Ceaseless practice


This an an approximation of a talk I gave on May 31, 2017 at Bright Sea Zen, the sangha led by my dear friend, Kate Hartland.

“The meaning of zazen, the enlightenment and liberation of all living beings, is not brought forth by the power of personal effort and is not brought forth by the power of some other.  Zazen doesn’t start when we start making effort, doesn’t stop when we stop.

We can’t do it by ourselves, and nobody else can do it for us.”

From “Guidance in Shikintaza,” by Reb Anderson

I want to use this passage from one of our chants tonight to talk about the notion of ceaseless practice.

The universe practices ceaselessly.  Everything that’s happening right here, now – everything that’s happening everywhere – is the universe’s practice.  The universe is universing.  This is Buddha’s practice. It is Buddha nature expressing itself.

Buddha nature expresses itself ceaselessly.  The universe practices ceaselessly. E ndlessly flows forth; erupts; gives its all; gives it all up for the sake of . . . giving it all up.

Kate and I just had a nice visit at her house before our sit.  She definitely delivered on her promise to make a wicked grilled cheese sandwich.  The sandwich and time with her were a real treat, yet the main event was a tour of Kate’s beautiful garden.  Kate is an avid gardener, as I suspect you know.  I’ve always appreciated and admired the way so much of her teaching is inspired by what nature teaches her.

Kate’s garden is radiant now.  Many of the flowers are erupting.  The universe erupting as Kate’s flowers.

And, later in the year, when the flowers die, their death is the universe erupting, too.

It’s the same with us.  Each of us is the universe universing.  We are flowers blooming. Our lives – our thoughts, speech and action – are the universe erupting.  And our deaths are the universe erupting, too.

And, yet, many of us, much of the time, don’t seem to regard our lives this way.  We have this gnawing sense of separateness, of isolation, of not-okayness.  And we often, in more or less unconscious ways, respond anxiously to this sense, and often in ways that tend to compound it.  We take refuge in thought, speech or conduct, in situations we create or gravitate toward, that are about escaping from the here-and-now.  That aren’t about nearness to it and intimacy with it.

Why is this?  I don’t know. In some religious worldviews, it’s a mark of our fallen nature.  In some, it’s a pathology; a kind of sickness.

I’m more inclined to see it in the spirit of what Zen types call the “samadhi of play.”  Why shouldn’t the one wish to flow forth and know itself in the many; in and as myriad dharmas, “the 10,000 things”; as you and me?  And why shouldn’t the many, why shouldn’t you and I, truly feel distinct and separate, with the twinge of discomfort that entails (even as it also creates opportunities for joy).  And why shouldn’t all delight in discovering, and constantly rediscovering, oneness-in-manyness and the boundless love manifested in and generated through all this?

But these are just ideas, and, so far as I can tell, the universe universing doesn’t seem to be dependent upon my own or anyone else’s ideas about it.

This is the “we can’t do it for ourselves” part.  We can’t do it for ourselves, because it’s already done.  From this perspective, there’s nothing at all to do. Polishing ourselves – trying to be wiser, more virtuous, more spiritual; shinier, newer or whatever – it’s all futile from this perspective.  This is a come-as-you-are universe.  The universe goes on erupting, despite and as our efforts, whatever our efforts may or may not be.

So why practice?  We practice because of the opportunity it provides to become more and more aware of the universe universing, and to discover ourselves as participants in the universe universing.  It helps us not to resist our participation, just as we are here and now.  To attune.  Zazen tends to help us attune.

This is the “nobody else can do it for us” part.  Nobody else can live our lives, and nobody else can sit for us. Nobody else can practice for us.

Sitting is optional . . . we’re part of it all, no matter what, and the universe goes on practicing as me, whether or not I sit.  Yet this attunement, this particular quality of willing participation, can matter so much personally and collectively.  So much individual and collective suffering is attributable to our resistance; to our attempts to take refuge in someplace other than this.  Someplace we think promises something more.

The quality of our lives – our thought, speech and actions – may begin to change as we attune.  The universe goes on erupting despite our efforts and as our efforts, no matter what, but we do have agency.  We participate.  We have the ability to influence the universe erupting as our efforts.

So what we realize from our practice is simply that we are part of the universe’s ceaseless practice.  We realize that we are already home.  That we are practicing ceaselessly, too.

