Green Gulch Farm Sesshin

Last weekend I attended a three-day sesshin at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. I drove up on a Thursday afternoon and checked into my room early. I stayed in Cloud Hall, a shared dorm space in a building attached to the main zendo. After dropping my things off I explored the property a bit, which is huge. They run their own organic farm, cook large meals in the kitchen, really interesting history. From what I learned most people who live on the property volunteer and do residency programs to deepen their Buddhist practice.

The first night we had dinner in the dining hall. Actually, I borrowed Oryoki bowls from my teacher and I was told over email that we would have formal eating in the zendo. But after dinner we relocated to the zendo for orientation where they told us there would be no Oryoki this weekend as so many new people had signed up. So instead we were to do formal tea as a way to learn the ropes and such. Throughout the weekend the Inno (head of practice) gave brief verbal instruction during zendo practice. For example, we were told we’d chant something X many times, or when to bow after receiving tea from a server. I actually liked it, as there were so many forms I was not familiar with (and Green Gulch, being run by SFZC, has lots of forms).

The daily schedule began with waking at 4:30AM and heading to the zendo for zazen by 5AM. Each sitting period was normally 30 minutes of zazen, 15 minutes kinhin, and another 30 minutes zazen (with an extended period of zazen plus fast kinhin each evening). Kinhin is normally done for 10 minutes, but because they aimed to make the weekend more beginner friendly we had extra time to stretch our legs. Oh, and the entire weekend was silent, so no talking!

So we did zazen, followed by service – chanting, prostrations (nine!), etc. And this was typically followed by a meal plus an hour break. Then basically rinse and repeat until bed. There was one dharma talk each day, plus formal tea served in the zendo.

I was definitely looking forward to lots and lots of zazen. However, when the time came I was feeling a bit grumpy. After a couple of sits and noticing my stubbornness coming up, I really pushed myself to let go completely and drop my personal preferences. Letting go, like really letting go, was an important lesson I learned over the sesshin.

In the last retreat I attended at Mt. Baldy, I had an intense experience during zazen that was queued by a ringing noise in my head. While the experience was a bit scary, it was mostly beautiful and possibly life changing. And midway during this sesshin I began to notice the ringing sound in my head again. So of course I start expecting something bizarre to happen. And while I felt a deep state of awareness, this next “life changing” event I expected was not popping up.

So after chasing this desired outcome for a bit, mostly running myself in circles, I let go even more. I completely let go and whatever came up at the retreat, I told myself to just do the thing – just sit, just bow, just eat, just brush my teeth, just this, just that. Don’t expect anything, but still do all these things completely and wholeheartedly. That was the important bit, wholeheartedness. I could have finished out the retreat while daydreaming in the zendo. But I really pushed myself to make an effort to do zazen wholeheartedly. Just sitting with no expectation, but keeping awareness the entire time. That’s hard I think – to do something with full effort while not expecting an outcome.

And what’s funny about all this is I did end up having a breakthrough of sorts. Except it wasn’t at all what I expected. I let go of the illusion of “I” and continued telling myself to just sit wholeheartedly . There were about 40 other people there, and we all did the same thing practically at the same time. We awoke at the same time, we brushed our teeth at the same time, we did zazen at the same time, we ate at the same time, etc, etc. And for me, when I did these things over and over with a large group of people my sense of self faded away – especially on the cushion.

So towards the end of the sesshin, during zazen, I started to become more aware of big self: the birds chirping outside, the stomachs of other practitioners gurgling, just the universe in general. At first it was unsettling and I had to shake myself a bit to remember what I habitually think is reality (or what “I” am). But what I experienced when just sitting, without expecting results, was indeed reality. And it carried on throughout the sesshin. I was riding a wave, moving from moment to moment. Just doing things without needing to really think – sitting, bowing, breathing, eating, walking, sleeping.

