What does it mean to be a Zen practitioner? 

The following overview is intended to give a general sense of what it means to be a practitioner of Zen, based on my own 25+ years of practice and study. The path, of course, is not linear, and everyone's journey is unique. Nonetheless, I believe that most Zen practitioners possess the following:

—an understanding or faith that what this world is, and who we are, is deeper and more vast than anything that can be put into words or understood by the intellect, and that sincere practice is necessary to uncover or recover an experience of this aspect of being;

—a commitment to living one's life in a way that is increasingly in touch with this vastness and depth, and to live in a way that is more engaged, grounded, generous, balanced, authentic, and meaningful;

—an understanding that until one is truly in touch with this expansiveness 

(hidden within us and also right under our feet, not separate from the world of oak trees, sunsets, french fries, and leaky garbage trucks) one will never know real peace;  

—an understanding that Zen is an ancient mind-body discipline that has been shown to be effective in allowing practitioners to live an ordinary life with extraordinary depth, regardless of their culture, age, ethnicity, race, gender, socio-economic status, etc.; 

—an interest in and willingness to engage the practice of zazen (silent, seated meditation) 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 Zen teacher; 

—and in working with a teacher, an interest in and willingness to meet regularly (at least once per week, most weeks, either remotely or in person) to explore the rich, challenging, 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 in Zen, 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 such as samadhi (single-minded absorption), kensho (insight into reality-nature), and prajña (the wisdom of non-duality/emptiness) are part of the terrain of engaged Zen practice (and crucial in easing deep existential burdens) but are not the final goals of practice;

—a willingness to participate in periodic (at least once per year if possible) retreats and longer periods of practice;

—an interest in and willingness to read and study the rich teachings of ancestral and contemporary Zen;

—an interest in and willingness to serve others, and an ability to do so less and less self-consciously and with less expectation of acknowledgement;

—an experience of wisdom, gratitude, and compassion manifesting more naturally in one's life as a result of ongoing practice along with a growing awareness of the subtle traps of seeing this as an accomplishment (and thus actually strengthening ego); 

—an understanding that practice and spiritual realization are ultimately the same thing but that without practice this 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.

 © 2020 Hoag Holmgren