Zazen or sitting meditation is the heart of our practice. We sit in a stable posture, facing the wall, with eyes partially open. Shoulders and hips are aligned and the breath drops into the lower abdomen. One can sit in a variety of positions such as full-lotus, half lotus, or Burmese style with one foot in front of the other on the floor. There are also kneeling postures (often using a small bench).
Our Soto Zen School affirms the buddha-nature of all beings. Meditation is approached with what Suzuki Roshi called "no-gaining mind." Zazen is understood, therefore, not as a means to an end (awakening or enlightenment), but rather as the expression of our already present but not fully realized buddha-nature. In zazen we do not pay attention to any specific meditation object. Broadly speaking, attention is placed on the ever-changing conditions of body and mind from moment to moment, what Dogen Zenji calls the genjokoan--the koan of everyday life as it manifests in the present moment. More concretely, attention is directed towards posture and the breath. We strive to be fully present, to meet the changing conditions of life and mind free from conditions and preferences, with a mind that includes everything but clings to nothing.
Regular meditation practice in a group setting, connection with a Teacher, study, expressing generosity and community service are all essential aspects of being a student of Zen. At AZG we offer at least 10 periods per week of zazen at the temple, and a Sunday morning program closer to the center of town. This is a year-round opportunity that is enriched by classes, retreats, workshops and community events. Zen practice does not end when zazen ends.
When arising from zazen, move into the activity of your day with the same attention you have given your breath and body. This may entail a brief devotional service, dusting your altar, or taking up “Samu”, work practice. Carrying your calm and stable zazen mind into normal activity supports you to cultivate the habit of forgoing multitasking; your stable zazen posture moves seamlessly into the activities of the day – washing dishes, cleaning, tending to children, driving the car.
You may find that you would like to have a regular meditation practice at home as well. Having a dedicated meditation space in your home can remind you to sit regularly. It may be a simple corner in which you can minimize distractions. An altar is not necessary, but it can act as a focal point for your sitting area. A traditional altar includes a candle, scented material, flowers and a statue.
Your family and your work commitments may determine when is the best time of day to sit at home. It is better to meditate for 10 minutes a day than an hour once a week; daily consistency is more important than longer and less frequent sessions. Make a commitment to a regular schedule that you can maintain. Check in with yourself at monthly intervals to see if this schedule is working for you; modify as needed.
If you have doubts, please ask the Teacher or a senior student for help determining the best combination of cushions or furniture to support your posture.
These two links offer basic guidance for the posture traditionally taught for zazen.
Kinhin is our form of walking meditation. Usually practiced between periods of zazen, we walk slowly, taking a half-step with each breath. As in zazen, we continue to pay attention to posture and breath, expressing the mind and body of meditation in movement.
A sesshin is a meditation retreat. The word "sesshin" translates literally as “gathering the heart/mind." It is an extended period, lasting from one to seven days, in which most normal activities are suspended and we devote ourselves completely to a schedule of zazen, dokusan (individual meetings with the teacher), oryoki (formal meals), lecture, and work periods. Silence is observed.
Practice periods, usually lasting from six to ten weeks, are a time for intensifying our commitment to practice. Led by a teacher, students are encouraged, and sometimes required, to make heightened commitments to individual practice, the precepts, community service, and Dharma study.
Dokusan (abridged from Austin Zen Center)
Dokusan is the Japanese term for "going alone to a respected one," a formal and private face-to-face meeting with a Dharma-Transmitted Zen teacher. A Zen teacher or "master" is one who has received Dharma-Transmission from another fully Dharma-Transmitted teacher. In Zen Buddhism, the spiritual ancestry (or bloodline) is considered an unbroken lineage of succession between teacher and disciple that theoretically reaches back to the historical Buddha. Dokusan sessions are ritualized formal meetings in which the student offers prostrations to the teacher before sitting down.
Although there is no standard length of meeting--it could run anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour--typically a meeting is between a quarter hour to half an hour during which time a student may bring up practice-related questions, present their understanding of the Dharma, and more generally engage in a discussion of their experience in zazen and its intersection with daily life. Dokusan is not to be confused with therapy or coaching, although similar topics may arise. For example, personal issues such as relationships or jobs would come up only in terms of how they relate specifically to one's practice. Thus the explicit focus is on the students' understanding of Buddhist teachings as they relate to their daily practice.
While such meetings are considered important in any branch of Buddhist practice, they are especially relevant in Zen training as it can be easy to get caught up in weeds of discursive thought without guidance and practice-verification from a teacher. It provides a time for the teacher to give individualized instruction or to assess the students' understanding. Other times the student and teacher may simply sit together in silent zazen without speaking at all. In either case, the privacy of the interview combined with the formality of the container creates a space where social pretenses may be dropped and an authentic dharmic encounter can take place.
Dokusan is private and confidential within certain limits: 1) when the individual expresses intention to harm self or other, or 2) when a teacher seeks peer consultation from another teacher. When someone requests complete confidentiality, this will be respected as long as there is no risk to that person or another.
The schedule for Dokusan is arranged in the two weeks before Gene's arrival. Watch for the announcement on the list serve and respond with the time(s) that work for your schedule.
Community Practice Opportunities
We regularly schedule Work Periods or Work Days to tend to the house, zendo, and grounds of our property on Park Avenue. This is an opportunity to express our practice by working together in community.
Arcata Night Shelter Cooking
We participate with the All Faith Partnership in helping to provide meals for the Arcata Night Shelter. On the second and fourth Fridays of each month, a group of enthusiastic volunteers gathers in the kitchen, and many hands work together to create a nutritious meal.
Pelican Bay Prison Sangha
Members travel to Pelican Bay to sit with this sangha, typically on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, and others maintain an active pen pal relationship with inmates.
Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF)
Arcata Zen Group, along with fellow local Buddhist groups, coordinates the Humboldt Area Chapter of BPF. BPF's mission is to be a catalyst and agent for socially engaged Buddhism, through a worldwide network of Buddhist chapters of all traditions. Programs, publications, and practice groups link Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion with social engagement and social change. BPF is open to all. You may subscribe to the chapter's mailing list by sending an email to humbpf-subscribe at yahoogroups.com.
AZG's house has an extensive lending library of books, recorded dharma talks, Soto Zen source and practice resources, as well as related materials from general Buddhist and other spiritual traditions. Members are welcome to check out books for up to one month. There is a sign out sheet in the library.