Four other essentials of Zen are silence, discipline, ritual, and study. These elements give us a great structure to really ‘be’ and my intention here is to briefly describe each and offer an example or two of how they have helped me.
‘I have the impression that many of us are afraid of Silence. We’re always taking in something – text, music, radio, TV or thoughts to occupy the space. If quiet and space are so important for our happiness, why don’t we make room for them in our lives…..Thich Nhat Hahn.’
Silence does not mean the absence of noise, but instead our relationship to it in practice and the extension of that practice into daily life. With noise being a constant in today’s hyper informative society, it’s hard to find a quiet place and time to just be. For many the way to deal with the day to day noise and stress is to grab a coffee, have a beer with friends, smoke/vape or just concede to the turmoil that can sometimes manifest. Not many people think about what all the noise is doing to us physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. We all need help to learn how to deal with it, and Zazen is a great start point. Zazen/Silence has many benefits but here are few that come to mind: Inner quiet is rejuvenating. Silence gives us space for creativity. Silence helps with stress reduction, lowers blood pressure, and boosts the immune system. Silence can bring us into the present moment. But what about when your space is essentially noisy and crowded? By focusing on our breath along with the noisy soundscape and learning to stay centered without getting caught up in our surroundings helps us to create a silent space that is all our own.
“If you practice zazen regularly, you get into the habit of it; as far as I personally am concerned my brain works the same way in everyday life as it does during zazen. Zazen early in the morning influences the rest of your day and you learn to react to everything that happens with the same steady frame of mind.” —Taisen Deshimaru
Zen masters often compare the clearing of the mind to the sweeping of a dusty room. Even if you just let the room sit with no activity, it’s going to develop a bit of dust each day – eventually it is prohibitive. Sweeping the dust through practice each day, clearing the small amounts, is what our practice is about and it’s based on self-discipline – no one will do it for you.
Rituals have been used throughout history to mark moments of great significance, and although the actual identification of which moments are worth marking and which are not is relative to the specific temporal and geographic placement of the society in question, it is a consistent trait of all cultures and groups that they will form rituals.
Ritual in life is normal for us as humans but at times we do not pay the correct amount of attention. Think of things you do everyday, like brush your teeth, comb your hair, greet your cell mate, and walk to chow. Rituals in spiritual practice, particularly one like Zen Buddhism, allow us to focus and take the time to recognize the significance of that moment and the practice we undertake. In Zen, we chant sutras and gathas, make bows, and light incense. Sitting daily zazen is also a ritual. We learn to pay attention from moment to moment. And practicing awareness in the present moment can turn all our routine activity into moments of zazen.
‘A special transmission outside of the scriptures. No dependency on words or letters. Pointing directly to the human mind. Seeing into one’s own nature and attaining Buddhahood’ Bodhidharma
In this statement our ancient Zen Master reminds us that reading and study are not the path to Buddhahood. Yes, reading and study do nourish our mind and illuminate our practice and it is helpful to read books about Zen, to study the scriptures, and to learn from the writings of well-known teachers. But to really “get” zazen, one must practice. One must learn to allow our body’s natural wisdom to arise and speak to us. We must nourish inner stillness and learn to recognize the appropriate response to each moment of our lives. By allowing words we read to penetrate us fully through our sitting practice, we come to see into our true nature in a way that is intuitive and natural.
In gassho, Geido