I heard comments like: "I've heard Zen is really tough. I also figured you guys had a pretty tight-knit community and didn't want to be bothered by outsiders."
The fact that we had a nice website welcoming new members and put announcements in the local paper, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), every week inviting people to attend seemed to have little effect on those perceptions.
I am a Zen student, not a Zen master. I began writing How To Practice Zen as an instruction booklet to give to the public in the hope of attracting people to the Clear Water Zen Center. Thanks to the depth of Zen practice, the booklet soon grew too lengthy so I put up this site instead.
I frequently re-write this website to correct errors, although no one, not even a fully enlightened master, could say everything exactly correctly. Language is inherently open to interpretation and that is why even the enlightened masters say that their words merely point to the moon and are not the moon itself, i.e., the map is not the territory.
Anything that I say in this site that is stupid or that falls short of the True Dharma (if there is such a static thing) will be corrected as readers embark on an authentic day-to-day Zen practice, and learn the True Dharma for themselves.
Even the Buddha said not to take his words as absolute truth, but to test them and to reject whatever teachings were found to be false. And to embrace and practice the teachings found to be true. Buddhism is not a blind-belief system.
We start this course with easy practices so that our practice can grow naturally upon a stable foundation. When we reach the end of the course, we are practicing at an advanced level.
By presenting an entry level of Zen practice that is welcoming instead of intimidating, our hope is that we can help a lot of people get started in a Zen practice. I say "we" and "our" because this website has had input from a lot of Buddhist practitioners.
The teachings found in this website are certainly not my personal teachings.
Tranquil Wisdom meditation was taught by the Buddha and this website merely draws attention to that meditation practice. Very few modern people read the Majjhima Nikaya where the Anapanasati sutta can be found. And the Buddha's words are vague and hard for modern people to interpret even if they do find that somewhat obscure sutta.
So we rely heavily on the teachings of two modern masters, the Venerable Ajahn Brahm and Bhante U. Vimalaramsi, both of whom have written valuable explanations of the Anapanasati sutta.
Regardless of our age, we never know when we are experiencing our last day of life in the human dharma realm.
The foolish say: "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die."
The wise say: "Cultivate (practice Zen). He who dies before he dies does not die when he dies."
If we contemplate that last sentence, we realize that Buddhist practice is quite profound. We learn, for example, that the mind is separate from the body, i.e., the brain is in the mind but the mind is not in the brain.
Why should we practice every day? By doing so we are forming a habit that will lead to stronger sittings, more mindful prostrations, and more effective Buddha Name Recitations. The same applies to our chanting, our sutra study, our night sittings, and our work to share the Buddhadharma.
As a child, I used to climb a hill near my West Virginia home and sit on a flat rock, about half-way up the hill. I called it my meditation rock. I must have gone there dozens of times over the years because I remember it well and I know I could find it again. I was about forty years old when it finally occurred to me that it was remarkable that as a ten year old I knew the word "meditation" and had sat in my own special place on a mountainside, cross-legged.
I don't recall having any insights as a result of my efforts. Sitting there in silence without moving just seemed to be the obvious thing to do and I thought nothing of it at the time; I assumed every one sat in meditation when they were alone.
I had never received a lesson in meditation and that word was never spoken in my home or school or by any of my friends. How did I know that word and that practice so that I could sit there like a Zen practitioner and call that flat stone my meditation rock?
Our local Zen meditation group was sitting in the zendo (meditation hall) during a Sunday morning round of meditation sometime in 2007. The founder of the group, a senior student of Roshi Philip Kapleau, gave a short encouragement talk shortly after the ringing of the third bell. "There are two and a half million people in the Tampa Bay area," he began, "and this Sunday twelve of them have gathered in this zendo at 8:00 in the morning to sit in silence, unmoving, facing a wall for two hours. Why? Week after week, year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. Why are we doing this?"
"We do this because we have done it before."
Glenn and David at the old Clear Water Zen Center (the blinds were never open during a real sitting)
Buddhist teachers explain that there is no self that gets reborn as in the Hindu theory of reincarnation.
The Buddhist concept of re-birth is perhaps best explained by the way one ball strikes another in the game of pool or billiards. No essence passes from the first ball to the second when the first ball strikes the second ball. The first ball simply stops and its momentum is transferred to the second ball which then follows a path determined by the path that had been followed by the first ball, by the angle of the collision, and by how much power had been imparted to that first ball.
So there we were in the zendo, billiard balls following a course imparted to us by an earlier billiard ball, which had been following a path created by the ball that had struck it, and so on back into time.