Looking back on the sesshin, and after discussing with my teacher, I think the primary lesson I learned can be summed up as every moment is different. Maybe that sounds obvious. I thought I knew that before the sesshin. But after letting go and just allowing each moment to happen – that helped me realize for sure. We really can’t do much else in life but meet each moment fully.

Anyway, that’s about all of the highlights I think are worth sharing from last weekend. So far every sesshin I’ve been to has deepened my practice. I really feel inspired to keep going, and also feel like this practice can never run out. While I’m motivated to keep sitting zazen, most of all I want to stay involved with my local Zen center and generally just be more available in other peoples’ lives.

Zen Buddhist Practice & My Misconceptions

Haven’t written in a while. I’ve been procrastinating due to mainly feeling like I don’t have anything adequate to say, but also because I don’t feel like it’s my place to teach other people. So in that regard I’ve been sort of buckling down on my practice and keeping my mouth shut for a while. This post is just summarizing what I’ve been doing for the past several months relating to Zen and maybe my current view of certain things.

I’m still practicing Zen Buddhism, and that involves a few things as of late:

  1. I sit one or two times a day.
  2. I meet with a local Zen Buddhist group each week. We sit, have a service, and listen to the teacher talk.
  3. I’ve been working with a teacher from said group.
  4. Since my last post I have been to a couple of retreats and have applied to another next month.

I’m not really sure if I’d call myself a Buddhist right now, but what I’m doing in terms of practicing and studying fall into the traditional boundaries of Buddhism. One year ago I started eating vegetarian after attending a Zen retreat. Though I’m not really sure why I’m doing it – I guess it feels right for me. I suppose there are also ethical reasons of why I do it, but maybe the main reason is being aware of connectedness to other beings. I mean, it’s not that I have this special feeling or power that others don’t recognize. It’s just that since establishing a daily habit of sitting an awareness of no separate self has been made more obvious.

It’s sort of funny because I feel like since practicing Zen I’ve felt like I’m rebelling, but not sure what I’m rebelling against. That is the most interesting part of Buddhist practice because since things are constantly changing you cannot rely on fixed ideas of how to view the world. Maybe I think one way of doing something is better or more ethical, but that’s only my perception at that time. And it’s also my perception based on past actions and events which led up to this present moment in time. Zen practice is very tricky and frustrating some times in that way as it takes a lot of willpower to not get upset over things you did which you may have thought were idiotic in the past. It’s a dualistic way of viewing things – there’s no way of telling that if had I done some past action differently, my life would have turned for the better. The past doesn’t exist, so I’m only stuck with the present moment. And it’s only at this exact moment that I can do something.

So there have been many times lately where I think of why I do things in a particular way. Or why I believe certain things are right and other things are wrong. And I suppose any answer I come up with now is from looking inside of myself. I mean, basing my decisions on an idea or concept seems faulty. That’s pretty much Zen teaching at least. Zazen is just sitting, and over time you shed layers of yourself. It’s beautiful but can some times be scary. You get to really know yourself, and you will discover that fixed ideas or concepts you held in your mind are fictitious. It’s sort of like pulling the curtain on life and seeing just how absurd things really are.

But, even though there may be an absurdity to life, there is freedom and peace. That’s why I like Buddhism. And that’s why my misconception of Zen being separate from Buddhism and religion was wrong. Similarly, I went through periods of sitting without being in contact with a teacher. And while I’m glad I did not rush into finding someone, it can be confusing without one. Especially when we tell ourselves a certain narrative about our life. An experienced teacher will be sure to snap you out of your delusions.

Finding a teacher was very natural, though I overthought the process horribly. We do that a lot when trying to achieve something or solve a problem. Overthinking, grasping to ideas. Not being able to let go. And that’s been an important step in *my* practice – letting go and being okay with “not being sure” or “not knowing all the answers.” I’ve learned that everyone comes to Buddhism in different ways. People start practicing at different ages. There is no set path of how to start, which areas of study to focus, what curriculum to follow with your teacher, etc.

