Category Archives: Zen Buddhism

“No gaining” practice in 2012

This post was written by guest-contributor, Kevin Heffernan

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions in the context of a statement by Shunryu Suzuki: “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.” How encouraging and humbling in one breath! I think this is essentially the same as Dogen seeing that practice and enlightenment are one. We already are buddhanature, or enlightenment itself. Zazen, which we are encouraged to practice with “no gaining idea,” is just this activity of buddhanature. Perfection and improvement, practice and enlightenment, go forth hand-in-hand. Yet we often turn to practice out of some sense of lack. Similarly, we make resolutions out of some aspiration for improving ourselves. What would this effort to “improve” feel like if we had some glimmer of or even faith in our inconceivable, unescapable, ungraspable buddhanature? What if resistance and realization are made of the same stuff? What if effort or struggle is buddhanature? What would a buddha look like at the gym? How would a bodhisattva balance the checkbook? What would a government clerk look like on a zafu?

Kevin Heffernan is the coordinator of the Richmond Zen Group, at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha and the Zen Campus Minister at the University of Richmond.

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Filed under Meditation, Zazen, Zen Buddhism

Sitting in the Middle of Squirm

Sitting in zazen is an action whose purpose is Being comfortable in the middle of actionlessness.   Zazen trains the mind to sit with discomfort and hold the pause button on it long enough to notice it and dissolve it.

It is not easy to sit with uncomfortable feelings. They make us squirm. They make us want to do something–to struggle against them– to speak or to act in a way that may provide a momentary release of them, but rarely a permanent solution to them. Reacting to uncomfortable feelings without identifying what they are  may make a situation worse.

For example, someone driving dangerously, weaving in and out of traffic, cuts you off while you are traveling at 70 miles an hour.  A physical “fight or flight” response probably occurs in your body before your mind even fully registers what has happened.  When it does, you may feel anger, dismay or even rage.  At this point, you could react by driving equally dangerously to get that person back; you could curse up a storm to either no audience or the wrong audience; you could weave in and out of your lane as you crane your neck in their direction to lock their gaze long enough to flip them the bird; or, you could notice that you are angry, have compassion for yourself for being angry, wish the other driver freedom from whatever madness has descended upon him, and let it go.  When you do this, you release yourself and others all around you from the consequences of suffering from  rage.  Moreover, you make the world a better place by changing the energetic value of rage into compassion.  Your compassion towards yourself radiates out to another. Other people on the road are saved from your madness, and then their madness in reaction to yours, and so on…

The practice of zazen is not just for mystics and monks. All of us experience discomfort and restlessness in our day-to-day lives. Sitting with squirmy feelings can be uncomfortable. Silence can be rather unnerving. In a moment of intentional quietude, all manner of mental disturbances may parade across the mind.  Zazen trains us to notice them as they arise, smile at them in compassion, consciously let them go, and redirect attention back to Just Being in the breath Now.

If more people practiced zazen, perhaps there would be fewer @#$% on the road!


Filed under Compassion, Consciousness, Meditation, Zazen, Zen Buddhism

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi on the Difference between Noise and Sound

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Filed under Whatchamacalit, Zen Buddhism

Zen and Now…

It seems appropriate to launch this blog with the words of someone very dear to me, who recently said with great animation, “I’m so excited about Now!”

This moment is the descendent of an unimaginably long and rich history of mere possibilities made actualities.  The fact that you are here right now doing whatever it is you are doing is the product of a sum of countless causes too innumerable to contemplate. All the events, circumstances and conditions in the history of humankind that led up to you being You in this Here and in this Now would utterly boggle us if they weren’t so utterly elusive; even more boggling are the possibilities that didn’t occur, but might have.  Imagine that if one of your ancestors a thousand years ago had made a left turn instead of a right turn down an alleyway, thus  meeting a terrible accident before she had given birth to the next link in the chain of your ancestors: you would not be here.  It is easy to take this Now for granted or to be glum about its prospects, but Now itself is laden with infinite and unforeseeable possibilities.  It is the seed of all possibility.  Now is certainly something to be excited about!!

Those of us who practice Zen Buddhism are reminded to smile upon whatever Now offers to us so that we do not miss Now by thinking too much about what isn’t Now.  We humans tend to run all kinds of narratives in our minds, and these narratives take us to other places besides Now.  We imagine scenarios that often hijack us to less enjoyable places than Now. We relive and even invent arguments with someone who insulted us or hurt our feelings; we become preoccupied by what waits for us at the office or the job site while we are at home with our families;  we agonize over a range of possible outcomes for events that are out of our control anyway; we fret needlessly over fears that never materialize.  We worry, and in our worrying, we spend our precious life’s energy confronting armies of circumstances that may never actually actualize.

Our brains are survivalists–they are hardwired to be on the look out for negative situations that might harm us.  All manner of neurotransmitters are engaged in the process of heightening our chances of survival every nano-second.  These neurotransmitters are engaged in biofeedback, increasing our experiences of avoidance, suspicion, fear.  They cause us to do things like shorten the length and depth of our breath, tighten our muscles, hold our postures in habitually protracted positions so we can protect vital areas of the body, raise our blood pressure, and so on. In the long-term, chronic over-stimulation of the Central  Nervous System brings about significant wear and tear on the body. Sometimes it even results in dis-ease.  We are so very adept at living in any place and in any time but Now.

If we are so biologically determined to be hijacked away from Now, what can being excited about Now do for us?  When we remind ourselves to remember Now, to reflex our thoughts about the past, future, or imagined past or future back into this very moment so that we can appreciate what is there in the Right Now, we short-circuit the biological process of inducing stress.  Moreover, when we learn to smile on Now, to feel gratitude for all of the wonderful things that Now has to offer, we train our brains and our minds to make the move from residing in a house of pessimism to living in a home of optimism.

Every moment, even if it seems to have something unpleasant in it, holds something to appreciate–a rich color, a pleasant sound, a familiar smell, the kind intentions of a loved one and a whole host of unimaginable possibilities.

What about Now do you find exciting?????


(I found this book by Dr. Rick Hanson to offer a fascinating study of the neuroscience of meditation and mindfulness.)


Filed under Zen Buddhism