Formal Practice

RandomStu's picture

Average: 5 (1 vote)

“Practice” is what you do. It may be mental rather than physical, but it's always something more than believing or understanding. “Jesus is Lord” or “I am pure consciousness” or “Everything is One” may be OK beliefs, but they’re not practices. As Nike said – and Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS) said many years before – you have to just do it.

In the mid- to late-80s, I learned from ZMSS through spending time with him informally, attending his public talks, sitting retreats that he led and participated in, and having my first formal private koan interviews with him. He died in 2004, leaving about a dozen successor Zen Masters. The type of practice I do, and the way I understand it and communicate about it, comes mostly from him.

My informal practice is trying to keep clear mind in all situations. Clear means empty, nothing at all, so acting with clear mind is just doing what I’m doing 100%. It means that when I’m doing computer work, I just do computer work; when I’m riding my bike, I just ride my bike; when I’m talking to a friend, I just talk to my friend; etc.

Of course I repeatedly get distracted by thinking: “I like this, I don’t like that, I want to get this, I want to keep that, this is good, that’s bad.” When I become aware of the thicket of thinking, I try to recognize it as insubstantial clouds appearing and disappearing, and return to the just-now situation, perhaps explicitly asking myself, “What am I doing right now?”

I use two special techniques to cut through thinking and return to clarity. One is mantra, inwardly repeating a phrase over and over. I use the mantra Kwan Seum Bosal, the Korean name for the thousand-armed Bodhisattva of infinite compassion. The meaning of the words don’t matter much; they’re mostly just a tool to help loosen my grip on any other type of thinking.

The other technique is to keep a Big Question. ZMSS always talked about questioning so strongly and sincerely that there’s nothing but Don’t Know. When I’m walking through town, for example, or riding the train, I’ll try clarifying my mind by bringing up a question like “What am I?” or “What is this?” Again, the exact words don’t matter so much. The point is to see existence as the total mystery it is. To find the mind that’s open, questioning, not-knowing, just reflecting each situation as it appears, like a mirror. When I notice that I’m holding some idea, I try to put it down, returning to Don’t Know and a clear perception of the moment.

That’s what I do in the midst of daily activity. I also do formal Zen practice, going to Empty Gate Zen Center 3 or 4 times a week for an hour or more of sitting, chanting, koan practice, bowing, and following various forms like wearing robes, lighting incense, and so on. In the Dharma room where we do formal practice, there are meticulous rules to follow. That means I don’t have to think about what to do; I just chant when it’s chanting time, sit when it’s sitting time, etc. This leaves me free to focus completely on how I keep my mind moment to moment. In addition to this regular practice, most months I’ll dedicate one or two days to a group sitting retreat.

Trying to keep clear mind during formal practice isn’t so different from making the same effort in ordinary life. Except for this: When I’m watching TV, for example, it’s easy to be attentive, since TV is interesting. When I’m riding my bike, I’m highly motivated to remain awake and aware, since otherwise I’ll get run over. But when I’m sitting Zen, being still and silent and looking at the floor, there’s nothing that’s helping me to remain present, to not get lost in memories or fantasies. It’s a worst case scenario, as simple and boring as it gets. Any moment that I can find clear mind while sitting Zen, it’s truly my own, since it doesn’t depend on the external situation. Since sitting depends on nothing outside, there’s the possibility that the clarity found while sitting can re-appear in any other life situation.

Sometimes evening practice at the Zen center feels like taking a mind shower. We take showers because ordinary activity makes the body dirty; practice is like cleaning the mind that’s dusty with the day’s thoughts. Sitting quietly, returning again and again to just-now mind, to the Don’t Know that reflects each moment… it’s like scrubbing the conceptual crumbs from the nooks and crannies of my brain.

I also work with koans (called “kong-ans” in Korean) with guiding teacher, Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes). (Jeff is starting his own blog on the newly revamped Empty Gate site; check it out.) I find koan teaching an extraordinary and elegant method for pointing to the pure and clear truth of this very moment.

A great thing about doing formal group practice is that everyone automatically helps each other persevere. One of my jobs at the center is to run practice on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after work. If I've got some desire or agitation at 7pm on those nights, it doesn’t matter; I have to let it go when it’s time for evening practice. The fact that I have no choice but to be there makes it much, much easier. I don’t have to struggle to find a motivation to practice; I can just do it for the sake of supporting the other people there. If I don’t want to practice, I get to put down that I want, and putting down I want is the best medicine for suffering.

I guess that’s enough talk for now about my practice, about connecting with that thing that’s before words, speech, and thinking.

(Originally posted at

sisi's picture

Great piece

Great piece!

The only thing I wonder is regrading effort which is a prime aspect of some of the techniques you mention. When effort is used improperly it may instigate more noise and conflict. Still, there are ways to apply effort wisely without these side effects when you get to know the mind's patterns of behavior and reaction thoroughly. This is the art. Therefore the conclusion that effort should not be applied is erroneous and I can say that my experience proves it.

sisi | Tue, 08/04/2009 - 00:27


accurate light is shed on practice .practice makes a man perfect.genuine and systematic practice is necessary for success in any field of achievement.

NIDHI PARKASH | Tue, 08/04/2009 - 03:30