BUDDHA, DHARMA, SANGHA: Entering the Way of Practice
There are many ways to begin Zen practice, and we offer a number of options for you to explore, at your own pace and in your own time.
In Buddhism we speak of three “treasures,” which are traditionally called Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. These Sanskrit words are simply labels, a way of understanding different aspects of the path through particular frames or lenses.
According to the story, after Gautama Siddhartha had his transformative insight into the nature of the world and himself he decided to find his former companions. On his way he encountered an old sage who saw there was something special going on and asked, “Who are you? Are you a god or a deva (an angel)?” To which Siddhartha replied, “No, I am awake.”
Buddha means “one who is awakened.” In the Zen way we say that everyone (and everything) is already awake to what is true and real, perceptible beyond any filters or constructions of the discriminating mind. As human beings we have the unique capacity to realize our awakened nature. We begin to realize our Buddha nature by learning to practice zazen, a Japanese word that means “sitting meditation.”
Learning to Meditate: Zazen
The first step is to receive meditation instructions and help with posture from a teacher or practice leader. You can ask for basic instructions from practice leaders before any weekly practice period, or by requesting private instructions from one of the guiding (transmitted) teachers or dharma teachers. It is also possible to learn to do zazen through reading, but we encourage personal instruction.
It is fine to do zazen on a chair. Some people use a seiza (a Japanese word that means “to sit down”) meditation bench, which allows you to kneel in comfort. You may also use a zafu (a word that literally means “cattail seat” in Japanese — a round stuffed cushion) and zabuton (“seat-cloth-sphere” in Japanese — a flat padded cushion.)
Attending weekly practice periods
Once you have learned how to practice zazen, you may attend daily or weekly practice periods. Sitting with a group can be very nourishing to your personal Zen practice. You may come for all or part of a practice period. We encourage you to commit to regular attendance, but you are welcome to come whenever you can.
It is also important to begin to practice zazen at home on a regular basis, preferably daily. This will help you to become comfortable with your own body and mind, and will begin to establish the ground for the realization of your Buddha nature. At the beginning the length of time doesn’t matter as much as regularity: we recommend sitting for five or ten minutes two or three days a week, and working your way up to twenty-five minutes or more, every day.
The time of day is not important, but it’s a good idea to find a regular time in your schedule for zazen. You may also want to create a special place in your home that is devoted to meditation. You may even want to set up a home altar, with a Buddha figure or picture, flowers or a plant, fresh fruit, a bowl of water, a candle and a pot for incense.
Sesshin and Daylong Practice Periods
Longer practice periods are called sesshin, a Japanese word that literally means “to touch the heart-mind.” Coming to a daylong practice period or to sesshin is a way to deepen your practice of zazen. You can attend any practice period or sesshin for any amount of time, although we strongly encourage you to come to an entire practice period or sesshin if your schedule allows it. When registration is limited we do give preference to those who can commit to the full schedule.
The word Dharma literally means “something that can be touched or held in the hand.” Generally, we understand Dharma to mean the teachings of the Buddha (sometimes called Buddhadharma) or the way things are, the law of the universe, or reality. We study the Dharma in many ways: through reading books about Zen and Buddhism (see the reading list posted on the Greater Boston Zen Center website), studying and practicing the liturgy, receiving instruction in private meetings with a teacher, listening to talks by teachers (teisho, a Japanese word that means “demonstration of the shout”) and practice leaders, or by coming to study groups on various topics.
At most of our practice periods, we have a period of chanting, in which we recite parts of the liturgy. Our liturgy is a combination of many translations and texts from different schools of Zen and Buddhism. When we chant, even though we may not understand the words, we allow the teachings of our ancestors to enter our understanding through our mouth, ears and heart. Gradually, we find that the words attain a meaning that goes beyond intellectual understanding.
Dokusan and Individual Practice meetings
Brief individual meetings with a senior dharma teacher or a guiding (transmitted) teacher (dokusan) are offered regularly at some weekly practice periods and at all daylong and multi-day practice periods. (Dokusan is a Japanese word that literally means “going alone to the teacher.”) Once your practice is established you can also make an appointment with a teacher outside of the regular practice periods, in person, by telephone or by videoconference. In individual meetings and dokusan, you can ask any questions or discuss matters related to your practice of zazen.
Shoken: a personal relationship with a guiding teacher
We encourage committed students to do interviews (dokusan) with all of the guiding (transmitted) teachers and senior dharma teachers. At some point, however, it is wise to enter into a primary relationship with one transmitted teacher. This primary teacher-student relationship is called shoken, which in Japanese literally means, “seeing one another.” The shoken relationship in is not meant to be exclusive. We encourage shoken students to continue to study with all our teachers as well as to visit with teachers in other sanghas. Shoken does mean that one has committed to checking in with and seeking guidance from a specific person. (You can read more about shoken here.)
There are many opportunities to take on leadership in teaching and guiding others. You may be asked to take on responsibility for a particular practice group as a practice leader. As your practice matures, the transmitted teachers may ask you to take on the role of dharma teacher or senior dharma teacher. Dharma teachers introduce forms and practices in classes and lectures. They may also informally speak with other members of the community about details of practice and give Dharma talks. (A dharma teacher may not give formal practice interviews (dokusan) or establish personal student-teacher relationships (shoken).) In addition to the responsibilities of a dharma teacher a senior dharma teacher may be authorized to give practice interviews. (A senior dharma teacher may not establish formal personal student-teacher relationships (shoken).)
We regard every Zen practitioner as a Zen practitioner, whether lay or ordained. And we don’t privilege one way of following the path over the other. That being said, we do offer priestly ordination as a particular path. If this interests you, you can talk to a transmitted teacher about ordaining. Priests may perform many liturgical functions, which include presiding over Zen ceremonies and sutra services, and conducting life passages such as birth, marriage, and funeral ceremonies. They are called to be leaders in the community and to fulfill a pastoral and ministerial role. They may minister to the emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of sangha members who have experienced illness, loss, grief, or injury. They may also be engaged in any traditional ministerial role in the larger community.
We are a community of people committed to waking up to their lives through Zen practice. Sangha is a word that means “community of practitioners” in Sanskrit. Besides attendance at weekly and all-day practice periods and sesshins, you can become involved in the sangha in a number of ways.