Zen is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes direct personal experience. In other words, it champions the practical application of its teaching methods over literary expertise and doctrinal belief. The guiding principle is that everyone can share in the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, and can find ways to manifest those virtues in everyday life situations. Zen River offers a program that, while based on the Chinese/Japanese Zen tradition, allows experimentation and adaptation to suit the needs of our time. It consists of the following elements of training:
- Training in social skills
Meditation is the primary focus of Zen River and serves as a base for all other elements of training. The lineage that the teachers of Zen River represent belongs to the Japanese Soto school, but is also influenced by meditation methods of other schools. Over the last ten years, Tenkei Roshi has developed a comprehensive meditation style he calls “The Four Modes of Meditation.” These modes are: 1) Harmonizing body and mind, 2) Turning your own light inward, 3) Clear observation, 4) Bodhisattva activity. Together these modes are meant to open and clarify our mind so that we are more in tune with situations we find ourselves in. This enables us to respond to those situations in the most beneficial way.
In the first mode, we learn to stop interfering with the natural functioning of the mind and to become aware of our inner spaciousness. Doing so already allows us to notice things within and around us that most often escape our attention. In the second mode of meditation, we allow our awareness to expand far beyond its usual parameters. This enables us in the third mode to let life’s circumstances speak to us in a most direct manner—without any interference, projections, and preferences. As a result, our responses to them become more natural and fitting, which comprises the fourth mode of meditation, Bodhisattva activity.
For deepening the experience of the Four Modes of Meditation, koans have proven to be very effective. These are recorded dialogues between Buddhist 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). The complete koan 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 Sixteen Zen Precepts.
Ritual observances can be seen as an essential counterpart to meditation; they complement each other in many ways. For example, one could say that in zazen we cultivate our independence and individual responsibility, whereas in ritual we acknowledge our dependency on the guidance of the buddhas and ancestors 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 enlightened ones. Looking at it from another angle, one 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.
Services and ceremonies
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. Oryoki (formal meals in the zendo) is an essential part of the program. Fusatsu (atonement ceremony) is held regularly while Jukai (lay ordination), Tokudo (monk ordination), weddings and funerals are performed whenever the need arises.
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.
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.
Tenkei Roshi regularly delivers Teisho (a live presentation of the 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. 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 Class, held on Wednesday evenings, allows students to verbally present their understanding on a particular subject. It provides opportunities for everyone to practice speaking up and to learn how to express the Dharma in live words.
Training in Social Skills
Ideally speaking, Bodhisattva activity is a natural expression of our true nature in daily life—in other words, where it really counts. In the Four Modes of Meditation, it figures as the last and most important one. Most of us, however, also need training in social skills in order to respond to life’s situations with wisdom and compassion, and to not fall back into conditioned self-centered patterns of behavior. Since Zen River functions as a spiritual community, it offers ample opportunities for training in social skills.
Activities such as ritual services and special celebrations, but also samu (temple cleaning, kitchen duties, renovation projects, gardening, sewing, administration, etc.) allow us to practice expressing our meditative awareness and insight through our body, mind and speech. Hosting guest teachers and students from abroad, particularly from other temples in Japan, has also proven to be very useful in this respect, since cultural differences help us to question our habitual behavioral norms.
Training in social skills also includes the practice of the Precepts (guidelines for leading an enlightened life), the Paramitas (virtues to be cultivated) and principles like the “The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions” of Dogen Zenji (generosity, identification with others, loving speech, beneficial action). Rather than as strict sets of rules, they can all be seen as springboards for meditation in action. Although it is generally easiest to practice them within the conducive communal context of the temple, over time they become an inspiration for interacting with others beyond the temple. Gradually, this can transform our character and lifestyle and clarify our particular life’s vocation.