What is Zen? FAQs

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What is Zen?

Zen is a school of Buddhism. The heart of Zen Buddhism is zazen (sitting meditation), the most direct way to see into the mind. When done wholeheartedly zazen can open us to our True Nature. Zen does not rely on a particular Sutra or doctrine, but rather places emphasis on experiencing for oneself the source of the Buddha’s teachings – Awakening.

Where does Zen come from?

Zen, or Chan in Chinese and Dhyana in Sanskrit, means absorption or concentration, and is closely related to samadhi, the eighth aspect of the Eight-Fold Noble Path. Zen or Chan is the name given to the branch of Mahayana Buddhism that places an emphasis on seated and moving meditation. Founded in China in the Fifth Century C.E. (Liang Dynasty) by the South Indian monk, Bodhidharma, it reached Japan in the Thirteenth Century, and by the mid-Twentieth Century it had spread to the West. Zen reached the shores of New Zealand in the 1970s.

What is zazen?

Zazen is at once a method employed to realize our True Self, and at every moment the natural unfolding of this True Self. Zazen is both something one “does” and something one “is.” Zazen literally means “sitting meditation” in Japanese, and this is the core of Zen practice, but it is essential that the one-pointed stabilized mind of awareness that one develops in zazen is extended into all one’s daily activities. The student begins by learning to sit still in a stable and comfortable upright posture, preferably on cushions on the floor, but in a chair if necessary. The initial practices involve awareness of breathing, a practice common to many schools of Buddhism.

Getting started in practice: How do I begin?

For newcomers to Zen, a pair of Introductory Workshops is held in Auckland every other month when Sensei is in New Zealand. Completion of the two workshops is a prerequisite for attending formal sittings at the AZC unless you have already received instruction in Zen meditation and ritual elsewhere. Even if you have practiced elsewhere, the workshops are recommended, as a way of getting a solid introduction to the style of Zen practiced at the AZC.

If you can’t come to the introductory workshops for some reason, there are detailed instructions on how to do zazen in The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau.

What happens after the workshops?

After completing the two Saturday workshops, you are welcome to attend any scheduled activity. The Sunday sitting includes zazen, chanting and a Dharma talk or teisho, followed by tea. Dokusan is offered Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings. Tuesday night is recommended for beginners; sittings are shorter and group instruction (tailored to beginners) is offered in the middle round. Sesshin are held regularly, and all major Zen Buddhist holidays are observed, including Vesak (Buddha’s birthday), Kannon Day, Bodhidharma Day, Buddha’s Enlightenment, and others. The rest is up to you – the key is daily zazen practiced with energy, dedication and patience, combined with daily responsiveness.

I am a Christian. Do I have to give up my faith to practice Zen?

No you don't. Zen meditation should help you to pray and worship more effectively. In Europe many Christian monks and nuns practice, and even teach, zazen. Since zazen allows us to directly experience the Reality that underlies all genuine religion, it is not in conflict with other religious faiths.

Is Zen a religion?

Yes and no. It is in the sense that faith is needed - faith in our innate wisdom and compassion. It isn't in that it does not require that we follow a particular belief system. Rather, Zen shows a path that can take us beyond fixed concepts.

Do you have to be vegetarian to practice Zen?

No. In order to uphold the precept of not killing, traditionally no flesh foods are served at Zen temples, and no meat, fish or dairy products are served at the AZC, but it is not necessary to give up meat, fish or dairy products to take up Zen practice.

If there is no god concept in Buddhism, why are there figures and altars at the Centre?

Buddha and Bodhisattva figures vividly and concretely embody aspects of the enlightened mind. When we bow before a figure it is not a form of worship but rather an affirmation of our own essential nature. By lowering the body, which we habitually identify with, we acknowledge a reality greater than our small self and remind ourselves of the purpose and meaning of Zen practice.

What is a formal student?

