A friend recently posted to a community email list that I am on: “What does it mean to be a practicing Buddhist? As is my nature, I mean this in rather a practical way. That is, how does it concretely effect how you conduct your day, your life, your decision-making and how you spend your time. (Also, though, I’d love to hear how it effects your general perspectives, values, and spiritual experiences.)”
I post to the list and replied:
I usually do not label myself a “Buddhist.” But I do meditate most days, I have lived about two-and-a-half years of the last six in Buddhist monasteries, I have Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva tattooed on my left shoulder, and I have an intention to be a Buddhist priest when I am older. Also, the Buddha purportedly did say that anyone who intends to decrease the suffering of the world is one of his followers. So there are obviously some broad definitions of the word “Buddhist” that I do fall under.
About what Buddhism is to me: to me, the heart of Buddhist practice is daily sitting. My main Buddhist community is in the Zen tradition but when I sit on the cushion the “technique” I “do” is Thai vipassana. I watch and take note of any tension, burning, itching, etc in the various parts of my body, and I watch the flow of thoughts in my mind. I say to myself, “knee, forehead, planning, left ear, remembering, anger, heart,”, etc., as various phenomena occur (I make those notes to myself, that is, when I am not off lost in thoughts).
I have learned this technique from the many audio tapes that I have that feature an Los Angeles mediation teacher named Shinzen Young. I find that his audio tapes are helpful in terms of giving me actual concrete, clear, comprehensible, tangible, powerful practices that help train my consciousness to focus and open.
I find sitting in general makes me less reactive and more aware in life. I tend to feel better about the choices that I make and how I interact with people when I am sitting regularly compared with when I am not. I also have noticed that I enjoy life, going about it more consciously and with greater choice, patience, and spaciousness, when I have been sitting.
Another fundamental practice for me is reading Buddhist books. “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki is a book that I would recommend to everyone and everyone. I think that it is a deep book, a book to have as a lifetime companion. I have read it or listened to the audio tapes hundreds of times, and I still find new and meaningful things in it each time. I think that the compilation books put out by Tricycle magazine (for example, “Breath Sweeps Mind” for the basics of meditation, “Radiant Mind” for the basics of Buddhist dharma, and “Everyday Mind” for a collection of daily readings) are excellent. I have also recently gotten a lot out of value from reading “Thoughts Without A Thinker” by Mark Epstein (Buddhism with Freud mixed in) and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s mind-blowing “I Am That” (although it is more Hindu than Buddhist).
In sum, I think that regular sitting and book reading are the fundamentals of Buddhist training. More advanced practices that I consider important are working with a teacher, being part of a community, and committing to practice retreats.
Working with a teacher is of course valuable in many ways. I find that they, like a therapist, help me see what I cannot about my Buddhist practice and my life in general. My Buddhist teachers also serve as role models for me – sort of like the WWJD idea. One of my teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson, has his own web site – http://rebanderson.org/.
In terms of practice retreats, there are three Northern California Buddhist organizations that I have retreat experience with:
* My most extensive experience is with the San Francisco Zen Center. This organization has three campuses, City Center in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Green Gulch in Marin, and Tassajara in the hills of Monterey County. There are various types of retreats available to the public at these centers:
(1) There are public classes and lectures weekly at Green Gulch and City Center. There are also daily public sittings at both locations on weekends, early in the morning and then between five pm and dinner time. The web site has more details.
(2) the second way to participate is to sign up as a guest student at Green Gulch or City Center. You can do this any time. You both pay some money and work quite a bit but you also get to be a part of the community and sit three periods of meditation a day. Similarly, between April and September, one can go to Tassajara and be a guest worker. Tassajara is a long drive away (four hours from San Francisco) and the Summer work is hard but the scenery is breathtaking and the monastery is indescribably peaceful.
(3) is to visit Tassajara as a resort guest in the summer. Meditation periods are available but optional, the food is first-class, etc. This option costs lots of money.
(4) is to figure out when there is a public meditation retreat (called “sesshin” in Japanese) scheduled at Green Gulch or City Center. These meditation intensives last from three to ten days long, and are held four or so times a year. The schedule of events goes from about five-thirty am to nine pm each day, consisting mostly seated meditation but also some walking meditation, chanting, work practice, a lecture, and some breaks. Both centers also have some one-day sittings that are more frequently scheduled.
(5) is to commit to live in Tassajara or Green Gulch for seven-to-thirteen weeks during certain times of year for something called a “practice period”. This is the most intense, and I don’t want to take the time to explain what it entails. Most people know enough about them when they are in a position to sign up for one.
* What I think are the good sides of the Spirit Rock center in Marin: they always have a meditation retreat of some sort going on that one can sign up for, they provide a lot of teaching about the nuts-and-bolts of meditation, they translate the depths of south Asian Buddhism in an accessible way, and their accommodations are clean and pleasant. The downsides: I think that their retreats are pretty expensive, and some of their events are a li’l new agey.
* And then there is the California Vipassana Center, near Fresno. This place offers ongoing ten-day intensives for beginners on a for-donation basis – they are all about many hours of sincere, diligent practice, day-after-day, which I respect them for. Some of my friends without Zen backgrounds love this place after having done retreats there. I myself would say that their Dharma is a little sectarian and the meditation technique they teach is similarly a little narrow.
Other aspects of the impact of Buddhism on my life … well, I don’t think that I am or aspire to be an unusually “nice” person but Buddhist practice has helped me to slow down, mellow out, and listen more attentively to myself and other people. I eat meat now but I was a Buddhism-inspired vegetarian for many years, and I do try to think about the lives of the animals that I eat. I used to kill lots of bugs but I am more likely to capture them and move them now. I make great efforts not to lie or take anything that is not offered to me. And I do take seriously the Mahayana Boddhisattva vow to save all beings – I certainly don’t always live this way all the time, but I do have an ultimate intention to purify myself in order to make my life more about making myself of service than living for my own pleasure.
If you have read this far in this essay – I have an idea of creating a dinner in Marin one Sunday night, where my secular friends could ask some of my long-time Zen friends about their practice and commitment. I would invite one under-fifty Zen priest or long-term monastery resident for every two friends who say that they intend to show up. Y’all would buy them dinner, and they would answer any questions that anyone has. Please send me and let me know if this is an idea that is attractive to you.
Here is a great article about what it means to become a Buddhist, and how one goes about doing so.
One last thing: I want to state for the record that I am uncomfortable most times I hear someone use the expression “kill the Buddha”. On one of my audio tapes, when Shunryu Suzuki (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center) says this phrase, it feels fine to me – but he has also bowed to Buddha statues hundreds of thousands of times.