Choosing One PathFebruary 1, 2012 | 25 Comments | Add to favorites
The other day, I received an email from a member of the OHP who was wondering about continuing to do shamatha meditation (the practice we do together) while also participating in a local Zen center’s introductory course. The Zen center had requested of its students to forego other practices during this training. But this student enjoys both practices. She loves getting the OHP newsletters and practicing with my instruction. But she also felt drawn to Zazen and was appreciative of finding any place in her small town that would offer personal instruction. What to do? Should she abandon one practice for the other? Which one should she choose? Could she study at the Zen center but secretly continue to practice shamatha? Choose those elements from each tradition that felt most potent and combine them into her own personal meditation style?
This is such an awesome topic. I have two different answers: one for those who like to take it one step at a time and another one for those who want to fast track it. Both approaches have merit. I know which one is for me. How about you?
Answer #1 is to check out all sorts of meditation practices. Experiment. Dabble. See if you like the practice you are being taught and, as important, the culture that surrounds it. For example, in most Zen centers, the practice is very, very precise (as it ought to be) and the atmosphere tends to be austere, bare bones, stripped down. Simplicity is the order of the day. Gorgeous stillness. When in doubt, remove an accessory. Profound minimalism that is also very, very earthy and real. The community may hold as its highest values sharpness of mind and heart, brevity, incisive teachings, and good humor. What’s not to love? If you are already drawn to such an aesthetic, you would immediately feel at home and know: this is the place for me. Similarly, if you are frightened of such an aesthetic because you tend to be all over the place and have little idea how to apply clean, crisp edges to your outer and inner environments, you may look around and go: This is so not me. This is exactly what I need.
On the other end of the spectrum stylistically would be someplace like the Shambhala Buddhist community I practice in, which is a Tibetan tradition. (Most Zen centers in the West tend to be associated with Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese orders.) Our practice absolutely focuses on precision, just as Zazen does, but there is also emphasis right from the start on spaciousness. The community may hold as its highest values sharpness of mind and heart, bravery, curiosity, and good humor.Perhaps because of this, our meditation instruction is not as strict as it is in Zazen—which simply means that if your foot falls asleep during Zazen, tough noogies. Sit with it. Hang in. Not aggressively, but with a continuous sense of softening and accepting. If your foot falls asleep in a Shambhala center, wiggle your toes for a moment until it goes away. It is perfectly acceptable. Just do it mindfully. That said, the two practices are way more similar than they are dissimilar. The environments, however, are quite different. In Zen centers, most often the décor is black, white, and gray. In Tibetan centers, there is a lot more plumage, a lot more display. You will see gold and orange and red and purple and blue. There will be dramatic iconography on the walls, depicting deities who sway, gesticulate, or growl. There will be beings with two faces and many arms who may ride on tigers or bare their genitals. The emphasis is not so much on stripping away everything non-essential in order to find stillness, but is more on relaxing (without preference) within the extraordinary and vast display of the phenomenal world—and thus finding stillness. If you enjoy a rich and varied environment, you may feel right at home here. But if, like me, you are the kind of person who is already wrapped a bit too tight, you may look around and go: This is so not me. This is exactly what I need.
So answer #1 is all about checking things out, seeing how you feel, and trying to figure out if the point of a particular tradition is what appeals to you, or the counterpoint. Take your time. Give all (reputable) traditions a shot—until you know.
A few very important caveats to go along with answer #1:
Only go to meditation centers that are based in lineages that are older than, oh, TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS. Seriously. No made-up practices. Yeah that’s right, I’m calling you out, new age bullshit.
Pay close attention to your heart (or gut) reaction to a particular place. Do you feel happy there? Do you feel a sense of “these are my people?” Do the dharma talks make you go, “I have so wanted to know that, only I didn’t know it until right this second?” Do you look at the senior teachers and think, yes, I would really like to have what they’re having? The way you feel about (or in) a particular environment is at least as important as what you think, know, or read about it.
Don’t make shit up. This is a very important one and I’m sorry to have to rely to cussing to make my point. If you go to a Zen center and they say, “please only do our practice while studying with us,” then do so. If you go to a Vipassana center and they say, “we practice with our eyes closed,” close your eyes. If you go to a Shambhala Center and they say, “we practice with eyes opened,” open your eyes. Don’t embellish or diminish in any way the technique. As best you can, follow it to the letter. Don’t mix ‘n match.
OK, now for answer #2. I will confess, this is the answer I chose but in no way am I saying it’s for everyone.
Answer #2 is to find yourself exposed to a tradition that you know is the wisest, most brilliant, tender-hearted, and utterly challenging path you have ever heard of (and beyond) and commit to it wholeheartedly on the spot even though everyone thinks you may be crazy. That’s what I did in 1995 and I can honestly say I have not had a moment of doubt or regret since that time. Good karma. I have no idea why. Just lucky, I guess.
If you choose the fast track, everything in your life will, well, speed up. There will be less of a sense of 2 steps forward, 9 steps back and so on. I’m not saying it will speed up in a good or bad way, just that your particular karma will ripen as if the great eastern sun suddenly rose up in the sky, stopped right out side your bedroom window and hung there, bigger and brighter than a thousand suns.
There is only one caveat for answer #2: It has to be the right path. For you.