Q. What is meant by "Living a Zen-Inspired Life"?
A: The word “Zen” has become part of the English language and western culture, but what exactly does it mean? “What is Zen?” Simply answered, “Zen is a way of living one’s life fully present and engaged in one’s life.
Zen is a Way of Life. The singular and exclusive objective of Zen training and practice is to develop full awareness, of this moment, this here and now.
To come home to the present moment is coming home to where we live, to where life is happening for us. Thinking about life, about living your life, takes us far into the past, or into the distant future. But both the past and the future are phantoms, since the future isn’t known, and cannot be known, and our memories of the past are often quite distorted accounts of what really happened.
Zen training or “re-training” is more about cultivating an inherent quality of both body and mind to experience and understand one’s life directly. Whenever we get lost in thoughts of the past or the future, we are never where life is happening, and life passes us by. When one has awakened and developed our inherent ability to mindfully live in the present moment, one completely dissolves into whatever activity manifests. This is what “being alive” or “living life” truly is. There is no separation between the “being” and the “moment”, between the being and the present activity. This is what is meant by truly “being at one” with life, and with the Universe. Cognitive scientists tell us it takes only about a third of a second for our brains to start thinking “about” a sensory experience (meaning interpreting it). A third of a second is a vast chasm separating one from “right now”, from “life and where life is”.
A Zen master once proclaimed:
“Lightning flashes, sparks fly! In one blink of the eye, you have missed seeing.”
Living fully and authentically in the present moment makes each instant of one’s life a peak experience. Each moment is filled with a profound insight and clarity. Each moment is perceived to have infinite depth and significance, charged with magic and mystery, infinitely precious. Zen training brings us face to face with our true original nature, undefiled by our cultural conditioning and neurotic habitual tendencies.
Words and concepts are not only useful but necessary to navigate from day to day, but mistaking them for reality is a cause for much of our stress and anxiety. Concepts about reality are not reality. The menu is not the food. Dissolving all our preconceptions, beliefs, concepts, and judgments about ourselves and the universe, is not only liberating, but is the work of “Living a Zen-Inspired Life”.
Zen training is not about “becoming a new person”, a “better person”, or an “enlightened person”. It is about discovering and dissolving all the barriers from our conditioning, which prevent us from seeing our true reality, the reality of all life in its many forms, perfect and complete right here, right now. The Way it has always been.
Q. Is “Zen” a religion?
A: The simple answer is - “No”. The word ‘Zen’ is the Japanese attempt at pronouncing the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which in turn is the Chinese attempt at pronouncing the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana’, which translates as ‘meditation’. However when we look deeper the word “meditation” or “Dhyana” is so much more than “sitting on a cushion” to feel better or more peaceful. It has to do with a sincere and profound inquiry into the meaning of one’s life, and how to live one’s life more fully with awareness and compassion. Probably the most profound and transformative questions anyone could ever ask. It is for this reason Zen appears to be “religious” in nature. However this does not make it a “religion”.
Q. Is one required to be a Buddhist or become a Buddhist to train in Zen?
A: No. Having no “dogmatic” belief systems one is require “to believe”, separates Zen and Zen-Buddhism from conventional definitions of a religion. It is for this reason millions of persons from a diversity of faith and religions have trained and practiced Zen.
Q. Why are there religious rituals and ceremonies, monks, clergy, and statues?
A: Zen is part of the Buddhist school of Mahāyāna (literally the "Great Vehicle”) The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today. According to the teachings of Mahāyāna traditions, "Mahāyāna" also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called "Bodhisattvayāna", or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle”. This Path is religious in devotion, but not a Religion. Each of its practicing components are understood to be “vehicles” toward liberating oneself and all sentient beings from suffering and the causes of suffering.
Q. What is meant by "Community"?
A: "Community is the spirit, the guiding light, whereby people come together to fulfill a purpose, to help others fulfill their purpose, and to take care of one another." Community is first “context” as defined above, and second, identifies benefactors and supporters, and ordained members of The Zen Society, Jizo-an Monastery.
Q. What is meant by "Sangha"?
A: The two meanings of "Community" and "Sangha" overlap but are not necessarily identical. The Sangha of both laity and ordained monks who: practicing the good way, practicing the upright way, practicing the knowledgeable or logical way, practicing the proper way, live by the Rule for Monastics and Laity, Zendo Etiquette, and under the governance of the Guardian Council and Zendo Officers. It is the Body of Sangha members which traditionally execute etiquette, protocol, and day to day administration and caretakership of the Monastery, dedicating themselves to a regular training and practice.
Q. Why do we bow to monks/nuns and the Buddha Statue?
A: The robe worn by monks is an emblem and reminder of the Triple Gem (Three Refuges) as is the Buddha Statue. Therefore one is really bowing to Buddha-Nature, Dharma, and Sangha, not to some historical person or idol. When we bow to the Buddha Statue, the Roshi or Abbot, or to Senior Monks, we mentally recollect 'Buddha', then 'Dharma' and then 'Sangha' and also have mindfulness of the bodily posture as it bends forward. Bending forward is an expression of “detaching” from one’s ego”, and opening one’s heart and mind to a “larger reality” or “purpose”.