My only qualifications for putting up this website (and none are needed since this site does not include any teachings that originate with me) are my childhood practice of meditation and my forty years and counting (2013) of practicing meditation as an adult in this lifetime.
And this website has many co-authors. I have learned a lot about Zen practice from the members of the Clear Water Zen Center (in Clearwater, Florida), Sensei Lawson Sachter of the Windhorse Zen Community near Asheville, North Carolina, and Ken Rosen, founder of the Clear Water Zen Center and senior student of Roshi Philip Kapleau and Sensei Lawson.
But I must add that they do not endorse this website and probaby are not even aware of it. If I waited for everyone who has helped me learn how to practice Zen to approve a website, no website would ever get uploaded.
The same observation applies to the Board of Trustees. I don't think fifteen sanctioned teachers will ever agree on everything found in a lengthy website, especially one that incorporates Theravada practices, but it is a goal we will pursue by making incremental changes over time as the Board offers its insights and corrects any blatant errors it may find.
Having spent more than a decade on mantra meditative practices, my formal zazen practice didn't begin until 1985. That was only twenty seven years ago so I am not an authority on the vast subject of Zen practice.
Some people think twenty seven years is a long time. I am reminded of the encounter between Henry Kissinger and Chou En-Lai in the 1970s when Dr. K asked: "What, in your opinion, were the effects of the French Revolution?" referring to the unpleasantries of the early 1790s. The Prime Minister of China replied: "It's too soon to tell."
If you incorporate the three easy steps of Beginning Zen into your daily life, drop us a line at Contact Us and let us know.
Some long-time practitioners of Zen may find it offensive to characterize Zen practice as "easy." However, it's our thinking that makes things hard or easy. One thing we learn when practicing Zen is to see things just as they are without putting labels on them. The only hard part of the program is to practice every day and to stick with the practice over time.
This website is slightly more Chinese Ch'an influenced than it is Japanese Zen influenced. For example, Buddha Name Recitation, encountered in Advanced Zen, is not practiced in American Zen centers that are in a Japanese lineage, as far as I know. In Japan, Buddha Name Recitation practice is the most popular form of Buddhist practice, but it is considered a separate sect (The Pure Land) from the Zen sect.
However, American Zen centers that are in a Chinese lineage routinely include Buddha Name Recitation as a part of Ch'an practice. It does not conflict with Ch'an/Zen practice if performed with the understanding that Amitabha Buddha is not an other; it is our own Buddha nature. We recite our own name to help us remember who we are. Thus, it is the Buddha who recites the Buddha's name.
This course is also very influenced by the Theravada school of Buddhism. Although most Zen teachers will strongly disagree, my own opinion, for what it's worth, is that the simple method of meditation taught by the Buddha is still the "best" method. The Anapanasati Sutta recites the sixteen stages of that type of meditation and it has become the one I most often practice and recommend.
Perhaps the one original contribution of this website, if there is any, is found in step nine, the second step of Advanced Zen. There we harness the results of Anapanasati practice and turn it onto whatever koans our teacher might assign to us.
Venerable U. Vimalaramsi
None of the people or institutions pictured or mentioned in this website participated in the building of this site and I did not ask anyone to provide their consent to be pictured or mentioned. For example, Venerable U. Vimalaramsi is a hero of mine but I suspect he has no knowledge of this site.
Here is a link to the Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center where he teaches.
The members of the Board of Trustees offer guidance but they do not necessarily agree with the content of this lay person’s website.
For example, wherever harsh or confusing language is used, or the dharma is not stated with sufficient clarity, that is a product of the lay origins of this site.
We have tried to take off the rough edges by softening some of the rhetoric but the site has a different tone and style than would be produced by a member of the Board. With the guidance and recommendations of the Board, we hope to evolve this site into a work that each member of the Board will one day fully endorse.
One idea behind this course is to lower the bar into Zen practice so that more people will try it, i.e., we are trying to reduce the intimidation factor. This is a course that lay people can take, even in the midst of a busy family and school or work-dominated life.
Another idea behind this course is to provide concrete steps that a layperson can follow to develop a Buddhist practice. Great websites like www.buddhanet.net provide enormous amounts of information by publishing the written works of many learned scholars, many of whom are monks and nuns, but the gist of most of the articles is that the reader should meditate, follow the precepts, study the sutras, and otherwise practice the Buddhadharma.
But concrete instructions are often lacking.
So we are trying to fill a gap by laying out a course in three levels that includes concrete steps and not just philosophy or exortations to practice more.
Speak one sentence less of chatter,
Recite once more the Buddha's name.
Recite until your false thoughts die,
And your Dharma body will come to life.
With gassho, metta, and deep bows,
The Zen Practice Foundation