We are used to established ways of doing things in society. Goals are set, and outcomes are expected to be met. But from a Zen Buddhist perspective, there’s nothing to desire or achieve. In Buddhism there’s a lot of discussion regarding enlightenment. And in Zen Buddhism (Soto Zen, at least), daily practice *is* enlightenment. Sitting zazen, driving to work, chopping vegetables – that’s being a Buddha. And even if you don’t sit zazen you’re still a Buddha. We’re perfect, but could maybe use some improvement. Though while we may not actually need to achieve anything, it’s completely okay to set goals and maintain careers and such. This is maybe another weird part about Zen practice, is you can easily form dualistic ideas of how maybe quitting work and living in a monastery is a better way of life. But it’s not so black and white I don’t think.

So maybe my main misunderstanding of Zen practice was that I would finally achieve something and live in peaceful bliss without a single worry. But it’s not exactly like that – it’s why Buddhists call this whole ordeal a *practice*. We practice sitting, we practice mindfulness, we practice cooking food mindfully, or sitting a a traffic stop mindfully. It’s something we do every day, and it’s not easy. Zen practice is helps push you to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I guess the last point I want to make before I sign off is that Buddhist practice is not just for yourself. I mean, I first got into it because I wanted to feel happier and feel more purpose in my life. And while that has been achieved, I think it’s more important to maintain practice for other people in your life. Sitting meditation helps you learn about yourself, though if you’re comfortable with yourself and can help yourself okay, then maybe helping other people is a bit easier.

Okay, that’s about all I will say for now. See you later!


Practice Beyond Zazen

Fair warning: I wrote this post (again) while slightly jet-lagged from a flight. Please excuse typos and mistakes.

One thing that’s been on my mind lately is the notion of blurring the line between Zen practice and daily life. By Zen practice I’m mostly referring to sitting zazen. When I’m not doing zazen I go to work, pay rent, brush my teeth. However, the longer I do zazen each day, the more I experience emptiness outside of sitting.

While I may sit most days, and while I may make the occasional visit to a sangha or retreat, a true Zen practice must continue indefinitely. Whenever I visit a sangha I remain open for an important teaching to be received. But to extend my practice outside of the sangha, outside of sitting and bowing, I must allow myself to remain open to all things.

To remain open is to look for teachings in all beings, all activities, and all experiences. Buddhism teaches that all beings are interdependent. To put this teaching into practice we must look at other begins as our own self. What I do impacts others. That’s just how it is.

So this idea of remaining open applies outside of the sangha and sitting zazen. In the sangha we may have a teacher to learn from. But outside of the sangha we must look to all things for teaching. However, this forces us to ask two questions: Who is the teacher? Who is the student?

Zen focuses heavily on a student-teacher relationship. The teacher has practiced Zen for a long time, and the student learns from the teacher to develop his or her own path. But if beings are really interdendent, shouldn’t it work both ways? The teacher is the student. And the student is the teacher. Seeing otherwise is surely dualistic thought.

To be open is to be aware. To be aware is to experience emptiness. This connectedness to all beings – what we experience during zazen – it doesn’t end when the bell rings. It continues no matter what. If we remain aware, every action can be done with compassion.

By sitting zazen, we turn the great wheel of Dharma. We express the ultimate profound wisdom. But it is just the foundation. If we carry compassion into our own daily actions we can become the student – we can become the teacher. At least that’s my perspective right now if it makes sense.

I’ve made a huge accomplishment of doing near-daily zazen for over a year. Developing this habit has surprised me and demonstrates to where a small amount of work each day can lead. While the benefits have been great, I do feel that I’m at the point where sitting at home is not enough – I need to find a teacher. I may have discussed this in previous posts, but this time I’m certain and ready. As a first step I plan to attend my local sangha more regularly.

I flew to Amsterdam recently for an event and was able to visit the local Zen center for zazen one night. After zazen there was a dharma talk given in Dutch. The teacher (I’m not sure what her title was – I also didn’t catch her name) was kind enough to translate the main points to me in English. And she touched on the themes of what I described earlier: Interdependence, remaining open, student-teacher relationship.

