Why Sit Zazen?
On Thursday nights we host zazen dinner parties for our friends, which is just people I like coming by to sit zazen and eat a meal. It is low-key and warm and non-dogmatic. Next week I will hopefully be starting a zazen group for women at my school (I want to buy zafus for this group, so if you can donate something, I would be most grateful!). Talking to the administration about this group and trying to get it started, I was struck by how many doubts I have (still!) about the importance of zazen. I have to think of a name and focus for the group, and I keep wondering, will my group be general Buddhist, or strictly zazen, or an amorphous self-help and empowerment thing for women, or...? For some reason, I resisted (and still resist) calling it a zazen group.
The problem is, despite having transmission in this tradition, I still often wonder if Zen is the best path for me or any one else. Everyone is different, so Zen will not be for everyone. I can only speak for myself and from my own experiences, but even in the case of my own life I wonder why I continue to sit zazen. Why is this the path I've chosen? And to be honest, sometimes I cheat. I don't always sit zazen. Some days on the cushion my mind naturally slips into a loving-kindness practice, and I let it do its thing.
Like many people in the West, I first started practicing Buddhist meditation because I was stressed and unhappy. I was nineteen years old, living in a program house in college for anti-racist activists. It was my first time away from home, and I was stressed out of my mind from schoolwork. I was doing far too many drugs, drinking too much, hating men, hating America, hating oppression. My 19-year old body/mind couldn't support that lifestyle. So I started taking ten minutes out of my day just to sit, have tea, and read a dharma book. I first read Ethics for the New Millenium, by the Dalai Lama, and it really spoke to the work I was doing around racism and oppression. I started reading more, and sitting more. That ten minutes of sitting and tea became my favorite time of the day, and so I expanded it to 20, then to 30 minutes. I started sitting meditation retreats, mostly Vipassana, and they were my favorite thing. I felt calm and happiness for the first time since childhood.
For many people, and for me, a simple mindfulness practice will be the gateway for longer engagement with Buddhism. Sitting and watching my breath, noticing the sensations in my body, all of this gave rise to a different understanding of how to take care of my body and mind, and created a paradigm shift in how I lived my life. Eventually, I stopped doing drugs and drinking so much-- not because of any moralistic process or even because of the precepts. I just realized that pot and other drugs didn't make me feel good. To this day, when people offer to get me high I just say that I don't like the way it makes my body feel. Except for the occasional glass of wine with dinner, I would rather feel awake and present in my body.
Most people come to Buddhism looking for peace of mind, for ease. So when I think about what I want to offer young women, part of me wants to offer them what got me hooked on Buddhism first, which is a simple mindfulness practice. I want to give them a triage of wellness, the basics of how to be sane as a young women in a sexist, racist, capitalist society. I want to tell them to go running every week, to go to yoga and therapy if they can afford it, to eat vegetables and protein, to find sexual partners who know how to give them orgasms, who respect them and who want to show up for relationship, to choose friends who support and empower them and make them laugh instead of being competitive, gossiping, and complaining. These things have been the foundations of my sanity as a woman living in modern society.
And yet I also know that sanity and wellness were never enough for me. I became my teacher's student because he was the first person I met to take my vocation seriously. When I showed up with my suffering, he didn't just tell me to go running or go to therapy, like so many teachers in America had. When I said I wanted to get enlightened, he gave me black robes and said knock yourself out. Here is a monastery and a cushion. Here is a tradition and a form. Do it. Practice like your head is on fire.
This is what zazen is like for me. It is more than wellness. It is standing in front of a massive, infinite, expanse of ocean. A terribly vast body of water that can kill me. And then it is facing the ocean instead of running away from it. It is sitting in front of a wall every day and facing, as Wallace Stevens writes, the "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."
When I did my head monk ceremony in Japan, the case I chose was Joshu Washes His Bowl. It's a simple koan. A new monk goes to the abbot and says, "I have just arrived here, what can you teach me?" The abbot says, "Have you eaten breakfast?" The monk says yes. The abbot then says, "Wash your bowl."
Aoyama Roshi explained to me that this case is about zazen, about unending practice. Humans naturally know how to feed ourselves when we are hungry, and how to sleep when we are tired. But we don't naturally know how to feed our spiritual hunger. Practice and zazen are ways to nourish our body and mind in this way, and just like eating and sleeping, this is a need that never goes away, that is never fully satisfied. So we practice every day.
This is why I sit zazen. It is not the only way to feed spiritual hunger, but it is the way I have found. I practice to face that giant ocean of the unknown. And other times I just hang out simple ease. Somehow, both things happen.
I will be leading a half-day sit at Angel City Zen Center, Brad Warner's new center in Los Angeles, on October 1st. Information below: