The American Practice Period

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Deer Park

Long, long ago, deep within the Indian subcontinent, Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a Bodhi tree and found something that the people who met him afterward called enlightenment.  In time, he found himself living in a place called Deer Park, surrounded by people who were calling him Buddha now, and they had come to hear him teach the things that he had learned which had brought him first to the Bodhi tree and then to Deer Park.  Before long, there were more monks than the local community could support and this fact illuminated another truth, that the time had come to send the monks out into the world.   The work of a Buddha is always larger than the place where he sits.  So, calling them together, he sent his senior monks outwards, to begin to radiate the teachings into the surrounding forests, fields, villages and towns.  Each of them had different abilities and travelled to different places and purposes, but all of them carried two instructions,  First, when the moon was full, they were to gather in groups and renew the vows that guided them along the path.  Second, when the rains came, they were to return toDeer Parkfor the duration of the monsoon season to practice together.

The monks went out, planted the first seeds of Buddhism inNepal and India, and returned toDeer Park when the warm rains began to fall.  There, the followers of the way moved between the roofs and tarps, expanding their knowledge of the teachings, refining their skills in meditation, and learning new practices that had arisen in Deer Park during their absence since the previous year.  As the rains continued, a kind of university and training camp arose, allowing the monks to learn from the Buddha and to share what they had learned in the world with each other.  When the rains subsided, so did the population of Deer Park and a better educated, more skillful, more compassionate, and more effective community of monks dispersed itself around the world.  As this activity acquired the name, 'Buddhism', it continued to grow, developing into sects and eventually dispersing across a planet.  Early on in this process, the gatherings outgrew Deer Park and the one became many.  And always, the conclave adapted itself to the ground where it found itself.

In Zen, in America, what began as the monsoon season has come to be called the Practice Period.  In Japan, it was called Ango, which essentially means a time of intensive practice.  Since Buddhist practice is new to American soil it is important to remember that Buddhism transforms itself with every border it crosses.  So we don't yet know, exactly, what the term Practice Period means.  We can only know what it means in a particular time and place.   Where Zen has grown in the form of an  institution, such as in the larger Zen centers and monastic communities, it has tended toward more traditional Japanese ideals of training, at least in the ways that they are understood here.  Practice periods at San Francisco Zen Center and Zen Mountain Monastery, for example, typically require a full time residential commitment for several months and the renunciation of worldly connections.  A teacher will step into the former role of the Buddha as central teacher and an array of opportunities and practices will be presented.  As much as possible, the teacher's vision of the monsoon season is replicated.  Virtually all contact with the outside world is cut off and participants follow a strict monastic regimen — reemerging three months later to return to the world.

The monastic practice period dominates American Zen as an ideal but not as an actuality.  When Zen crossed the pacific, a curious thing happened; sometime in the 1960’s, the Japanese ideal of a meditating priest supported by a community was overrun by the hands-on culture of the new world.  Uniquely, Americans came to the temple to learn to meditate rather than to bask in the glow of a meditating priest.  Suddenly, the role of the priest became that of a teacher and caretaker of the zendo for a sangha of working people.  Zazen, Zen mediation, the primary activity of Zen, is practiced in America by a few hundred priests and thousand upon thousands of lay people.  Americans come to Buddhism not to build a fine temple but, as much as possible, to instill the qualities of a monk in themselves.

While a practice period could certainly be defined as a purely monastic activity, for the majority of American Zen practitioners, who practice in small sanghas, regional Zen centers, local sitting groups and alone, the practice period has lost much of it's rigidity.  If one does the math, the reason is simple.  Taking a quick look at the costs of a practice period and the practically of renouncing things, one finds on the bottom line that in order to do a monastic practice period, a person must be of either some means or small responsibility.  Far more challenging to most of us, our spouses, children, employers, and even our dogs tend to take a dim view of being renounced.

And so the practice period in America evolves.

Local Sangha

Rather than becoming watered down, the practice period for lay people simply adapts, becoming inclusive rather than secluded.  Rather then a separation and a return, the lay practitioner begins with a vow to improve herself or himself for the benefit of all beings right here and now.  We decide to learn something.  We decide to sacrifice a certain amount of leisure time to sit in silence.  We decide to help our companions in this journey.  And most importantly, we decide to live in the world and to interact with others a little more skillfully.  For ten weeks, we try to do our best.  This is not a theoretical kind of learning.  All of it takes place in the everyday world, at our jobs, in our homes, at the grocery store, and throughout we find ourselves often vexed by others who are living in their own worlds too.  This kind of practice period is a little harder.  Since there are no bells or sticks to help us along the trail, our commitment must be strong.  It takes a vow.

