Zen is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes direct personal experience. In other words, it champions the practical application of its teaching methods over conceptual understanding and doctrinal belief. That means that there has always been a variety of styles to accommodate different inclinations of practitioners.
Since Buddhist practice is still in its infancy in the West, Zen River’s training programme is a work in progress. In general, it is based on the Chinese/Japanese Zen tradition yet allows experimentation and adaptation to suit the needs of our time and culture.
To follow through on its vision, the programme of Zen River consists of six elements of training: a) meditation (zazen), b) ritual activities, c) scriptural study, d) development of social skills, e) physical health, f) music, painting, and other art forms.

 Meditation (Zazen)

Zazen is the primary focus of Zen River and serves as a starting point for all other elements of training. Following the characteristics of the White Plum lineage, zazen is multifaceted to meet the needs of each individual student. For example, besides Soto-style Shikantaza (‘just sitting’), Rinzai-style koan training is used extensively. Based on these different upaya (skillful means), Tenkei Roshi has developed a comprehensive format for zazen, called ‘The Four Modes of Meditation.’ These are:

1) Harmonizing body and mind, 2) Turning your own light inward, 3) Clear observation, 4) Bodhisattva activity.

Working together, these modes can open and clarify our mind so that we are more in tune with the 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. Doing this already allows us to notice things within and around us that would usually escape our attention.

In the second mode of meditation, we turn our own light inward by questioning what it is that hears, sees, feels, thinks, etc. This allows our awareness to expand far beyond its usual parameters.

In the third mode, we use this full awareness experience to allow life’s circumstances speak to us in a direct manner—without any interference, projections, or preferences.

The fourth mode of meditation involves action, following through on the messages we received in the third mode and putting them into effect.

To deepen 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 and 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 includes several traditional collections, Tozan’s Five Ranks, and The Sixteen Zen Precepts.

Ritual activities

Ritual activities can be seen as an essential counterpart to zazen, and the two complement each other in many ways. In general, the rituals are meant to be practised as active group meditations, forming a counterbalance to the stillness and solitude of zazen. One could also 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 our interdependency with all sentient beings. This corresponds with the basic tenet of Mahayana Buddhism that we all can realize Buddhahood for ourselves, but need the help of others. 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 express our gratitude for all we have been given.

At Zen River, all participants play an active role in the regular daily services and, over time, learn to take on various ritual positions, such as Ino (chant-leader), Mokugyo (wooden drum), Densho (entry bell), etc. Oryoki (formal meals in the zendo) is an essential part of the programme. Hossenshiki (Dharma combat) and Fusatsu (atonement ceremony) are part of the regular programme, while Jukai (lay ordination), Tokudo (monk ordination), weddings and funerals are performed whenever the need arises.

Perhaps most importantly, these ceremonial activities allow us to diverge from our usual behavioural norms and to communicate a deep sense of interconnectedness in a time-tested choreography. Moreover, these ancient rituals can give us cues on how to move through life, as ordinary activities—such as getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, washing up, parking the car, saying hello, and shaking hands—can all be seen as ritual.

Scriptural study

The study of Buddhist texts is primarily geared towards discovering how the scriptures across the ages can help us wake up to our innate wisdom. In combination with 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 and the other teachers at Zen River regularly deliver Teisho (a live presentation of the Dharma) often using for inspiration a koan or other examples of Dharma literature. And while a growing library gives ample opportunity for individual reading, there are various weekly study groups.

On Saturday afternoon there is a Sutra Reading Class during which participants take turns reciting part of a sutra that is projected on the wall. During the Study Class on Sunday morning, a short excerpt of a classic Buddhist text is read and discussed in the light of its practical application. On Monday nights, in the River of Zen class, fragments of texts are used in a historical sequence, from the early Indian sutras to the Chinese and Japanese scriptures, and works of contemporary teachers. During the Right Speech Class, held on Wednesday evenings, students are invited to present their understanding on a particular Buddhist subject. It provides opportunities for everyone to practise speaking up and to learn how to express the Dharma in live words.

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 mode. Yet, since even genuine insights into one’s true nature easily fade, most of us need the support of specific guidelines in order to respond to life’s situations with wisdom and compassion and not fall back into conditioned self-centred patterns of behaviour. These guidelines include the Buddhist precepts (moral principles) and the Paramitas (virtues to be cultivated). Rather than strict sets of rules, they can all be seen as springboards for meditation in action and incentives for developing the social skills this requires. Although it is generally easiest to practise them within the conducive communal context of the temple, over time they become an inspiration for interacting with others beyond the temple.

Samu (household chores such as temple cleaning, kitchen duties, renovation projects, gardening, sewing, administration, etc.) offer plenty of opportunities for developing social skills by practising the precepts and paramitas in daily life situations. The Right Speech Class also serves an important purpose here, as it can enhance our verbal communications with others in general. Moreover, hosting guest teachers and students from abroad—particularly from other temples in Asia—has proven to be very useful in this respect as well, as cultural differences help us to question our habitual behavioural norms.

Physical Health

Following the well-known Latin phrase Mens sana in copore sano, ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, care for our physical well-being is an element of training that demands special attention—on a daily basis. Nutritious, mostly vegetarian, meals are prepared with great consideration and enjoyed in silence, either in the meditation hall or in the dining room. The main meal of the day is lunch, while a light meal is served for supper, which in general seems to be healthier and more conducive to attending evening meditation classes.

The Kodo (lecture room) can be used for different forms of exercise and yoga, and students receive instruction as to which ones are particularly beneficial for improving their meditation posture. Making full bows is part of the communal daily ritual programme, and this can also be practised more extensively individually at certain times of the day. Meanwhile, the rural environs of the temple allow plenty of opportunity for walks, cycling, and running sessions. In general, it is clear that the long hours of sitting meditation need to be alternated with some forms of physical work and exercise.

Music, painting, and other art forms

Like most other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism has always had a strong link with the arts. Since, ideally speaking, Zen training addresses the cultivation of body, mind, and speech, the practices of music, poetry, calligraphy, painting, martial arts, etc., easily find their place in it. At Zen River, music has become an integral part of the ceremonies. As a refreshing experiment, the monotone reciting of sutras common in contemporary Soto temples is accompanied by melodic lines played on violin, guitar, accordion etc., while taiko drum classes have given new inspiration for rhythmic variations. Over the years there have also been calligraphy and poetry workshops, and—particularly during Young Minds Seminars—painting has been part of the programme.

Meanwhile, the temple building and its grounds have become more and more a work of art in itself. Careful examination of how the various designs and forms express their alive function have led to an organic whole that is still in full development. But it already often feels as if the conducive atmosphere that the temple radiates constitutes an essential part of the Dharma teaching.

Each of these six elements of training combines with and strengthens the others.  Practiced together they can, over time, transform our character and lifestyle, clarify our life’s vocation, and prompt us to engage in more and more effective Bodhisattva activity.