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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by Valerie Pettys

Maria_KannonThere is a phrase in the Heart Sutra that particularly affects me and urges me on in my practice each time we chant: “No hindrance of mind; no hindrance, therefore no fear.” The promise of no fear has compelling power. What is true and utter fearlessness and to what freedom does “no hindrance of mind” point?

In seeking an answer to this question, I am brought back to the first fruit of Zen: Joriki, or concentration; finding one’s center in the present moment. When we sit in Zen meditation, we cultivate attention. We focus on the breath, noticing each passing thought and hearing each sound (birds, crickets, someone’s sneeze), such that we lose ourselves in the object of our attention and there is only ONE. Total attention is one-ness, true intimacy, not a trace outside.

The mind stops, or is “hindered” when it attaches to a thought- the “I” is imagined to be separate from what is being seen, experienced, thought about. That chasm is easily filled by fear. Fear supports the delusion that I exist as a reality separate from everyone and everything else. From that sense of separation, judgement arises: good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse, having and not-having. These are the conceptual distinctions that empower fear.

In the Great Wisdom of the Bodhisattvas, there is no hindrance- therefore total freedom (i.e. no fear)- because there is no boundary. This ONE includes everything. This one breath (or sneeze or bird call) is my entrance to that wisdom.

Perfect attention IS death of the I-me-ego. Simone Weil, in her work on attention as prayer, wrote, “To stop time at the present instant. This is also the acceptance of death.”As to being present in this very moment, she wrote, “We must get rid of the illusion of possessing time. We must become incarnate.”

Zen masters talk about the “Great Death” and, out of compassion born of this death, they wield the sword that cuts off delusion and gives new life. In the attention of this moment, divided “self-awareness” dissolves and true awareness of self emerges: the birds are singing, the night is dark…. In the words of one of my favorite teachers, a three-year-old boy, “Look here! Look here!”