The teacher’s point of remaining open past formal practice struck a chord with me. I told her how I’ve been sitting for a while now, but not sure how to deal with the feeling of burning out / feeling repetitive. And she told me I’ve got to find a teacher, even if the teacher is a bad one. She said it’s normal to feel bored of practice, but when this happens we should press our teacher for an answer to help direct us. She told me that even long-time sangha members can burn out. But this is why Dokusan exists: To let the student “vent” problems they may face during practice in a private interview. At least that’s one of the reasons.

So that’s where I’m at right now in my practice. I feel it’s going well for the most part. I just need to get more involved in my community and start talking to others who practice Zen.

In other news, I’ve been picking away at a new read by Shinshu Roberts: Being-Time: A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji. It’s a dense read, but overall not too bad and very rewarding. It dissects Dogen’s Uij (Being-Time) line by line. It’s a trippy read and has changed my perspective on a few things. Maybe I’ll write about all this in more detail later.

I’m back in California and will be pushing through work until the holidays. Being busy and maintaining my practice is always challenging. But after the Amsterdam visit I’ve got enough of a spark to keep me going. I’ll report back when I visit my local Zen center.

Hebden Bridge Zen Retreat

I’m currently on the plane back home from London (this will be posted when I land). I booked a two week vacation around my first Zen retreat, which was held in Hebden Bridge, England. The retreat was held by some really nice people, and Brad Warner led the retreat. I attended the retreat on a whim, and the only reason I found out about it was through Brad’s YouTube channel.

I started this blog about nine months ago, and while I haven’t posted in a while, I am happy to say I’ve been mediating nearly every day since then. My current routine is 30 minutes zazen in the morning, 30 minutes zazen in the evening. I’ve been reading a bunch of Zen-related books, but before this retreat I was kind of all over the place. I felt like I had a good grasp on what Zen was, but I didn’t realize how misconceived I was about practice before this retreat.

Firstly, the retreat was held at the Hebden Bridge Zen Center, and most of us stayed at a hostel owned by the same group. The hostel and Zendo are literally 5-10 feet apart. The Zendo is an old church that was used in the early 1900s. There’s even a memorial in the front yard for church members who had been killed during WW1. I believe the people running the Zen center have been practicing there for a little over ten years, maybe more. The owner met Brad in Manchester ten years ago and since then he’s been leading their retreats as part of his annual tour in Europe.

Located in Yorkshire, Hebden Bridge has rolling green hills, beautiful livestock, and the town center itself is a cute and small. I met Brad and a few others for dinner the night before in Hebden Bridge’s old town center at a country pub. I took the train from Leeds, and hopped on the only local bus (I was the only passenger), which took me up a big hill and provided a wonderful view.

I got to the pub about an hour early. Since this retreat was going to involve a lot of zazen each day, I figured I’d warm up and find a comfortable spot to sit along a cobblestone fence. I sat for about 30-40 minutes, enjoyed the good view and fresh air, then texted the organizer that I had arrived for dinner.

I had no idea what to expect of the retreat organizer (she is also the head of Hebden Bridge Zen Center) and Brad. For the organizer, my gut was telling me she’d be bald, wearing robes to dinner, and overall a quiet person. For Brad, I expected him to speak with me in riddles or something silly like that. Thankfully I was completely wrong, and we had a nice dinner with fantastic conversation. The organizer was completely down to Earth, as was Brad. There were six of us total, and it was one of the most chill groups of people I’ve ever spent time with. What makes this statement even funnier to me is that we all ordered water to drink and veggie pies to eat – a “boring” crowd indeed. After dinner we parted ways and I left for Leeds that night. I planned to return the following day at the start of the retreat.

