The Structure of Zen: Why it is Necessary
Now that you have had the experience of Zen meditation with a sangha, in a zendo, you will surely be aware that Zen is a rather disciplined practice. There is a certain way to sit, a certain way to hold your hands, a certain way to walk and so forth. Why is this so?
Zen is about seeing into the true nature of reality. It is about realizing ‘who I really am’, not ‘who I think I am. But in order to do this, one must first be in the present moment – with the ‘just this’ and the ‘just now’ of the present moment. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. The reason is that our mind keeps taking us out of the present moment into either the past or the future; we so rarely seem to be in the present. Either we’re re-writing the past, what it could have been and so forth, or we’re worrying about or planning or imagining the future And, if we are in the present moment, most of the time our mind views the ‘just this’ and the ‘just now’ of that moment as unacceptable, criticizing and judging it, wanting it to be something else or wishing that it not change.
Zen trains us to remain in the present moment, to accept present reality just as it is, thus giving us a chance to see through the trappings of that moment into what it really is.
However, remaining in the present moment requires discipline and structure. And that is why, in the zendo, we begin with the disciplines of the body, hands, walk and so forth. Only when the body is relatively still, only when the prescribed structures are accepted and mindfully carried out, can the mind begin to move towards stillness.
Learning to accept reality as it is, is the very core of Zen practice. In its foundational stage, this is all that we are meant to do in our practice. And, in zazen, this simply means coming back, over and over and over, to the reality that is the belly breathing a breath. Anything else is too much.
Zen is not a feeling, it is not an idea, it is not some goal to be reached, it is not bliss being realized. It is about practicing coming back over and over and over to the ‘just this’ and the ‘just now’, and not following the illusions and the seductions of the mind. It is about developing ‘our muscle’ of awareness and attention which, with practice, will eventually hold us in the ‘just this’ naturally and effortlessly.
However, as with anything else, in order to do it we have to – do it. There are no short cuts in Zen . As an ancient Zen master said: “If you practice Zen, you must actually practice it”. And the structure and discipline of Zen is the tool which helps us do it; to stay the course, in order that we can wake up to who we really are and so live free and generous lives. For once we can develop the ability to remain with the ‘just this’ in zazen, we will discover that we can remain with whatever happens in our lives – no matter what it is – and find that it is always – all right.