Four Elements of Training

In Zen training we learn to recognize our Buddha nature and to allow it to manifest freely in everyday-life situations. The joy and happiness found within can naturally bring about an unconditional love for all life and inspire us to contribute to the welfare of others. In order to follow through on this grand vision, Buddhist practitioners take refuge in the Three Treasures — the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Most effective when addressed together, these Treasures are reliable buoys in the sea of confusion. They are intricately interwoven and can be appreciated on many different levels. Most obviously they stand for the face-to-face relationship between teacher and student (Buddha), the actual training that is required (Dharma), and a close association with other practitioners (Sangha).

At Zen River the Three Treasures are articulated in Four Elements of Training:

1) Meditation, 2) Ritual, 3) Study and 4) Bodhisattva Activity.

1) Meditation is the main focus of Zen River and serves as a base for all other elements. The lineage that Tenkei Roshi and Myoho Sensei represent belongs to the Soto school of Zen, but is also influenced by the training methods of other schools. That means that besides shikantaza, koans are practiced extensively. This combination has the advantage of providing a broad range of methods so that the needs of individual students can be met. In shikantaza one learns to stop interfering with the natural functioning of the mind and to become aware of the basic goodness inherent in all of us. In its simplicity it is the most natural and at the same time the most difficult practice. By turning our own light inward we find more space for people and situations to speak to us directly, so that our responses become more natural and fitting. This wonderful ability can be experienced on many different levels, and is for most people hard to appreciate fully without actively questioning conditioned patterns of thoughts and feelings. Koans have proven to be very helpful in this respect. These are recorded dialogues between masters and students of old that express the teaching in a nutshell. In actual practice they are used as meditation devices. The teacher gives the student a koan as a question and expects a lively response in dokusan (private interview). Nonrational in character, the koan cuts through dualistic thinking and allows students to experience themselves and the world as one undivided whole. More advanced koans deal with the apparent variety within this unity, the inseparability of these two aspects, and the way we can express this paradox in loving speech and beneficial action. The complete curriculum transmitted in the White Plum Lineage involves a series of introductory koans, the collections of the Mumonkan, Hekiganroku, Denkoroku, Shoyoroku, Tozan’s Five Ranks and The Precepts.

2) Ritual is seen as an essential counterpart to meditation; they complement each other in many ways. For example, whereas zazen cultivates our independence and our individual responsibility, in ritual the emphasis is more on our dependency on the Buddhas and ancestors for their instruction and also on our interdependency with all sentient beings. This corresponds with the basic tenet of Mahayana Buddhism that we all can realize buddhahood but need the help and vision of the bodhisattvas. Looking at it from another angle, we could also say that in zazen we are in a prime position to receive Buddha wisdom, whereas in ritual we have an opportunity to give back freely. At Zen River, besides daily morning services there are also midday and evening services during Ango training periods and sesshin. In these services all participants play an active role, and over time learn to take on various positions. Fusatsu (atonement ceremony) and Segaki (ceremony for hungry ghosts) are held regularly while others including Jukai (lay ordination), Tokudo (monk ordination), weddings and funerals are performed whenever the need arises. Oryoki (formal meals in the zendo) is practiced during retreats. These ceremonial activities allow us to diverge from standard behavioral norms and to communicate a deep sense of interconnectedness in a time-tested choreography. In that sense they also serve as active group meditations and as a counterbalance to the stillness and solitude of zazen. Moreover, these ancient rituals can give us cues on how to move through life, as ordinary activities — like getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, washing up, parking the car, saying hello and shaking hands — can all be seen as ritual.

3) The study of Buddhist texts is primarily geared towards discovering how the scriptures of the various time periods can help us wake up to our innate wisdom. In combination with actual meditation training with a living teacher, the words of the old masters start to resonate on ever deeper levels and also serve as a testing device for true understanding. On Wednesday nights during the regular daily schedule and on every day during sesshin, Tenkei Roshi gives Teisho (a live presentation of dharma) often using for inspiration a koan, a short text by Dogen Zenji (like chapters from Eihei Koroku) or other examples of dharma literature. And while a growing library gives ample opportunity for individual reading, there are various weekly study groups. In one that meets every Sunday morning, a classic Buddhist text is read one chapter at a time and discussed in the light of its practical application. The emphasis is on works by Dogen Zenji (mostly Shobogenzo in various English translations), with commentaries by modern masters if available. On Monday nights the River of Zen group studies excerpts of texts in a historical sequence, from the early Indian sutras to the Chinese koans, the Japanese literature, and works of contemporary teachers. The Right Speech group, held on Tuesday afternoons, allows students to verbally present their understanding on a particular subject. Sometimes the subject is chosen beforehand, for example certain chapters of the Nikayas, the Lotus or other sutras, and sometimes Tenkei Roshi spontaneously raises an issue that suits the occasion. Either way, it provides opportunities for everyone to practice speaking up and to learn how to express the dharma in live words.

4) Bodhisattva Activity as an element of training explores ways to manifest our true nature in the everyday world — in other words, where it really counts. In principle, the first three elements naturally wake up the Bodhisattva within us; yet most of us need clear reminders during the course of the day for responding to life’s situation with wisdom and compassion, and not to fall back into conditioned self-centered patterns of behavior. These reminders include the Precepts (errors to refrain from), the Paramitas (virtues to be cultivated) and particularly the “Four Ways of the Bodhisattva” of Dogen Zenji (Generosity, Identification with Others, Right Speech, Beneficial Action). Rather than a strict set of rules, they are all seen as springboards for meditation in action, offering suggestions for personal transformation in social interaction with others. Zen River functions as a spiritual community and offers ample opportunities for practicing Bodhisattva Activity during, for example, services, samu (temple cleaning, kitchen duties, renovation projects, gardening, sewing, administration, etc.) and events like Family Week with its special program for children. The hosting of other teachers and students from abroad, particularly from training temples in Japan, has also proven to be very useful in this respect since cultural differences help us to question our habitual behavioral norms. Engagement in Bodhisattva Activity within the conducive context of the temple, can provide the incentive and inspiration for practicing it in daily life circumstances beyond the temple. Gradually, this can transform our character and lifestyle and clarify our particular Bodhisattva calling.