My First Steps in Zen

When I was suggested to meditate I blew it off as a cliché . I live in California, and of course I’ve heard meditation is great. It’s regarded as the magic bullet to solve all of life’s problems. I didn’t get the hype, yet it was one of those things that I had to try before making a final verdict.

For a month, after being pestered by a friend, I told myself I’d try meditation. After work I’d sit around doing every thing but meditating. It wasn’t until my stress levels hit a peak did I finally cave and sit for ten minutes.

Sitting for ten minutes is a long time when you’re first starting to practice. I had no notion of a “right” way – I just sat cross-legged with my eyes closed. Afterwards I was proud of myself. And it felt strange to be satisfied from something so simple.

I kept sitting every morning and evening for at least ten minutes. I used my phone timer while sitting on the floor of my living room. Eventually I switched to using Insight Timer and tried some guided meditations.

One weekend I visited the Japanese bookstore in Japantown, San Francisco. While browsing, I stumbled across the book Zen Meditation in Plain English. The book is basic, but it was the exact reading I needed at the time. I had started to become interested in Zen, but had no clue where to start. Reading this book taught me how to count breaths during zazen (meditation). I also bought a cushion as pillows and blankets were becoming obnoxious to sit on. At this point I had developed a basic zazen practice with counting breaths (sitting for 20-45 minutes at a time), and wasn’t fidgeting around now that I had a proper cushion to sit on. But I still had no clue what Zen was in general.

A friend suggested I read Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind and I did just that. This book helped answer many of the vague questions I had about Zen, zazen, and where the two fit in with Buddhism. I read it over the course of a month, maybe longer. I’d read a few pages on my commute, before or after my sits, or whenever I became frustrated with my practice. We are used to setting goals and tracking progress in our daily life, but attaching expectation to our zazen practice is the wrong way to go. Zazen is all about keeping an empty mind. And that doesn’t mean blocking out all thoughts. Emptiness is a big theme in Zen and I wouldn’t do it justice to try and explain here. Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind does an excellent job of laying down the fundamentals. However, I do think the book makes more sense if the reader already has a daily practice in place. So if you’re new to meditation, give it a couple of weeks before you start this book.

After reading Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, I was lost as to where to go next. Besides picking at some well-known sutras, I had no decent reading material to continue learning. So I focused my efforts towards daily zazen. Some times it’s best to take a break from absorbing knowledge and apply what you’ve learned. I focused on emptiness, counting my breaths, and going about my daily life outside of zazen. Then after two weeks or so, without much effort, I stumbled across the next book.

Luckily my local used bookstore has a decent Zen section, and while browsing recently I found a copy of Taking the Path of Zen. Actually, I picked this up yesterday and I’ve almost finished the entire book. However, I can already tell it will become a great reference. Similar to Zen Meditation in Plain English, the author describes the basics of zazen and how to practice. But this book provides so much more detail. The reader learns about different breathing methods, what kōans are and how to practice them, and the relationship between a student and teacher at Zen centers. Personally I feel like it’s almost time for myself to find a teacher. I believe this book was exactly what I needed in preparation for my first visit to a Zen center. The author writes about how to find a Rōshi and what a Rōshi might ask potential students when interviewing. There’s also plenty of detail on the traditions followed within the zendo, including dress and bowing.

I am not sure what attracted me to Zen, or why I chose zazen-style meditation over others. Currently I have been reading about the differences between the Sōtō and Rinzai schools. Whatever school of teaching I later prefer is a personal decision, and that seems to be perfectly fine within Zen. In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken writes:

It is essential at the beginning of practice to acknowledge that the path is personal and intimate. It is no good to examine it from a distance as if it were someone else’s. You must walk it for yourself. In this spirit, you invest yourself in your practice, confident of your heritage, and train earnestly side by side with your sisters and brothers. It is this engagement that brings peace and realization.

I’ve now been practicing daily for over two months. I’ve experimented a bit in my zazen, but mostly sticking with breath counting. However, I did recently start working on the following kōan:

The coin lost in the river is found in the river

Kōans are typically worked on by students with feedback from a teacher. While I currently have no teacher, I am interested in kōan training and do think it still may be beneficial to work on one myself. Of course working on the kōan will take longer without guidance. If you’re interested in kōans, Taking the Path of Zen writes about them, and Pacific Zen describes how to work on the coin kōan.

So that’s where I’m currently at in my Zen path. I hope this is helpful for anyone new to meditation and slightly interested in Zen. I do plan on writing up more about other books I am reading. If you’re wondering, I have noticed benefits from meditating. But I am trying to treat zazen as something I just do every day and not get attached to how it makes me feel. Finally, I’m happy to answer any questions, or at least points towards reading where answers may be found.

Until next time, keep practicing.

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