This isn’t exactly a destination, at least not in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about destinations.  The universe’s practice is completely open-ended.  And our practice must take on this open-ended quality, too.

Time and again in our practice, we must confront the idea that there is a goal, a destination, an ultimate point.  This idea can arise in many different ways, sometimes with a positive, sometimes with a negative tinge: a belief that there’s something wrong with my sitting practice, or that my practice is going really well; a belief that I’m virtuous or not virtuous; a belief that I’m not enlightened and never will be or that I’m finally realized.

However this idea arises time and time again, time and time again we must let it go.

So it’s all sort of like the line in that old folk spiritual:  “My life goes on in endless song. How can I stop from singing?”  The universe goes on universing as me no matter what.  Goes on in endless song.  So why not sing in tune?

As we let go of our gaining ideas over and over and over again (including our gaining ideas about supposedly losing), we tend to begin to manifest a positive quality of poverty of spirit.  By this I mean simply that we become more at ease with our practice and with ourselves and our lives.  We tend to increasingly practice without striving.

Another word for this quality of practice with poverty of spirit is reverence.  Simple reverence.  Reverence with a light touch.  Reverence with a sense of humor.  Reverence that is loving, but not too precious.

Reverence for the 10,000 things.  Reverence for your own life and experience.  Reverence for others’ lives and experiences.

Experiencing things this way is a cue that our personal practice is aligning with the ceaseless practice of the whole universe.

The universe, you and me practicing together.  Each breath.  Each step.  Each supernova bursting.  Each grilled cheese sandwich.  Each flower blooming.  Ceaselessly.


“Look, Ma: No hands!”: Technique and No Technique in Zazen


We just removed the training wheels from my son’s bike.  He’s still more than a bit wobbly, but he’s making progress.


For many reasons, learning to ride a bike is a terrible analogy for learning to mediate.  Among other problems, it suggests that there are those who are proficient at it, and those who are not; that there are novices and adepts.


Our son is an expert at wobbly bike riding.  His wobbly bike riding is perfect just as it is.


And, yet, his bike riding form is changing, and changing in a way we recognize as progress, as part of a natural progression in bike riding.  His training wheel-free bike riding likely will become less wobbly; or, rather, the wobbles will become less pronounced.  His instinctive recovery from an endless string of little wobbles will be almost imperceptible to him and to others, and he’ll recover more easily from the less frequent, bigger wobbles.


(Except when he doesn’t.)


Meditation practice tends to follow a progression, as well.  In our little branch of the Zen family, those new to meditation practice are encouraged initially to use one’s breath as a sort of stabilizing device.


The basic instruction for meditation practice, as James Ford is fond of saying, is simply to “sit down, shut up, and pay attention.”  Doing that for 25 minutes can be surprisingly difficult as one takes up this practice.


Paying attention suggests paying attention to something, and, for most of us, ordinary “paying attention mode” tends to require a focal point something.  A something we attempt to attend to continuously, or at least that we return to when we feel our attention has drifted.


I pay attention to the ball in soccer.


I pay attention to the words on the page as I read.


I pay attention to you when we’re conversing.


Enter the breath in early meditation practice.  We’re not encouraged to concentrate on it, to dissect and discern all its subtle features, but it serves as a point of reference to which we can return when we seem to be drifting away from other features of our experience.


(In some Buddhist traditions, one attends to one’s posture, or to the rising and falling of one’s diaphragm with the breath, or to something different still.  Same idea.)


Initially, we invite people to count each breath gently until one has counted to ten, and then to repeat.  One might then count only in-breaths for some number of months, and then switch to out-breaths.


Eventually one drops the counting altogether.  We’re invited to give up this attentiveness to one’s breath entirely, and not to fill in the blank with some other reference point.


To push the bike riding analogy a bit further before exhausting its usefulness, we might think of this transition not as dropping the training wheels, but as letting go of the handlebar.  Letting go of the handlebar, we’re no longer capable of steering toward or away from something with the same decisiveness and agility.  Bike riding becomes a less directed experience, in which we’re more vulnerable to what may come, even if we feel a paradoxical sense of stability poised upright on the seat.