The first day of the retreat started around 14:00. Everyone met at the hostel, we drank tea, and got to chat for a bit. I got to know a few people and almost everyone lived in the surrounding area. I was the only one (besides Brad) who flew in from USA. Though, my roommate came all the way from Moscow. There were a little over 20 people total. At this point we had already put our things away in our room, claimed a spot in the Zendo with our cushions, and were waiting for orientation to begin.

Orientation was held in the Zendo. We sat on our cushions, in a square shape, facing each other. Brad greeted us, gave us the basics on zazen (which I think most people knew), and we did some zazen. Brad was giving a talk later that night, and we were told to keep a period of silence for the rest of the retreat after the talk had ended. So basically, no talking unless you really have to. And if you really have to talk, whisper – no yapping.

Brad’s talk was held in the hostel lobby and open to the public. It lasted for 30 minutes or so, followed by Q&A. After the talk ended, we had a break to wash up and prepare for dinner. At this point the period of silence began, and a group (mostly made of the organizers) was put in charge of preparing dinner.

At dinner time a bell rang, we assembled in the hall, and sheets of paper were passed out with words printed on them. Brad hit two wood blocks together, which initiated a chant we read from the papers. I forget the chant exactly, but basically it was us giving thanks for the food, how the food was for our body’s nourishment, and how we should not be greedy. After the chant, we silently lined up, served ourselves, sat down, and ate together in silence.

After dinner we had some free time, then rejoined in the Zendo to begin the first evening sit. We did three sit periods a day: 30 minutes of zazen, followed by 10 minutes of kinhin (walking meditation), followed by another 30 minutes of zazen. There was no speaking, and the start and end of each activity was queued by someone hitting a bell. Three bells began zazen, two bells began kinhin. One bell at the end of zazen. There were some more bells to transition between each activity, which involved bowing. It was really cool, and totally different from just doing zazen at home in my bedroom.

After the first evening’s sit we had free time until bed. I made some tea, and the next day we all awoke at 5:50am to a bell. Each morning we were given about 20 minutes to wash up, drink more tea, then it was back to the Zendo for sitting – 30 minutes zazen, 10 minutes kinhin, 30 minutes zazen. After sitting we had time to freshen up a bit more before breakfast.

Each meal was preceded by the same chant as described earlier. And each meal was taken in silence. One thing I noticed was that people bowed to each other before sitting at a table, then again before leaving. Bowing is a big thing in Zen practice, both inside and outside the Zendo. This is especially true when no one is able to talk to each other.

Before each afternoon sit we did an hour of work. Everyone was assigned to a team which was responsible for some type of task. For myself, I was on general labour. And so I scrubbed toliets and sinks, and mopped and swept floors. Even if something wasn’t necessarily dirty, I was asked to do it anyway. The point being that we should consider this part of our Zen practice and be fully involved in the work.

After work, we sat again in the Zendo. And one thing I learned from being at a Zen retreat is that it’s crucial to wear a wristwatch. Otherwise you may be late to the Zendo. And since Brad was our teacher for the retreat, it is considered impolite to arrive at the Zendo after the teacher. So it was suggested we arrive 5-10 minutes early for each sit.

Another thing I learned is that there’s Zendo etiquette. Before stepping into the Zendo, it’s expected that you bow. I was also told by someone that it’s common to step into the Zendo starting with your left foot. This way you become present right as you enter. Then, when walking to your cushion, don’t walk in a straight line. Rather, walk along the other cushions, in the shape of the square, until you reach your own (sort of like following a maze). Before sitting, it’s also expected to bow once towards your cushion, then once away from the cushion (towards the Zendo/others).

So I normally arrived 5-10 minutes early, did my bows, and waited for the bell the ring. I basically travelled all the way to England just to sit and stare at a wall. And it was amazing.

What’s cool about zazen, which separates it from meditation, is that there is no goal. And even if you do come up with a goal, when you reach that goal it does not mean anything. This is due to the goal being created out of whatever confusion brought you to Zen practice in the first place. So it’s best to just treat zazen like another sit, and don’t consider the results good or bad. Just sit.

