"Don't move!"

Advice for beginners on Zen training in community

This weekend, a student in my beginning zazen (seated meditation) class asked me about whether it's more effective to train in Zen with others than alone. He seemed to be referring mostly to zazen—even though it's only a small, if foundational, part of the totality of Zen training at Chozen-ji—so I gave him a zazen-specific answer:

"For one," I said, "you can sit a lot longer and it's easier not to move when you're sitting with other people."

The popularity of Theravadan Buddhism and its derivatives, like mindfulness, have encouraged many in the West to develop certain solitary and individualistic habits when it comes to spiritual practice—beginning with an exclusive focus on meditation and meditating with the eyes closed. Meditation apps, meditation as self care, and the intrusion of monetization and profit into this space have only made this more so.

So I'm always glad to have the chance to tell students here that we do not charge money for any of our classes. And I also deeply appreciate being able to ask so much more of our students precisely because we don't put a price on the training. At Chozen-ji, we expect that every student train to live selflessly, putting others before themselves and taking responsibility for their community. But rather than ask students to take a Bodhisattva vow or otherwise stay only conceptual in this endeavor, we get delightfully gritty and practical: Serve others food before yourself. Do the dishes. Wipe the bathroom counter even if you're not the one who got it wet. If you see a weed, pull it.

Buddhism has always held Sangha, or spiritual community, as highly as the Buddha (as an example that enlightenment is possible) and the Dharma (the method shared by the Buddha for achieving enlightenment). But there are some particularly powerful ways that Chozen-ji training elevates sangha from ephemeral spiritual friendship to more of a "ride or die" samurai fealty.

In my experience, it starts with the intensity of the training and the forms, which are distinct yet inseparable. Continuing with the student on Saturday morning, I addressed the fact that, when we sit zazen at Chozen-ji, we're not allowed to talk or move. We also all have our eyes open, though downcast, and are facing the center of the room. Every time someone even twitches their nose, someone else sees it. If someone starts to untuck a foot? They're liable to get yelled at, "Don't move!"

So what happens if suddenly, you realize the person sitting opposite you or next to you is crying? Like seriously, painfully ugly crying. You can't reach over to hug them or offer comforting words. At moments like these, the constraints of the forms employed in zazen—no talking, no moving, no looking around—force us to be more creative, transcending our usual tools.

Instead of speech, gesture and touch, what we do have at our disposal are our posture, breath and ki-ai (energy). So we may find ourselves sitting even straighter and more still so that our companion feels supported by the strength of our posture. Maybe we put everything we have into breathing long and low into our bellies, and into feeling even and calm. Maybe our desire to show them kindness burns so strong that they actually do feel it—a sudden pulse of relief or comfort they cannot trace.

But most of all, continuing to sit without moving—not even shifting a foot or lifting our eyes—builds the strength others need in us when they are in pain or crisis. Sit there, with your heart breaking for them. But sit tall, see and hear everything, breathe low and slow, and feel big. When you're in the room with someone else's suffering, these are things you cannot fake. And they work most palpably when they emerge intuitively and spontaneously in the moment, rather than being put on with conscious and deliberate effort. 

The intensity of this training, the forms and sharing our training with one another make it hard for this to be just about getting something out of it for ourselves. At the end of the day, it's only up to us to do the training. But by doing so, we realize that zazen, like every other single activity, is most effective when it is done for others—and even just for zazen itself.


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