The Practice of Zen

Zen can offer something very simple, very direct and readily accessible to anyone seeking inner peace, seeking healing in some form, or seeking answers to questions such as ‘Who am I?’ ‘How can I find meaning in my life?’ ‘How can I live in a most authentic way?’

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Dogs and Cats Know it, Zen Students Do Not!

By Lee Ann Nail

I am amazed that if you ask someone about their dog or cat their hearts and minds open instantly. It’s like saying ‘Open Sesame!’ It can be anybody, Zen student or not. And I’ve wondered about this lately. What is it that these companions speak to and why so intimately? Is it something beyond simple unconditional love? Have they tapped into Buddha nature?

I encountered Ruben back in 1989 when he had just arrived in Dallas and was living in faculty housing. There were four or five of us sitting in the small guest bedroom of his home. This was before Maria arrived, so I like to date my initial study of the dharma with Ruben to the age of his children. It’s an interesting reminder of how time passes swiftly by. My earliest memories of our founding Maria Kannon include how hilariously nervous it made me to consider having blue (and not the more traditional black) zafus. This significant transformation of practice from simply black and white to a more technicolored reality is in a large part thanks not just to Ruben but all the Maria Kannon students (especially Helen who recently revealed that she had lobbied for the radically blue cushions!). 

Somehow I was elected as the first Maria Kannon President. Now twenty years later, feeling a bit like the old fox spirit, I wonder at the generations of practice, the stories of our adventures and the recounting of our ‘failures’.

I got to study with my original teacher Daido from 1985 to 2005. At Zen Mountain Monastery I trained as jikido, ino, monitor, Head Seminarian in 1993 and officiated services and gave talks during sesshins (often with over 60 attendees – these seeming like trying to keep up with ridiculously large litters of puppies).
When my husband Ike and I moved to Oregon in 1994, I also studied for several years with Chozen Sensei as tenzo, newsletter editor and board member. We were encouraged to accompany her to numerous Shodo Harada sesshins and for several weeks of residency at Sogen-ji Monastery in Japan. At present, with Ruben’s permissions, I’m enjoying studying additionally with Stones and Clouds Zendo and Leonard Marcel Roshi of the Diamond Sangha.

I’m a narrative therapist and have loved seeing how this and my training as a performance artist, with an appreciation for voice dialogue, all help me see through the story lines of life. My friends have often provided perspective in pointing out where I tend to stick, like a broken record wondering about past events. When this occurs, it’s like a dog with a ball stuck in its mouth. I can’t yet run and play because I am standing there somewhat ridiculously drooling all over what I want to surrender, and thus play fetch with. Daido Loori Roshi used to prod us about how easy Zen is (in a certain sense). He spent a whole training period intoning, “Dogs and cats know it, Zen students do not!” This was an invitation to play, to enquire, to dance freely beyond the concepts of knowing and not knowing, (where Zen students get stuck). 

Recently, Helen’s dog, Pepe, showed me this so clearly right before sesshin. He’s finally coming out of puppyhood and like all of us – wanting to play fetch. But he has just begun to learn the art of trotting up to someone and dropping the ball at their feet. He did this the morning we were leaving for Rohatsu sesshin. He stopped tugging and pulling when he brought me the ball. He simply let go and out the ball dropped. I witnessed a look of total surprise – the freedom of letting go. It spoke to me about how many times I had trotted into the Dokusan room with my favorite toy, one which I so so dearly wished to surrender. My teachers would simply sit there and hold out their hands.  Each time, however, it was up to me to drop the ball, to let go – so real learning could begin.  Mostly I would sit there and growl if they reached for whatever I was holding on to, whatever I was stuck with – having my own little fantasy about. It is funny how often I’ve not even realized I had something totally stuck in my mouth or psyche or life until it dropped. It was beautiful to witness the moment Pepe dropped the ball for the first time. And instead of ‘dropping the ball’ being a bad thing it was good – more than good. Now we could play fetch together. There is, after all, nothing wrong with having taken up a favorite toy to play with. 

So what I most wanted to say when Helen asked me to write about practice – specifically practice as a now assistant teacher within Maria Kannon – is that it’s an invitation to play. These last few years back working with Ruben and the sangha here have freed me up to truly enjoy the never ending play.  It, along with the struggle, is simple, direct and, yes, fun! I’ve always said the worst thing that can happen to a Zen student is that they become a teacher. So you’ll see me wrestling with this, this sticky ball that gets stuck.
But I wonder if there isn’t a much better way to express it.


Lee Ann Nail serves as resident Zen Meditation teacher for the Unitarian Church (5090 Center Street) in Salem, Oregon. She offers weekly sitting, talks and interview from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. each Wednesday evening.  Those attending for the first time should email and plan to arrive at 6:30 p.m. for beginning instruction.