On the last full day, I got to have Dokusan with Brad, which is basically a private interview between a student and teacher. Think of the scene from The Matrix where Neo goes to see The Oracle. Brad is very casual during Dokusan, and I got to spend 10 minutes or so asking him a few questions. It was beneficial, and reaffirmed my opinion that he is a genuine, down-to-Earth guy. I wouldn’t have considered coming to a Zen retreat if it weren’t for him, much less fly all the way to England for one. And the retreat felt totally unique because of his presence.

So I spent nearly four days sitting for hours, not talking, doing some exercise (we did Qi Gong and went for walks around the hillside each afternoon), eating amazing vegetarian food, fully invested in the current moment. And when it was over, I was amazed. The usual noise in my head had quieted down, little things that I had considered big before didn’t set me off, and I felt really connected with the others at the retreat despite us not talking. And while this is completely amazing, it also felt so ordinary.

That’s my bit on my first Zen retreat. If you haven’t tried one before, you should definitely consider. It’s boosted my own practice, and I’ve realized now I need to visit my local Zendo every now and then. Doing zazen at home is great, but it’s just not the same when you get the share the experience with others. 

Lastly, I will circle back to one of the misconceptions I had before attending this retreat. I mentioned I had done a lot of reading on Zen, and even though I felt like I had a good grasp on what Zen is, I really did not have any clue at all until doing the practice with others. It’s one thing to read about Zen, but it’s another to actually live the Zen philosophy through practice. It’s that simple, and I really just overthought a lot of this before. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people can get together, shut up, and sit down.

Alright, I’m pretty jet lagged. I’ve cleaned up what I wrote on the plane just a bit. Will revisit later to fix typos and such after I’ve caught up on sleep. Until then, keep practicing.

My Visit to San Francisco Zen Center

Yesterday I woke up early and headed over to the San Francisco Zen Center to attend their free introductory zazen class. This class is open to the public and happens every Saturday morning. No sign-up is necessary and they allow late walk-ins (although this may depend on the teacher). After the class I stayed for the Dharma talk, which was led by Ed Sattizahn.

This was my first visit to any Zen center, so I had no idea what to expect. When I stepped inside the center I was greeted by a man in robes. He bowed and I politely told him I was here for the intro class (I spoke as if I had just entered a library). He pointed me towards the hall and asked me to take my shoes off before entering. I asked him where to place my shoes, and he told me in a joking manner that they put shoes just about anywhere.

I entered the main hall (known as Buddha Hall) and on the floor were several zafus (cushions for meditation). I took one and sat down. Shortly after, another man in robes entered and introduced himself. Actually, the man never gave his name so I’ll just refer to him as John from now on. While most of the students participating sat on zafus, a few sat on regular chairs towards the rear of the hall. John later explained that practicing zazen on a chair is perfectly acceptable.

First of all, I was caught off guard by John’s casual manner of speaking (similar to the first man I spoke to joking about the shoes). He was wearing robes and sitting on a zafu, but he spoke like any regular guy in San Francisco. He explained how visitors to the Zen center are often afraid of doing something wrong or disturbing one of the monks wearing robes. He said this is probably due to the various forms of rituals done around the Zen center. However, the monks, he said, are quite friendly and have no problem talking with visitors (even though they may look serious), and the rituals themselves are only a standard. He explained that while rituals are followed (such as bowing), Zen is a personal practice and people respect whatever personal form you’ve developed. Basically he told us there’s no wrong way to practice Zen and no one at the Zen center will judge you for doing things your own way.


Before starting zazen, it is custom in Sōtō Zen to bow. One bows towards the zafu, then turns around to bow once more away from the zafu. Bowing, from what I understand, is basically a way to show respect to others in the zendo who are also practicing zazen. When bowing, others facing you will bow in return.

Bowing is done in gassho style, meaning hands are held together towards the chin. The body is tilted at a 45 degree angle. This is the same bow that the first man in the lobby did when greeting myself.

