I started practicing Zen Buddhism around 2005 or 2006, after a crisis of faith in my Quaker practice. The initial source of my Zen studies was the book Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner. He is a Zen master in the Soto tradition of Japanese Zen. I also sat with Rosemary Dougherty for a time in Silver Spring, MD, and I've sat on and off with the Dharma Punx group in DC. I try to have a daily sitting meditation practice, with an equal time of off-cushion practice, and I occasionally read a Zen book or two. I've had three experiences I would call kensho. I can also be cranky about translations, and I have written my own understanding of the Eightfold Path.
Starting to practice Zen is one of what I call The Big Three: the three major events that shaped my life.
Over the years I've done a lot of meditation, and I've done it a lot of different ways. When I started it was a lot of breathing meditation, mainly as a gateway to concentrating very intently on the present moment. This transitioned into a form of shikantaza where I concentrated very intently on sitting. I have done lots of other types of meditation, including thinking not thinking, loving kindness meditation, death meditation, just letting the mind do whatever it wants, and a rotation of four different types of meditation based on the four aspects of Pure Concentration.
My current meditative practice involves thinking not-thinking using the four aspects of Pure Concentration: detachment, tranquillity, equanimity, and awareness. I try to be aware, so I can be aware of the thoughts I perceive. I try to accept the thoughts I perceive with equanimity (they are the same as any other thoughts), detachment (they are not me), and tranquillity (do not create emotion by feeding them with other thoughts. And I try to do this all as one practice, rather than multiple practices.
When thinking not thinking I often have thoughts that I wouldn't have while thinking. I think of these thoughts as mediation thoughts.
I used to sit in the half-lotus posture. I decided to work hard at sitting in the full lotus posture. I was being very careful, stretching a lot, taking it one step at a time. Then I woke up one night with a blinding pain in my knee. These days I sit in the seiza position using a folding meditation bench.
For more information on my meditation practice, see Meditation Analysis 2017.
I consider off-cushion meditation very important. (Seated meditation usually takes place on a pair of cushions called a zabuton and zafu.) In fact, it bothers me that most Zen masters say that once you have a regular seated practice, the next step should be to go on retreats. I don't want to say that retreats are bad. They're good, and they have their place. But I think it is much more important to take our practice off the cushion and into our daily lives. Retreats, while they provide a chance for deeper meditation, are by definition away from our daily lives.
I do off cushion practice all over the place, just trying to have a meditative mindset (typically the awareness meditation) while doing daily tasks. I did a lot of driving meditation, where I discovered that my road rage is fuelled by my fear of people hitting my car. I did a lot of walking meditation, which is commonly used as a break between stretches of seated meditation. That evolved into commuter meditation: walking meditation to the bus, standing meditation waiting for the bus, chair meditation on the bus and the subway, and walking meditation to the office. I call it chair meditation to distinguish it from seated meditation, because I don't think chairs provide the support necessary for the natural spinal curve that facilitates seated meditation. When I'm stuck in lines, I do waiting meditation, a combination of standing and walking meditation. I've meditated just about everything in my life, because for a while I would pick a different 15 minutes every day, and try to do that 15 minutes as meditation no matter what else my life had me doing.
The one thing I have a real problem with is meditating with language: reading, writing, or talking. Meditation is very much about experience, but language seems to necessarily be an abstraction from experience. I think maybe this is because I'm trying to do something like awareness meditation when talking. Perhaps detachment or tranquillity meditation would work better.
I try to say a meal gatha before every meal. I'm not very good at this. I used to be better, but these days I find myself mostly doing it when I am eating dinner or eating out. The second part is interesting, because when I am eating others I try to give thanks quickly and unobtrusively. I don't want the meal gatha to make people uncomfortable.
I have been trying to cut down on my cursing as a part of Pure Speech.
Kensho is generally translated as "enlightenment experience." It is a moment of deep insight into the nature of reality. Some people see this as the be all end all of Zen. Once you have kensho, you are enlightened. I disagree, and my disagreement has much to do with the fact that drugs are not Zen. But while I don't believe kensho is enlightenment, it does provide insight into the nature of reality and mind that is useful to long term Zen practice.
There is the idea in Zen and Buddhism of non-self, that the self does not really exist, and the self that does exist is not really you. One night when I went to Dupont Circle to sit with the Dharam Punx, I was feeling very depressed. When I got to the church where we met and started to help setting up the room for meditation, I felt really good. When I realized the sudden shift, and realized I had no idea why the shift had happened, I became very confused. Who was I? Was I the happy guy, or the sad guy?
I decided I must be the intersection of the happy guy and the sad guy, that part that they shared in common. So I meditated on that, trying to find the intersection. I realized the talked differently, with different sentence structures and word choices. I realized they walked differently, with different postures and speeds. The postures differed so much that they were different to how the small muscles in the hand shaped how the hand was held. They had different memories: if you said the same thing to the happy guy and the sad guy, they would remember different things based off what you said. It was like they had different pasts. Would that mean they had different karma?
Eventually I realized that the intersection of the sad guy and the happy guy was the empty set. It felt like my mind unzipped, and "I" sat there, blank and open, for the rest of the night.
One of the classic Zen books in English is Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. One day when I left work, and started doing my commuter meditation, everything was amazing. I mean every single thing I saw was just totally and utterly mind-blowing amazing. Imaging a blind man who gained sight and saw a flower for the first time in his whole life, and how much he would be amazed by it. Hell, imagine him seeing the side walk for the first time. Imagine a deaf man hearing people talking and cars driving by for the first time. I was so entranced by the chrome pole on the subway, that I think the guy next to me must have thought I was on drugs. Everything was new, like I'd never seen it before, and it was all amazing.
I think that's what Suzuki was trying to describe when he talked about Beginner's Mind. And I think that's what Warner meant when he said that what you get out of Zen is "exactly what you had before, and it is more incredible than you could possibly imagine."
This is a Buddhist concept that, much like kensho, I have heard the understanding of described as enlightenment. The idea is that the existence of everything depends on the existence of everything else, and that the existence of anything is caused by and causes the existence of everything else.
I'd been thinking about this concept for a long time, and I was trying to wrap my head around it. One day while I was doing an all day off the cushion meditation, I tried to see the interdependencies between all things. I was imagining it as all these lines, connecting everything together in a vast web. But then I realized that these lines I was imagining were just a delusion, layered on top of what Buddhist philosophy says is already a delusional view of reality.
I gave up on the lines, and decide that if it was all a delusion, I should treat it like sonar. A submarine captain in the depths of the ocean hears the sonar ping back, but he has no idea what caused that ping. I decided to treat all the sights and sounds and sensations of the day as signals coming to me from something I couldn't perceive.
Later that day I was taking this perspective at the bus stop outside the Shady Grove Metro station. Between one moment and the next, like a fade in a movie, everything disappeared, and I was one with everything. I was one with the homeless guy rooting through the garbage. I was one with the bus driving by, trailing noxious gasses. I was one with the pretty girl in the tight pants, lifting her suitcase (that I was one with) into the trunk of a car (that I was one with).
That's when I thought "Oooh, I'm one with the pretty girl in the tight pants!" As soon as I fixated on her (and her butt), everything came back. It was like a wave of existence spreading out from her. Then I let go of her, and everything dropped away again, like rain seeping into the ground.
I was like that all afternoon and into the night. Driving back from the zendo that night I remember thinking, "I'm one with road way. I'm one with the on ramp. I'm one with the eighteen wheeler. NO! I AM NOT ONE WITH THE EIGHTEEN WHEELER!!!" Being one with everything is an enticing perspective, but it's not the only perspective, and it's not only the right perspective.