Shikintaza, or “just sitting,” as this later approach to meditation is known, is the practice to which one typically progresses within BoWZ and some other Zen streams.  One way to think of it is as meditation without the steering mechanism – or, better yet, meditation without a preference for steering or not steering.


Shikintaza is not a technique.  Oh, I suppose there are elements of technique in this practice, but the technique is very spare, and very practical.


As with counting-the-breath practice, one sits in a stable position (normally on a meditation cushion, though a chair also is fine, as is standing).  One remains reasonably still.  Eyes are open – mainly so we’re not closing that window on the world, as closing ourselves to the world is the antithesis of what we’re doing in meditation – but one doesn’t look around.


That’s pretty much it for technique.


So, what if one’s mind drifts while “just sitting”?


Well, for starters, now we know we’re human.


But, what should one do about it?


There’s no need to do anything.  We’re not seeking any particular experience in shikintaza – certainly not an experience of “25 minutes in which my mind doesn’t wander,” as if that were possible, and not even some experience of “not seeking any particular experience.”


Noticing our attention was “there” and now it’s “here,” we don’t bring ourselves back to anywhere or anything in particular.  The noticing, and whatever follows it, and whatever follows that:  that’s it.


The rain falls.


The baby cries.


The mind wanders.




Here is all there is.  Here isn’t some void we need to fill in anxiously.  (The void is full, in case one hasn’t noticed.)  Even when we’re in “fill in anxiously mode,” we don’t need to overwrite that.


Shikintaza, just sitting, is simply being here, now.  Our breath is part of what’s here now, but we don’t privilege it in shikintaza.


Shikintaza is simply letting one’s experience be its own reference point – trusting this, wobbles and all.


There are wobbles after we let go of the handlebars.


And even the wobbles are rock solid.




I didn’t attend Boundless Way Zen’s weeklong sesshin this year.  It ended today.


I found myself “participating” sympathetically throughout the week, sometimes almost telepathically.


I was really missing our sesshin-attending sagha-mates at Tuesday night’s sit at the Greater Boston Zen Center.  My legs became strangely tight and painful, much like they would after days on retreat, and not at all like I normally experience after 20+ years of 1-2 25-minute sits most days.


Sitting at home during the week, I sometimes felt like I was sitting in the zendo at the Boundless Way Temple, where our sesshins occur.


Lying in bed one night, I could almost hear the day’s closing chants, which end with this stark, ghostly reminder of how precious this life-time is:


“Let me respectfully remind you: Life and death are of supreme importance.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken… awaken!  Take heed!  Do not squander your life.”


Long sesshins are wonderful.  I have benefitted immensely over the years from the many week+ retreats I’ve attended — intensive practice periods, during which one sits and meets with teachers from early morning until late at night.  I look forward to attending more of them in the future.


And extended, leisurely periods of time with family and friends, or with oneself, also are wonderful.  For many Zen practitioners, and perhaps mainly for those of us with younger children and/or spouses who are not Zen practitioners (sympathetic, like my wife, though they may be), devoting a full week to sesshin each year can be a real challenge.


Most people still in the workforce have limited vacation time, and vacations may need to be coordinated with school schedules and a spouse’s schedule.  Even if one can arrange time for sesshin, a week at a Zen retreat may mean a week of family vacation lost.


This is my current reality.  We have school-age kids.  I have missed a week of family vacation time for the past several years by attending our weeklong sesshin.  My family is truly supportive of my Zen practice, and yet this just feels like too much.  It certainly feels like a huge loss from my perspective, even though I know there’s much to be gained from intensive periods of practice.


One of the big projects inherent in Zen’s migration west — one of the big opportunities we’re presented — is about adaptation of the traditional forms and practices to this new context-era.  Numerous features distinguish this new context-era from those in which the traditional forms and practices evolved, but perhaps none is more prevalent and salient than the relative leveling of lay life/practice and the path of priestly and/or monastic life/practice.


This leveling has many causes and many implications.  It is bound up with other progressive trends, like democratization and increasing gender equality, in ways that make them impossible to separate entirely.


The practice of sesshin developed in context-eras in which there were sharp distinctions between the laity and monastics, whether they be lifelong monks or young men spending some months or some small number of years in a monastery as a rite of passage.