So, why should we follow the ritual of bowing? John told us it’s simply a way to prepare our mind for zazen – like a routine. This is just to clear our mind and set the tone before practicing.

Sitting Zazen

John explained that the zazen technique followed in Sōtō Zen was recorded by Eihei Dōgen in Fukanzazengi. Dōgen is the founder of the Sōtō school (Sōtō originated in China and was brought to Japan by Dōgen). We were taught all of the different ways to sit zazen (Lotus, Burmese, seiza, or simply in a chair). We were also told that there’s no better way to sit – whichever is more comfortable.

Here’s an excerpt of Dōgen’s description of zazen from Fukanzazengi:

Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

In short, keep a straight back, don’t lurch forward, and place your tongue on the roof of the mouth to prevent over-salivating. Also – the eyes are kept open.

When sitting, the hands are held in what’s commonly known as “cosmic mudrā.” I believe this technique, or at least the term, was popularized by Shunryu Suzuki who founded SF Zen Center. The left hand is placed on top of the right, while the thumbs are barely touching one another. Touching the thumbs lightly together is done to prevent the mind from wandering. When the mind drifts you may notice that the thumbs have come apart, or maybe you’re pressing them too hard. This is simply a mechanism to keep the mind in check.

Practicing Zazen

We were taught two zazen techniques: counting breaths and Shikantaza.

Counting breaths is simple: count one on inhale, count one on exhale. Count two on inhale, count two on exhale. Repeat until reaching ten. If distracted or lost count, simply start at one.

John told us that most people count breaths for a few years before moving on to Shikantaza. I’m not sure if he was trying to be funny, but his casual tone when saying “a few years” made me laugh.

In contrast, Shikantaza is zazen without counting breaths. This technique is much harder to avoid distracting thoughts as one does not have the anchor of using breath counting. When thoughts arise during Shikantaza, one does not attach to them. Simply let the thought pass and remain in a neutral, empty state. An example of an itchy nose was given. If your nose itches during zazen, don’t analyze the itch. Just let it be an itch and move on. If you think Shikantaza seems easy, give it a shot and tell me what you think.

Ending Zazen

When ending zazen, we were taught to simply sway the body back and forth lightly. Don’t rush getting up.

Here’s Dōgen again:

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength (of zazen).

And that was about everything discussed during class. There was Q&A at the end, followed by a 15 minute break before the Dharma talk.

Dharma Talk

I stayed for the Dharma talk which lasted for an hour. I was hoping to attend the introduction to zendo forms, a class which normally happens every Saturday afternoon. However, the class was cancelled that day in celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment. During this holiday the Zen center holds a one-week sesshin, meditating every day from 9:30am until 5:30pm.

The speaker was Ed Sattizahn, who serves as Abbot of the SF Zen Center. A large group of people gathered in the Buddha Hall (it was crowded), and a camera and microphone was setup for live streaming (just as a side note: most of the events are streamed online – even group zazen sessions).

You can watch a recording of the talk here. I won’t go over all of the content, but Sattizahn did emphasize how Zen is a personal path. This is definitely a reoccurring theme I’ve noticed in Zen teaching (even our zazen teacher said this). Among other things, Sattizahn mentioned a bit about Dōgen and Suzuki. When I have some time I plan to rewatch the recording – I ate a light breakfast that day and was a bit hungry and distracted. After the talk I rushed down the street to grab coffee and a sandwich.


I’d call my first visit to the SF Zen Center a success. I definitely felt welcomed, and no one pestered me to donate money. While the class covered most of what I already knew, I did learn a few new things such as the bowing ritual.

I definitely plan to return and attend the zendo introductory class. In the future I hope to practice zazen at least once a month at the zendo. And who knows, maybe I’ll be a frequent visitor at other SFZC events too.

That’s about all I’ve got for this writeup. I’ve still got a lot on my plate reading-wise. So expect some new content soon relating to Zen teachings and literature. I’ll be visiting family over Christmas and should have some extra free time to read and write.

Until next time, keep practicing.

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.