Offering Zen to Students: Letting the Practice Speak for Itself


1. For most new practitioners, commitment grows, usually in an uneven fashion, until the practice takes over and becomes natural or they move on to something else. This introduction presents the practice to students at its best, in a familiar location and without financial costs. The introduction runs over the length of 1 school term, either as a seminar or an after school activity.  Finally, it has strong practice and primary literature components.

2.  There is a significant minority of students who have an interest either in Zen or other forms of meditation.  Some grew up in families with a meditation tradition; these students particularly welcome the opportunity to be taken seriously.  Others have a genuine curiosity.  A third group follows their friends.

3.  The participants are self-selected and 6-12 people are a good number for the starting group; some attrition is expected.  Each meeting lasts for one hour and has both a practice and literature component.  Between meetings, zazen is encouraged but not required.  A reading and some reflective writing is generally given.   An experienced practitioner can facilitate these sessions.  It is also a great opportunity for the facilitator to work with the literature.

Practice Component

1.  Since zazen is the heart of the practice, the instruction on meditation is rigorous with emphasis on posture, breathing, attention, and returning to the breath. In the following weeks, these instructions are summarized at the beginning of most of the sitting periods.  Since cushions are usually not available, chairs are used.

2.  The first sitting period is for 5 minutes.  (For many young people, this length of time seems to be an eternity.)  Each following week, the period is extended several (2-3) minutes, until 25 minutes is reached.  There are two interesting observations.  First, all agree that they can sit the extended period each week.  Second, at the end of the term, there is genuine amazement that they can readily work for an entire period.

3.  At the conclusion of the sitting period, there is a short group discussion period. This open discussion is crucial since questions that have arisen can be raised from an individual’s experience can be immediately addressed for the larger group.  These few minutes, really help to clarify the practice and grow confidence in their sitting practice.  (As an example, questions about sitting with attention, but without judgment or a goal, were frequently raised.)

4.  Near the end of the term, a visit was made to a local Zendo.   A sangha member gave a tour, an opportunity for the students to use cushions, do kin-hin, chant  and be oriented to the etiquette of the space.  This visit also provided an introduction to extend a welcome those who may be interested in practicing there.

Literature Component

1.  Reading assignments were distributed most weeks. The selections were chosen to cover a wide range of content, time, and cultures.  For example:

Sermons (Buddha)

Commentaries  (Bodhidharma, Dogen)

Visual Art  (Oxherding Pictures)

Sutra (Diamond Sutra)

Poetry (Basho)

Koan (Wumen)

Instruction (Mirror of Zen, So Sahn)

Zen Stories (Reps)

2.  The students read the assignments (typically 5-10 pages) during the week.  They selected a section or sentence that had meaning for them and were asked prepare a typewritten one page response (to submit).  These reflections formed the starting point of the literature discussion.

3.  During the literature discussion period, a wide range of topics naturally surfaced.  These included the impermanence, attachment, direction of practice, compassion, wisdom, original nature, form and emptiness, awakening.  These subjects were discussed by the group in no particular order, but by the end of the term, had some familiarity with them.

4. Reading the primary literature gave the students a perspective of the breadth and depth of the practice.  Secondary interpretative sources were not as well received.   It was significant for them to understand that they had the understanding and maturity to work at this level.  This contributed to confidence that they were fully capable of the practice.

Final Comment

The experience is to provide the opportunity to begin a process for each individual.  At the conclusion, some students have continued with a sitting group, a few sought out established zendos, and the majority move on to other experiences.  There is no success or failure, practice manifests in its own individual way.  Additional information can be made available at the contact address in the header.


One Response to Offering Zen to Students: Letting the Practice Speak for Itself

  1. […] The symbol of  teaching practice is a walking stick.  Here, the walking stick represents a commitment to go and sit with people where they are.  The most recent example is:  Offering Zen to Students: Letting the Practice Speak for Itself. […]

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