What does it mean to be a Zen practitioner?
It can be helpful to clarify the qualities that make something unique: not to defend it as being superior but to help determine whether or not it speaks to us.
The following overview is based on my own 25+ years of Zen practice and study. The path, of course, is not linear, and everyone's journey is unique. And while many people would identify with many of the following items and not consider themselves to be affiliated with Zen, I believe most Zen practitioners have:
—a belief or understanding that who we are is ultimately more foundational than language or culture, and that a discipline of stillness and attention often accompanies the experience of this fundamental aspect of being;
—an understanding that until one begins to experience this inherent
wholeness (hidden within us but also not separate from sunsets, french fries, and leaky garbage trucks) one is unlikely to know real peace;
—an interest in the extraordinary aspects of the ordinary and the ordinary aspects of the extraordinary;
—an understanding that Zen is an old mind-body discipline that allows
practitioners to live an ordinary life with extraordinary depth regardless of culture, age, ethnicity, race, gender, socio-economic status, etc.;
—an interest in and willingness to engage intentional stillness (zazen) every day as one's core practice, or to work toward this goal;
—a growing appreciation and affection for sangha, the community of fellow practitioners, who make it possible to practice at a level impossible to do on one's own;
—an interest in and willingness to practice with a teacher;
—and in working with a teacher, the willingness to explore the rich and subtle terrain of practice including koan introspection, breath practice, mindfulness practice, art practice, precept practice, and the practice of everyday life;
—a recognition that the teacher is a guide rather than a guru or saint whose practice is to put the needs of the student first and to support the student in developing their practice so it functions in everyday life;
—a recognition that subtle and profound personal experiences like samadhi (single-minded absorption), kensho (insight into reality-nature), and prajña (the wisdom of non-duality/emptiness) are part of the terrain of practice—and crucial in easing deep existential burdens—but are not the final goals of practice;
—a willingness to participate in periodic retreats and longer periods of practice;
—an interest in and willingness to read and study the rich teachings of ancestral and contemporary Zen along with the teachings of other
—an interest in and willingness to serve others, and to do so less and less self-consciously and with less expectation of acknowledgement;
—an experience of belonging, generosity, and ease manifesting more
naturally in one's life as the practice unfolds;
—an understanding that practice and wisdom are not two separate things but that without practice such unity is only an idea;
—a recognition that the path never ends, that there are "depths beyond depths of mind," as Robert Aitken put it, to refine and integrate into one's daily life, for one's own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Please get in touch if you'd like to discuss or explore.