Practice O

by zenquaker

One of the things I did early in my Zen practice was write down the Eightfold Path (or rather, my transliterinterpretation of it) on a sheet of paper. I folded the paper three times, so that each leg of the path was on it’s own eighth. I would keep it with me and tried to memorize it.

My faith has become more complicated since then.  My continuing Zen practice brought me back to the belief in God that I had abandoned. My reading of Marcus Aurelius brought me into contact with Stoic philosophy. I decided to do the cheat sheet idea once again. Now it wasn’t just the Eightfold Path, it was also the Ten Commandments, my Ten Extensions to the Ten Commandments, and a stoic toolkit as recommended by Marcus Aurelius. I carry it around with me, I have memorized it, and I recite it every day.

I’ll post it here at some point, but it’s a work in progress (especially now that I’m reading Red Pine’s translation of the Tao Te Ching). Working on the Cheat Sheet (as I call it) has made me find the holes in both my understanding and my practice. One of the areas I found my understanding lacking was Right Mindfulness, and one of the areas I found my practice lacking was the Sabbath. The two came together recently in an interesting way.

The definition I have found of Right Mindfulness (or Pure Awareness as I transliterate it) is pure, open, and calm attention to body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities. The mind and mental qualities part especially confused me, so I started researching the roots of this definition. One of the details I found about feelings was that it was meant to be much simpler than I thought. It is paying attention to your most basic positive, neutral, or negative response to a stimulus.

The Fourth Commandment (the way I count them) is “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” I’m not really doing anything special on Saturday (yes, I’m a Seventh Day Stoic Zen Quaker). I’ve had several ideas about how I might make the Sabbath holy. One is to do all sorts of different types of mediation. Another is to try and keep purely aware as I go about my day to day activities. Another is to keep to a strict set of Buddhist precepts for the day, including being completely chaste and not engaging in any entertainment. Yet another is to do all three at once.

So all that is bubbling around in my head when Brad Warner posted a link on facebook to his new article on Patheos, “How to Practice Zen: Some Pointers on the Way.” In it he posts a set of minimum qualifications for being a Zen teacher, that he has gleaned as the intersection of various sets of qualifications from teachers he knows. I feel I am perhaps over-emphasizing “qualifications” here, so please read the article before drawing any conclusions.

One of the things he mentions is time on the cushion. Not just any old meditation, but retreat style meditation, where you are working on it nine hours a day. All the teachers he is talking about had at least a year of retreat time. “That is three hundred, sixty-five days of nine hours a day of meditating in the Zen style.” To try and start drawing together the disparate crap I’ve been rambling about in this disorganized post, I had both a positive and a negative reaction to this.

My negative reaction comes from my long time belief that Zen (at least as I have encountered it in America) over-emphasizes retreats. When you have established a serious, regular meditation practice, the next step is always said to be start doing retreats. It’s not that I think retreats are bad. It’s just that I think the next step should be taking your practice off the cushion and into your life. That’s a big part of what I try to do with my practice.

My positive reaction comes from my desire to follow the Fourth Commandment. One day retreats would be a perfect way to be holy on the Sabbath. It would fill a hole in the practice I am espousing to myself every day. Of course, it would take me over six years to get the 365 days of retreat time that Brad Warner is talking about.

And there comes another negative reaction. The 365 days he is talking about is in the context of teachers. I want to be a teacher. Sometimes I find myself clinging to this desire. Yet every day I recite to myself: “We are not satisfied because we cling to desire” (my transliterinterpretation of the Second Truth of the Buddha, the Four Truths of the Buddha being Pure Understanding, the first leg of the Eightfold Path). My desire to do this is partially a desire to say, “Hey, I did 365 days of retreat time, so I can be a teacher now.” Which is stupid on so many levels.

As you can see, I am conflicted on this issue. However, I have decided to go forward with it. What decided me is the realization that I am criticizing something I do not really understand. I’ve done retreats. I believe I’ve done six weekend retreats and maybe a dozen one day retreats. That’s at best 30 days, not even one twelfth of what Brad Warner is talking about. So before I continue to criticize what teachers like Brad Warner choose to emphasize, and before I continue to form my practice based on those criticisms, I think I should make a more serious effort to determine whether or not they are correct.