How is the Zen Practice going? Tips for 2023
Exercises in Mindfulness
With the Winter break over it’s time to get back to the training. We have some tips and tricks to get the ball rolling again and how to identify areas that need a little bit more effort.
Here we are in January 2023. It’s been a bit of a tumultuous 2022 and the news shows no signs of becoming boring soon!
Maybe we can distract ourselves by bringing things closer to home and asking how our own personal Buddhist practice is going?
The Buddha taught that everything is subject to decay, and, let’s face it, that is as true for our own commitment to practice as it is true for anything else. So, what can we do if we feel that either we have let things slip or that our practice seems a bit ‘dry’?
The wonderful thing about a new year beginning is that it can be a good time to take stock of things. Humans have a wonderful capacity for reflection but it is necessary to take the time to sit down and use this faculty so that we do not just continue blindly, never learning from mistakes nor noticing when we need to renew something that has fallen by the wayside.
Sitting down with paper & pen
Try writing down answers to the following questions:
1. How has the practice been for the past 12 months?
Take your time to recall how things have been over the past year. It is quite natural to have periods of more intense training and periods when it goes slack. How did these periods affect you and your attitude to life? Maybe consider what drew you to Buddhism in the first place? Is that reason still relevant or are there other benefits that make it important to you in life?
2. What is in need of renewal?
Looking forward, what has slipped and needs re-establishing? Are we sitting Zazen regularly? Are we sitting for as long as we used to or have we shortened the period of sitting?
3. The 3 pillars test
A Buddhist practice can be categorised under three headings: a wisdom practice, daily life practice and meditation.
A rounded practice has all three elements to it. We can take these as our guide to check that our own practice is in place by assessing, in the first instance, how regularly we are exposed to the Dharma. The Buddha’s teachings are our primary source of wisdom, they act as reminders to us of what is important and what we should be doing. If we are connected with a temple or Buddhist group are we still attending? Life can creep up on us and other priorities can carry us away, but if the practice really does mean something to us then we should make time for it. If we wish to be of service to others, then it is important that we also maintain our own practice and that means as well exposure to the teachings and being with ‘good friends’ in the Dharma. All these things can help keep us going walking along the Buddha’s way, helping us endure the difficult times and keeping us enthusiastic by participating together in meditation, helping out at the temple and generally being of service.
Daily life practice refers to the general practice of good form, both physically and behaviourally, e.g. good manners, staying within the precepts, keeping to the routine/timetable we have pre-set ourselves and taking good care with everything we handle in the spirit of the Buddha’s final words to ‘Strive on heedfully’. It also includes the four great efforts to cultivate wholesome actions of body, speech and mind and to let-go of unwholesome ones. Are we doing these things? Is there room for improvement?
Finally, the Zazen meditation practice; if we have let this slip then maybe we can bring that back on course too.
Getting back to regular practice
What to do if the regular timetable has slipped and there doesn’t seem to be much inner resolve to resuscitate it?
It is not uncommon to find that our usual timetable has slipped after a holiday period. It’s quite nice to be released from the usual constraints, particularly after a busy time, and going into holidays makes a welcome relief. However, we humans are creatures of habit and that includes bad or lazy habits. Retreating into ‘my’ own world and watching too much TV or other screens and then not being able to get out of it is certainly something that can occur as we are faced with a return to normality. It can seem a long time until we are able to relax once more and just this thought can become an obstacle.
One suggestion is to ‘chunk down time’. When it is recognised that the above situation has now manifested then make a vow to reinstate the timetable for one week only.
The power of this is that, for even the laziest of us, we can manage a short period of time. It seems much more realistic and within possibility than looking out at the endless ‘desert’ of three months until the next break. In fact, any new habit can start this way. Just make it for a short period of time and promise oneself that at the end of that period an assessment will be made to see if it is still of worth to continue. There is no necessity to make any promise to keep going next week, just this week will do. This can also work quite well for when we have taken to eating or drinking too much and are finding it hard to get back to a more reasonable level. Just one week.
At the end of that time, make the assessment. All of us are quite free to continue for another week or to stop at that point. As far as a Buddhist practice is concerned, there is no compulsion; there is no ‘I should’ or ‘I ought to’ about it. If practice is of value in our lives then that value becomes apparent. If the practice is not working then why are we continuing anyway? This was the essence of the Buddha’s sermon to the Kalamas. He told them that they should test his teachings ‘like a goldsmith tests the quality of gold by burning and rubbing’ and that they should decide the truth of the teachings for themselves.
Taking refuges and vows
When we do decide to make our promise to try the practice out for one week, then please include either chanting or reciting The Three Refuges, which are normally chanted three times through:
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Teachings
I take refuge in the Buddhist Community
It may not seem like much but this practice goes back to the time of the Buddha himself and was seen as a cornerstone for generating good motivation for practice. In the Mahayana we also supplement this by generating what is called bodhicitta or the Heart-of-Enlightenment. This can be done by chanting or reciting The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows:
Sentient Beings are numberless, I vow to assist them all.
The passions are manifold, I vow to gentle them all.
The Dharma-gates (teachings) are many, I vow to learn them all.
The Buddha’s Way is supreme, I vow to walk it to the end.
This can be done prior to going to bed for with this we hand ourselves over to the care of the Bodhisattva Path and can go to sleep trusting that the Great Way is carrying us, like the smooth sea carries the good swimmer.
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