The Buddha had one message throughout his life: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. All of his 45 years of teachings were elaborations on this core message. The Eightfold Path is the foundation of our practice and the Buddha organized it into three training areas:
Training in Moral Discipline (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood)
Training in Mental Discipline (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration)
Training in Wisdom (Right View and Right Thought)
Zen places a great deal of emphasis on the second area, Training in Mental Discipline, through the practice of Zazen. It is felt that both morality and wisdom flow from this practice. The Great Master Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, taught that Zazen should not just be practiced on the cushion but 24 hours a day. In everything we do, washing dishes, using the toilet, cooking a meal, sweeping, the mind of Zazen should be maintained.
Zazen literally means “sitting absorption”. This is usually translated in the west as sitting meditation. We practice Zazen in our Zendo. Since our goal is to develop the deep concentration that is at the heart of Zazen, we ask that all who join with us in this practice follow a number of Zendo etiquette rules.
During Zazen we encourage everyone to practice Shikantaza, though any form of silent meditation can be practiced. Shikantaza is the Zazen practice often seen in pictures where practitioners sit facing a wall. It means “empty mind”. This does not mean that one seeks to suppress thoughts. Rather the practitioner lets go of thinking and allows the mind to settle and relax.
Our typical practice period lasts about 1 hour and 15 minutes. We normally sit for half an hour, practice Kinhin for 15 minutes followed by another sitting period of half an hour. On retreats these times may be adjusted for longer or shorter periods based on the daily retreat schedule. While the normal rule is not to talk, sometimes during retreats the Abbot will give a short talk called a Teisho during a sitting meditation period. The Zazen leader may also give instruction if required.
Kinhin is slow mindful walking. The object is to bring the same intense concentration as held in Zazen to walking.
A Teisho is a short presentation to the Buddha of a Zen master’s insight into a particular subject.
For most Buddhist traditions Training in Moral Discipline is practiced through the strict and literal following of precepts. In Zen the practice of precepts is not as strictly or as literally emphasized. As a result of this, Zen is sometimes seen as a great heresy, but as the great Master Dogen Zenji said “What precepts are not upheld when practicing Zazen?” Our belief is that as Wisdom is gained, insight into the core meaning of the precepts will be gained and they will be kept in a more humane and compassionate way.
In our Tradition, there are two kinds of Precepts given: Lay Precepts and Monastic Precepts. At the core of these precepts are two simple questions, “Will my actions harm me? Will my actions harm others?” While these questions are simple in nature, to look deeply and answer them honestly requires a strong Zazen practice.
Chanting is an ancient practice that dates from the time of the Buddha. The Bhikshus and Bhikshunnis chanted the teachings of the Buddha. This practice is continued today in our practice. All of the ceremonies we engage, from daily services to memorials to celebrations, involve some kind of chanting. We normally chant the Heart Sutra, the Identity of the Relative and Absolute, Hakuin’s Song of Zazen, and some shorter verses in English. We also chant the Daihi Shin Darani, the Maka Hannya Shin Gyo, and others in Japanese. Occasionally we will chant sutras in Vietnamese. Go to our Chant page for a sample of some of these.