As the teacher at the Vista Zen Center I’m often asked to write articles or give talks that will appeal to both new and seasoned Zen students. That appears pretty difficult on the surface, but I have one advantage; the practice of Zen encourages students to approach every moment with a beginner’s mind. Sometimes the older students would like to do otherwise, but in truth, it’s the best thing one can learn how to do.
In these situations the question becomes “how to do it”. This can be challenging because we’ve heard, or read, that in our practice of Zen we’re not supposed “to do” anything. Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I start working with someone new to the Vista Zen Center I encourage them, while they’re at home, or work, to use as part of their practice the thing they love doing the most. This is a great way to start, both for me, and the student because everyone naturally does what they love to do. No one has to ask them to do it, and it doesn’t require any real effort on their part.
This work/play on the student’s part is only modified by me asking them to watch their thoughts and feelings while they pursue their activities. This goes along with the students’ breath practice which is quite often the practice new students use in the beginning when they are at the Center. When we’re sitting in zazen, or meditation, we’re just watching our breath. We may count it, or we may pay attention to the way our body is responding to the breath, but in either case it is simple observation.
When the student enters into a favorite activity at home, or at work, the practice becomes one of being aware of how you reacting to what you are doing. What are the thoughts, and feelings, that accompany the task the student is doing The idea is to learn how to do a particular activity while being aware of the different things happening as they are engaged in a specific process.
Zen practice at the Vista Zen Center never moves away from encouraging students to engage with awareness in activities the students enjoy, but they will meet some challenges along the way. Most students don’t come to Zen looking for something that will be difficult to do. Even though a person may have heard Zen is hard, he or she already has the feeling they can meet the hardship.
As a student moves along the Zen path there will be instructions from the teacher which will challenge the students and they will be encouraged to move beyond their comfort zones. This movement is necessary if there is to be any lasting progress, any reduction in the suffering, or dissatisfaction the student may be experiencing in their lives.
For me, Zen offers students a complete program that will take them from the novice level to the level of post-graduate work if we look at the practice using an academic analogy. And, at every step along the way, students are going to be challenged to step out of their comfort zones. The saving grace is that we are experiencing our lives becoming richer, more involving, more joyful, and more engaging as we make these moves. Our confidence in ourself increases and the fear of moving into unknown territory is softened by the awareness that our lives will be better for it.
For specifics on how to get started, or how to apply for the graduate program, please join us and help us bring this invaluable experience to your lives.
Jake Jiyu Gage, Roshi