At Jikoji, like many medium size regional Zen Centers, we look for our inspiration in the heart of the practice period, the simple vow to try harder, to transform ourselves. In the last 2500 years, no more effective way of practice has yet emerged than to simply follow this path with the best effort we can muster.  Since we are, for the most part, not able to leave our community behind and we find little satisfaction in financing someone else to do the job for us, our practice must be deeply rooted in our lives.

And so, in this moment and in this place where the heavy rains come in the spring, we join together for practice period.  It begins with each of us examining first our practice and then our lives, trying to envision the ways in which our practice can grow and how to root it in the life we live.  We still make the 24/7 commitment, and we hold it for two months, but rather than separating ourselves from the things that tempt and bedevil us, we take the people we live and work with as part of our practice.

The temple, in this case, perhaps, Jikoji, performs a very different function than a cloister.  Rather then rules and admonishments, it becomes our role to support individual pathways.  The temple then serves as a gateway, a place of refuge along the path.  As much as possible, a semi monastic sanctuary is created to serve as a central resource and a place where the practice period group gathers.  The zazen schedule is extended, classes are offered, a head student is installed, teas and teachers are made available, sesshins are held, and most of all, we work together just as Buddha's monks did to create a dynamic, fluid, container in which the skills of the spiritual traveler can be developed and cultivated.

So, in simple terms, how does a person enter such a practice period?  Perhaps something like this:

  1. Decide for yourself that deeper is where you want to go.
  2. Avail yourself of the registration form.
  3. Examine and imagine the various offerings and select those that fit into your life and show promise to carry you forward
  4. Create a meditation schedule that you can keep.
  5.  Sign up for a class, get a book or download some podcasts, just find something new to learn.
  6. Don't stop with the ideas on the form.  Explore ways that you can carry your practice into your everyday life.  Simple things are often some of the finest things in life.  Be brave enough to create practices that inspire you.  Write this down.
  7. Look at what you have written and make any changes that occur to you.  When it outlines life the way it should be lived, take this as a vow for 60 days.
  8. Bring these words to AZC.  Be confident that the purpose of sharing this is simply to describe your journey and the odds of success increase when you walk in the company of others.
  9. Show up for the first tea, and just keep showing up for what you have decided to do, day after day until the river is crossed.

And the value of a practice period?  I think that is larger than this group of words can hold, but maybe it could be boiled down to this...

I have a bike which I try to ride every day.  When the bike was new, I tracked the time it took me to ride to particular telephone pole on a country rode and back to my house downtown.  For about three months, I shaved a number of seconds off my time each week.  Then one Friday came and I couldn't go any faster.  Weeks passed and my time was the same, just a little bit slower than it was that one Friday.  Finally I had to face that my beloved daily ride for time had run its course.  My body, it turns out, is all about conservation, and reacts to growth by trying to restrain it.  My muscles were willing to use resources and grow, as long as that growth seemed critical, but when the need for speed became a habit, the muscles simply stopped wasting the resources.  So I did intervals, and group rides, and found hills to climb.  On these I pushed as hard as I could.  And although I had to break out of my comfortable habitual ride, I had to do something different in order to grow.  A month later I went back out for a ride and the value of this lesson is that I beat the record by one mile an hour and my time continued to drop for the next few months.

And, as it turns out, our minds are like our bodies, following the same general design guidelines and any neurologist can tell you that the product of meditation is measurable growth.  So when the Buddha gathered his monks to push hard for three months and then sent them out into the world again, he was teaching them to go beyond the self imposed limits of their lives.

What do bicycles and anatomy have to do with practice period?  Simple.  Every practice period pushes me in new ways, and at the end of it I always wind up discovering that sooner or later I get challenged and something always winds up being a whole lot harder than I thought.  But then the last bell rings, and the days off finally arrive.  Always, when I return to the Zendo and my normal routine, I discover that something has changed, something is more solid, that things are a little easier and the line between me and everything else is a little less definite.

And I can feel, without a doubt that my practice is stronger.