Where does Zen come from?
Zen, or Chan in Chinese and Dhyana in Sanskrit, means absorption or concentration, and is closely related to samadhi, the eighth aspect of the Eight-Fold Noble Path. Zen or Chan is the name given to the branch of Mahayana Buddhism that places an emphasis on seated and moving meditation. Founded in China in the Fifth Century C.E. (Liang Dynasty) by the South Indian monk, Bodhidharma, it reached Japan in the Thirteenth Century, and by the mid-Twentieth Century it had spread to the West.
What is zazen?
Zazen is at once a method employed to realize our True Self, and at every moment the natural unfolding of this True Self. Zazen is both something one “does” and something one “is.” Zazen literally means “sitting meditation” in Japanese, and this is the core of Zen practice, but it is essential that the one-pointed stabilized mind of awareness that one develops in zazen is extended into all one’s daily activities. The student begins by learning to sit still in a stable and comfortable upright posture, preferably on cushions on the floor, but in a chair if necessary. The initial practices involve awareness of breathing, a practice common to many schools of Buddhism.
What is koan practice?
Zen practice usually begins with the breath. Later, when the student is ready, they may choose to work on a koan as the meditation practice. Koans are stories expressing fundamental spiritual questions in a succinct form that can be taken up as subjects of meditation. Because they cannot be solved by the discursive intellect, they force the student to leap beyond it, opening them to deeper awareness. Koans are powerful, and require the guidance of a qualified teacher, who can advise and test the student along the way. Koans are assigned to students who have an affinity for them.
Is Zen a religion?
Not in the traditional sense of the word. It is in the sense that faith is needed - faith in our innate wisdom and compassion. It isn't in that it does not require that we follow a particular belief system. Rather, Zen practice is something which you do and shows a path that can take us beyond fixed concepts and belief systems. In this way, it begins to influence and change how we relate, respond and react to people, situations and circumstances.
What does the title 'Sensei' mean?
The Japanese word Sensei simply means 'teacher'. In our lineage, it signifies that an individual has completed a curriculum of training (including all of the major koan collections) and demonstrated that they have the required maturity and character to guide and help others with the own practice. A teacher is also someone who has been formally sanctioned to teach by their own teacher and should never be self-appointed. In the Zen tradition, a teacher is like a guide. There is nothing the student 'needs' from the teacher, nothing the student lacks. The teachers primary role is simply to help the student to see this for themself.
What does it mean to become a formal student?
Becoming a student marks a deepening of one’s connection to the teaching and the particular lineage of which the Centre is a part. Once you have been a member for a year you may ask Sensei to become a formal student. Usually this is done in dokusan. There is a simple private ceremony in which new students are accepted by the teacher, marking the commitment (on both sides) that the formal student-teacher relationship implies. There’s no pressure to become a student, and non-students have the same access to the teaching.
Do I have to give up my religion to practise Zen?
No you don't. Zen meditation should help you to pray and worship more effectively. In Europe many Christian monks and nuns practice, and even teach, zazen. Since zazen allows us to directly experience the Reality that underlies all genuine religion, it is not in conflict with other religious faiths.
How much should I sit?
There is a direct relationship between the amount of time committed to zazen, the quality of the effort put forth during that time and the progress one makes in practice. A beginner might start with one-half hour per day (or even with just 15 minutes). This period of time is long enough to sink beneath the surface chatter of the mind and to get more out of our zazen.
If Zen isn't a religion, why do you have Buddha figures and an altar?
Buddha and Bodhisattva figures vividly and concretely embody aspects of the enlightened mind. When we bow before a figure it is not a form of worship but rather an affirmation of our own essential nature. By lowering the body, which we habitually identify with, we acknowledge a reality greater than our small self and remind ourselves of the purpose and meaning of Zen practice.
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