Q. Why do we remove our shoes before entering a Temple or Monastery?
A: In Japan where Zen-Buddhism evolved, it is a cultural practice to remove one’s shoes before entering a persons home, so as to not “bring the world outside in”. (There is also a practical reason, shoes collect dirt and germs which contaminate a room occupied by the young and old, and children.) This symbolism of “removing ones shoes” is similar to “being in the world, but not of it”. This along with the conviction that a Temple or Monastery is a place where “Buddha’s” commune for the sacred practice of ending suffering for all beings, is why the ground is considered holy and one should not bring the contamination in “the outside world” in.
Establishing a Formal Student-Teacher Relationship
The sanctity of the Student-Teacher Relationship is paramount. Application to study with the monks and enter the Sangha (community of monk and devoted students) is available only to the most serious candidate. Application can be made only after one-year of membership, and the applicant has proven a serious commitment to study and train under the mentorship of a senior monk, and support his or her studies and training at the level of “benefactor member”.
(Student status does not necessarily denote on the part of the candidate a desire for ordination,
but often leads to Sewing a Rakusu.)
Petition to apply must be made to a Senior Monk for review, and submitted to the Guardian Council for their final approval. If approved, the candidate must be prepared to meet all requirements of a student including the financial commitment of “benefactor membership” before accepted.
The student then enters a one-year "Apprenticeship". Under the guidance of a Senior Monk, the candidate enters into a formal student-teacher mentorship and embraces the monastic way of life for a period of one-year. This is an opportunity for the aspirant to experience monastic (Zen) training in all its aspects: personal and communal meditation, work practice, sesshins, community life, and benevolence.
After a period of two-years (including the initial one-year membership) the candidate may (optional) ask to “sew a rakusu” and take The Precepts.
(The candidate may choose to remain at this level (optional) or proceed toward ordination.)
Path to Ordination:
If the candidate and Senior Monks discern that his or her vocation remains strong and true, the Apprentice may petition to be admitted to the Postulancy. A Postulant is further initiated into the spiritual disciplines of the Order of The Great Lights by committing to a comprehensive academic curriculum on Zen-Buddhist and Western Contemplative teachings; train and practice under the guidance of the Senior Monks, while attending more regularly: classes, sesshins, meditations, liturgies, work practice, and the other various components of monastic seasoning and Zen Training.
After a period of three-years a Postulant who demonstrates a desire and a capacity to continue to live under the guidance of the Senior Monks may be admitted to the Novitiate. At this point, he or she is clothed with a brown robe and formally becomes a member of the Sangha though he or she has not yet taken Priestly or Monastic Vows. During the Novitiate, more formal instruction is offered in the monastic observances, including additional academic studies, and especially liturgy, meditation, prayer, and work practice. During this time, the novice is supported and encouraged to persevere by the Monks and Sangha.
The Novitiate lasts two-years.
At the end of the period, following prayerful and prolonged reflection so as to appreciate the significance of the action he or she is about to take, a person may freely petition the Council to make solemn profession and take Priestly (Monastic) Vows. If the fellow Monks consider him or her to be ready, then he or she is permitted to make solemn profession of the monastic vows of loyalty, honor, obedience, and compassionate and benevolent service.
By making solemn vows, a brother or sister gives himself or herself to Monastic Rule and commits himself or herself perpetually to share in the life the Community, in accord with the Monastic Rule for Monks. This commitment is made with the assurance of the love and support of the Council, the Sangha, and the whole community.
Q. What does it mean to “Sew a Rakusu”?
A: A rakusu is a traditionally Japanese garment worn around the neck of Zen Buddhist who have “taken the precepts”. It also signify’s “lay-ordination”. The rakusu represents the garment (kesa) that the Buddha put together to wear after he left his palace to seek enlightenment. The “kesa” was a rectangular robe in the ratio of 6 by 9. It is said in legend to resemble the rice fields seen by the Buddha himself while walking on pilgrimage.
Q. What are the “Precepts” (Bodhisattva Precepts)?
A: The Bodhisattva Precepts are a set of moral codes used in Mahayana Buddhism to advance a practitioner along the path of a Bodhisattva. There are a total of sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts:
The Three Treasures
• Taking refuge in the Buddha
• Taking refuge in the Dharma
• Taking refuge in the Sangha
The Three Treasures are universally known in Buddhism as the Three Refuges or Three Gems or Jewels.
The Three Pure Precepts
• Do not create Evil
• Practice Good
• Actualize Good For Others
These are also known as the Three Root Precepts.
The Ten Grave Precepts
• Affirm life – Do not kill
• Be giving – Do not steal
• Honor the body – Do not misuse sexuality
• Manifest truth – Do not lie
• Proceed clearly – Do not cloud the mind
• See the perfection – Do not speak of others errors and faults
• Realize self and other as one – Do not elevate the self and blame others
• Give generously – Do not be withholding
• Actualize harmony – Do not be angry
• Experience the intimacy of things – Do not defile the Three Treasures
Q. How does a teacher assess and decide if one is suitable for ordination?
A: If the candidate's intention is right and he is not disqualified by other factors, he should find the senior monk who can advise him and perhaps recommend him to the Guardian Council. The question should be about the qualities necessary to be an ordained monk. After having been a member for one-year, followed by a one-year postulancy, and having expressed a sincere desire to continue studies and proven proficient in his or her understanding of The Way, the student may be given permission to Sew a Rakusu and be initiated in the Sangha as a Lay-Monastic. After completing an additional one-year Novitiate, he or she may wear a brown robe. After completing an additional one-year novitiate and having proven both a sincerity to continue to serve the Community and Sangha, and continue to prove to be proficient, he or she may be Ordained in the appropriate manner prescribed by The Rule.