatever activity you are doing—including when you are with your children and especially when this feels challenging—pay attention to your breath, posture, and concentration.
The basics of zazen (seated meditation) can apply to whatever you're doing:
See 180 degrees in every direction, taking in everything in a broad field of vision as if looking at a distant mountain. Do the same with all of your senses—hearing, smell, taste, and touch—not trying to shut out or push away anything, and not getting bogged down unnecessarily on small details.
Have good posture: strong foundation whether sitting or standing, back straight, back of the head pushing up into the ceiling. Sit and stand in a way that is relaxed but which also feels like you could jump up and take action at any moment.
Breathe into your hara, the trunk of your body below your belly button. Make your exhales long and slow, 20 seconds or longer, whenever you can.
This is not easy to do, let alone all day long!
Also, a word of caution: Don't misguidedly think that in order to pay attention to your breath, posture, and concentration, you have to take yourself out of whatever it is you're doing, i.e., by closing your eyes or zoning out. Pay attention—again, to everything, including what's right in front of you—and try to keep things practical and natural. And, of course, do at least a little zazen every day. Mornings are usually best, especially if you can sit before the kids wake up.
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2. One aspect of hard training is learning to attack whatever challenges arise in life without hesitation and to just do what needs to be done.
There is a story that when Zen Master Hakuin was accused of fathering an illegitimate child, he took the baby in without hesitation or question and raised it as his own.
"Oh, is that so?" was his only response upon being accused and having the baby thrust into his arms. He then proceeded to care for the child, begging for food for it and never trying to raise his own defense or refute the claims, which were, of course, false.
When the family of the child returned, admitting that the baby was not his, he simply responded again with, "Oh, is that so?" and returned the child.
Hakuin had the advantage of already being a Zen master before he was thrust into being an impoverished, single father. But I think of his example often whenever I find myself in situations that feel burdensome or unfair, and when I want to dawdle before jumping on whatever task or challenge is in front of me. Hakuin was able to attack his situation in a direct and unencumbered way, simply doing what needed to be done and I strive for that.
Comparing your situation to Hakuin's also makes me think of some remarkable individuals with amazing capacity for clarity, strength, sensitivity, and love—and who never trained a day in their lives in Zen. So while I resonate with your passion for training in Zen, the outcomes you're looking for may also be found simply through taking this “balls to the wall” approach to life.
3. Every activity we do can be transformed into a Way to realize our True Selves.
It's wrong to think that training is restricted to the times we're in the Dojo or doing religious-feeling things. If we're really going to realize our True Selves, then our training has to encompass our whole lives.
This is one definition of shugyo, a word without translation in the English language but which can be understood as "the deepest possible spiritual training." According to Omori Rotaishi, shugyo means that life is training and training is life. And, as such, any activity can become a Way to realize our True Self, helping us to transcend our habits and self-imposed limitations along the way.
If things improve so that you do have some time and disposable income, then I would also recommend signing up for classes at a martial arts dojo nearby. It could even be something you do together with your children.
Traditional Japanese arts have been infused with Zen and Buddhist principles and values over hundreds, if not thousands of years. You may never recite a sutra in a Karate class, but you'll be forced to bring your body and mind closer into unison, and you will become familiar with cultivating strength and sensitivity.
This may actually be a better Zen education than reading Zen books or memorizing sutras. Additionally, once you get to know some of the other students and the teachers in these places, it's very possible that you'll find someone who shares your interest in Zen and you can try doing zazen together.