And these monks were mostly childless men.  If the monastic life was their permanent vocation, it was their livelihood, their work.  They begged and contributed to the institution’s other income producing endeavors throughout their lives.  If they were passing through, they begged and contributed to those same endeavors while they were there, knowing they would eventually return to lay (and likely family) life and some form of work less conducive to spending weeks or months on a cushion all day.


Fast forward to today . . .


On the one hand, a week isn’t a long period of time, particularly compared to the month+ retreats that are common in many Asian monasteries, even still.


On the other hand, see above.


From one perspective, perhaps there is something to be said for making a stoic effort to attend longer retreats, despite family and work obligations and opportunities, but I’m not much moved by that perspective.


These sorts of discussions and thoughtful experimentation are happening within BoWZ, and I’m very excited to be part of this organization and this project.  In addition to our annual weeklong sesshins, we have several shorter sesshins each year and numerous daylong intensives.


The weeklong (or longer) retreats truly are wonderful.  For some, “shifts happen” in these longer, intensive periods of practice, and perhaps would be less likely to happen for them in another context.  Bonds develop.


And, I must say, in recent years I have found my most profound shifts happening, and my most transformative bonds developing, within the context of family life.  Of course, Zen practice, including the weeklong sesshins I’ve attended, has been hugely supportive of this.  That’s the point, as BoWZ’s teachers continually remind us.


One of the really exciting and heartening things about this BoWZ project is the community’s recognition that Zen practice needs to work in the context of people’s ordinary lives.  Indeed, that Zen is our ordinary lives.


And, yet, there is a tradition that we have received, and that tradition transmits to us a treasure trove of forms and practices that people have found powerfully useful for awakening to the full richness of this ordinary life.  The adaptation/experimentation project is tricky.


It’s important not to cling slavishly to traditional forms, holding up intensive practice — the longer and more frequent and more ardent, the better — as “real Zen.”  And it’s important not to dilute the forms down to nothing.  They’re nothing in one sense, of course, and yet most definitely not nothing.


At least until our youngest (who’s now four) goes to college, I suspect my rhythm will be marked by frequent short retreats and daylong sits, and only very occasional long sesshins.  I settled down relatively late in life, and I am fortunate to have participated in many longer retreats before starting a family.


Every Zen practitioner should experience longer retreats.  If one feels one benefits from them and can swing it, one definitely should participate in them regularly.  Looking over the arc of my 20+ years of sitting practice, I now see them not as more valuable than other forms of practice, but as differently valuable — and as having been differently valuable particularly at specific points in my own journey.


For those who find that hard to do or otherwise legitimately undesirable, however, I’m very interested in seeing us continue to develop adapted forms of intensive and/or extended practice that offer folks some of the immense benefits of longer intensives in more flexible packages.  Not as a substitute for sesshins, but as a complementary sort of opportunity.  The wonderful, much westernized, “drop in and out freely” Ango practice period that’s occurred at the temple (and, simultaneously and by extension, at many of our homes) the past couple of years is a marvelous example of this.


I look forward to the time when longer sesshins fit more comfortably into the parameters of my life.  And, in the meantime, I really look forward to those family vacations.


And to continuing to be a part of this living, communal project of ours . . .



Sit on my cushion.


Set timer for 25 minutes.


Start timer.

Sit upright.

Pick up timer to make sure it started.

Of course it started.

Set timer down.



Lots ‘o stuff percolating.

Noticing stuff.

Settling . . .

Stuff and settling . . .

Time passing. Life happening.

Noticing mind-and-body not really Mind. And. Body.

Not noticing noticing . . .

Just noticing . . .

Noticing . . .

. . . stuff.

Timer sounds.

Sitting is good for you


A ways back I said sitting is bad for you.


I was talking about sitting at a desk all day, but I mused that meditation retreats, during which one may sit on a cushion for 8-10 hours daily, might be bad for us in similar ways.


I actually doubt that (though I obviously don’t know for sure).  The studies of office workers examined subjects who sit 8 hours a day or more, five days a week, 48+ weeks a year, year in, year out.  It’s hard for me to believe that a week on sesshin could shorten one’s lifespan if one isn’t sedentary during the other 51 weeks of the year.


And, we all know sitting (aka meditation) has many physical/mental/interpersonal benefits.  You can read about those benefits here and here and here and here and here . . .