Becoming a student marks a deepening of one’s connection to the teacher and the particular lineage of which the Centre is a part. Once you have been a member for a year you may ask Sensei to become her student. Usually this is done in dokusan. There is a simple private ceremony in which new students are accepted by the teacher, marking the commitment (on both sides) that the formal student-teacher relationship implies. There’s no pressure to become a student, and non-students have the same access to the teaching. 

Why does Manjusri have a sword?

The figure on the AZC altar during sesshins is Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who is traditionally depicted seated on a lion, carrying a sutra book in one hand and a sword in the other. The sutra stands for prajña (transcendental wisdom), the sword for the delusion-cutting power of zazen. Although one certainly finds deep peace through Zen practice, it would be misleading to describe it as just quiescent. Although tranquility is essential, active, dynamic vigilance, akin to that of an expert swordsman, is also required.

Are koans used at the Auckland Zen Centre?

Koans are used by some students at the Centre, and are one of several methods taught. Koans are stories expressing fundamental spiritual questions in a succinct form that can be taken up as subjects of meditation. Because they cannot be solved by the discursive intellect, they force the student to leap beyond it, opening him or her to deeper awareness. Koans are powerful, and require the guidance of a qualified teacher, who can advise and test the student along the way. Koans are assigned to students who have an affinity for them. Shikantaza or "just sitting" is also practiced at the Centre, but is generally reserved for seasoned students. Some students with strong faith take up shikantaza rather than koan work. Shikantaza is, in a sense, not a practice as such, but the fruit of practice.

What does Zen Buddhism say about same sex marriage?

It is impossible to speak for the whole of Zen Buddhism, but Sensei Wrightson supports and encourages same sex people to express their commitment to and love for each other through marriage, should they wish to do so. One of the 16 Buddhist precepts speaks of not engaging in harmful sexual relations, but on being caring and responsible in expressing one's sexuality. This applies to all adults equally, regardless of their sexual orientation

What is sesshin?

Sesshin is an intensive meditation retreat, lasting from two to seven days, where participants follow a disciplined programme of sitting, chanting, work, talks by the teacher, dokusan (private interview) and formal meals. Sesshins are conducted in seclusion and silence, and are a powerful way to deepen one’s practice. Sesshins led by Sensei are held regularly in Auckland and the USA. Check the website for dates.

What is the Rochester Zen Center? How is the AZC related to the RZC?

The Rochester Zen Center was founded in 1966 by the late Roshi Philip Kapleau, and is one of the oldest and most respected Zen training temples in the United States. See www.rzc.org for more on the Rochester Zen Center and its programmes. The Auckland Zen Centre is an independent sister centre of the Rochester Zen Center, within the Cloud-Water Sangha.

How old is the Auckland Zen Centre?

The AZC officially opened its doors in January 2004, and became a charitable trust in 2006. However, its founders Sensei Amala Wrightson and Richard von Sturmer are not new to Zen in this country. They had a 24-year association with the Zen Society of New Zealand, serving on its executive committee for a time before moving to the United States. The formation of the Auckland Zen Centre marks the establishment of an independent Zen temple with its own full-time priest and sanctioned teacher, the only such organization in Auckland.

How does the Auckland Zen Centre support itself?

The AZC relies almost completely on donations to cover its expenses. If you plan to be a regular participant and/or want to give ongoing support, you are encouraged to become a Member (see below); otherwise a small donation is requested whenever you attend Centre activities. The principle of dana, or giving, is central to Buddhism and to practice at the Auckland Zen Centre. Anyone seeking the Dharma will be welcomed, and all donations large or small will be gratefully received. The Centre relies on donations and volunteer hours to pay our rent, furnish our zendo, run our office, cover two priests stipends, and offer workshops, sittings and other programs.

The Auckland Zen Centre is a registered charitable entity (CC20537) in terms of the Charities Act 2005. Donations are tax-deductible for New Zealand residents (IRD #94-887-291). For more information, visit the Charities Register at www.charities.govt.nz.