I'm finding that in California, Zazen is a bigger part of my life. I don't know if it has anything to do with the location itself, but now seems to be the time that something about this is changing for me.
What is Zazen?
Well, depending on who you ask, you might stumble into a giant ball of Philosophy, or a long list of paradoxical aphorisms. But all you want is a simple answer, right?
I'm going to take the easy way out and tell you that Zazen is the form of meditation practiced by Zen Buddhists.
A coworker once told me that he thought meditation was a special type of daydreaming. I think a lot of people have very false understandings about meditation. At least the meditation I'm familiar with. I thought this was particularly funny though, because I think an excellent definition for Zazen could be, "A special type of NOT daydreaming"
A Zazen practicioner will sit on a cushion on the floor with their eyes open, paying very close attention to their posture. It's a rather specific posture. They will then begin attempting to count their breath. (Some schools will start beginners out in other ways, but this is most common in my experience)
The basic idea is that your mind will come up with all sorts of ways to distract you from your breath. Reenactments of conversations you had with your boss, mapping out plans for the weekend, and images of the sexual body parts of your partner are all pretty common ones for me. Each time, you will gently bring you attention back the physical sensation of breathing. It's about staying in the present moment, equally aware of your body and your mind exactly as they exist right then.
It doesn't take too long (think weeks) before you start to understand the concentrative state of mind you're looking for and the breath actually becomes less important. You can go on forever focusing on the breath. It will work. But at some point you can begin doing Objectless Meditation (Shinay), Body Awareness, or many other methods. Really what happens is that once you cultivate the state of mind, it doesn't matter much.
Stuff starts to happen...
Or...maybe stuff starts to not happen...or...you start to notice the stuff that's always been happening...or...you start to notice the stuff that's always been not happening. All of those. Welcome to Zen philosophy!
But what starts to happen isn't visions of far away worlds, or conversations with spirit animals, or sudden radically changes to who you are. What happens is simply that you begin to become aware of how things really are.
Sometimes visions or intense spiritual experiences do occur, but that's not what we are focusing on or aiming for. I once told the teacher at a temple that I had a vision in practice and he said, "So what?". And that was the end of that conversation. In the end, a vision is manifest by your mind just as a thought is, just as every single experience of any type that you've ever had is, and we return ourselves to our breath.
I remember the first time I tried to meditate. I was 20 years old and living in my first apartment. I read a description in a book and gave it shot. I totally didn't get it and didn't try again for another 7 years.
The next time I practiced meditation was in the Cleveland Buddhist Temple. This time, slowly, I became hooked. Over the next 3 years I practiced on and off. Going to sits and talks with other teachers in CLE. Sometimes I would go months without meditating. Sometimes I'd manange to make it to the cushion 3-4 times a week for months straight.
But at this point, despite faults of disiciple, I knew I was onto something that worked.
I've had a great run of practice at the time I'm writing this. I've done Zazen for 15 consectutive days. I'm feeling tremendous waves of clarity. The little moments when the noise in my head becomes very quiet and still are becoming more frequent and even beginning to string together into stretches of calm, or samadhi. (Samadhi means something a little different in Buddhism than it does in some other spiritual communities)
Most interestingly though, is that the discipline to practice everyday seems to be coming much easier. I expect this 15 day streak (which is not so impressive now) to go on much longer, simply because I'm not working very hard to make it happen....I'm remembering to practice very naturally. It suddenly seems much more a part of me. Not practicing Zazen is starting to seem silly. Which is new and different because even though I've felt the benefits of meditation for years, it was still always a challange to get myself to do it everyday. A bit out of the blue, the required disciple feels easier.
The SF Bay Area is a hot bed of U.S. Buddhist activity. The SF Zen Center was one of the first Zen centers outside of Japan. But that's just the beginning. There are so many interesting Buddhist groups here that it can be overwhelming to choose.
That's a part of why our family made the move here from Cleveland a month ago. I met some great people studing meditation in Cleveland, but I was never able to really feel a part of any greater community. Maybe that's the right time to use the word "Sangha".
I went to a weekly meetup at the SF Zen Center last week that is limited to those aged 25-35. There were over 40 people in attendance. It was a great feeling. It reminded me of my first visit to a Computer Programming Meetup in Cleveland. Which was a wonderful sangha of it's own and where I made a number of friends.
I have no idea where I'm headed, but something about Zazen feels different to me now. And it seemed worth writing down.
Now, go to your cushion!