The Serene Reflection Meditation (Soto Zen) tradition is the oldest tradition extant within Zen Buddhism. It was brought from China and introduced into Japan by Great Master Dogen in the 13th century. This teaching stresses the practice of meditation, the necessity of keeping the Buddhist Precepts, and the unity of training and enlightenment. Although the external form of Buddhist practice has changed and adapted to each particular culture as Buddhism moved from India, to China, to Japan and now to the West, the essence of the Buddha’s teaching remains unchanged. The Buddhist training in the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives continues as part of this unbroken religious tradition.
Meditation instruction with an orientation to the practice at the Priory is offered each Thursday at 6:45 PM. The instruction is followed by a 7:30-8:00 PM meditation period. We ask all people new to our practice to attend this instruction. The meditation instruction is free, as are all the activities at the Priory. If your schedule will not allow you to come on Thursday evening, you are welcome to call the Priory and try to arrange a different time for the instruction.
The purpose of Serene Reflection (Soto Zen) Meditation is to come to know and live from the Unborn, the Buddha Nature within ourselves and all things. All of us have an intuitive knowledge of the Buddha Nature, therefore meditation is not a means to an end but rather a harmonization of oneself with the source of compassion, love and wisdom.
Meditate in a quiet, well-ventilated room. The room should be neither too bright nor too dark. Wear clean clothing that does not restrict the waist or the legs. Find the most stable position for you, sitting on a chair or meditation bench. If you are extremely flexible you can use a meditation cushion, sitting in the cross-legged position either full or half lotus. Sit on the forward third of the cushion and with each meditation period alternate the leg you place on top. Do not persist in using a meditation cushion or sitting on the floor if you find the position painful.
To center yourself, sway the body gently from left to right and backwards and forwards. Allow the two natural curves of the spine to form at the neck and small of the back. The head should be held upright, its weight balanced on the shoulders and the chin slightly tucked in. The tongue is held lightly against the back of the top teeth with the lips and teeth closed. Breath normally. Rest the right hand in the lap with the left hand in the palm of the right hand (some left-handed people find it useful to do the reverse). The tips of the thumbs touch lightly and form an oval. Keep the eyes open and lowered, allowing the gaze to fall gently on the wall or floor in front of you. Keep the eyes in focus but do not stare. If you wear glasses, leave them on.
Slowly take two or three breaths through the nose, follow the breath up the back on inhalation and down the front of the body on exhalation, thus describing a circle. Then breathe normally for you. Sit steadily with an alert and bright mind, neither suppressing nor indulging thoughts that may arise. Allow thoughts and sensations to arise and pass naturally, but do not engage in deliberate thought. When the mind wanders, just notice and bring yourself back to being still and mindful. You can use the circular breathing pattern described to help you achieve this. Sitting still with no deliberate thought is the important aspect of Serene Reflection meditation.
Meditate regularly, every day if possible, if only for a few minutes. Mornings and evenings or a quiet time in your schedule are best. Do not meditate in the formal positions directly after meals, or when physically exhausted, or in extremes of temperature. It is good to meditate for a specific length of time and stick to it, be it five, ten, or thirty minutes. Do not exceed forty-five minutes at one sitting period without walking meditation or relaxing the body for a least ten minutes. Meditating with a group can be very helpful. (You are welcome to contact us to check details of your meditation, both formal meditation and the practice of meditation in daily life.)
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I know if I am doing it right?
A: You don’t. In fact, you can’t. That is because meditation is one with you, so there can be no separation of a “doer” and an “observer” who knows that it’s right. But you can know if you aren’t doing it, and that is all you need to know, because then you can bring yourself back to simply sitting.
Q: Nothing seems to be happening during meditation; what is wrong?
A: The problem is more likely to be with your expectations of what should “happen” than with the meditation. Meditation has profound effects over time, but the whole process is much larger than we can know and judge. Try letting go of the expectations and just sit. The same holds true if a lot is “happening”. It may help to remember that this is the practice of a lifetime: let it do its work.
Q: How can I stop from constantly wandering off?
A: Don’t try to stop yourself from wandering off, because then you will be trying to add something to pure meditation. But each time you are aware of having wandered off, do not waste time in coming back.
Q: I seem to “float” from one thought to another; I don’t often get caught by any one thought in particular, but I am sort of “elsewhere”, rarely being aware of actually sitting there.
A: This happens. Try putting a bit more energy or concentration into what you are doing: an alive, aware, gently focused mind is best. But don’t take this too far, or it becomes “trying” rather than meditating. See the next question.
Q: I find that if I concentrate hard on just being aware of sitting, if I sort of “bore in” to this, then I get caught a lot less often. Is this OK, or am I trying not to think?
A: Sometimes this seems good, as a response to the “floating” mentioned above, for instance. But don’t make a general practice of it, as this, too, is adding something to pure meditation. Trust that “just sitting” really is enough.
Q: How can I stop from falling asleep?
A: There can be many causes for this. Perhaps the posture is not quite right or the room is too warm; perhaps you are not putting enough energy into the sitting; maybe some part of you is fighting the meditation; or maybe you are simply too tired and need to go to bed!
(from booklet On the Eightfold Path)
by Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy
Meditation is the most profound and least understood aspect of the Eightfold Path. Exactly what meditation is, what it does, and how it does it, are not fully known. But there is no doubt that the practice of meditation is critical to living the life of Buddha. It can be likened to the “locomotive” that powers the “train” of Zen training. With it, all the rest goes forward; without it, nothing moves much, unless perhaps to roll down hill.
Different schools of Buddhism practice meditation of different types, but most of them have two aspects: concentration or one-pointedness of mind, and awareness or insight into things-as-they-are. The form of meditation practiced in our Order is that of the Soto Zen tradition. It is called “serene reflection meditation”, which is a translation of the Japanese terms “zazen” and “shikan-taza”. In this meditation, the concentration and insight elements are harmoniously balanced, resulting in one unified form of meditation which can be practiced throughout one’s life, by beginner and expert alike.
The Posture of Meditation
Some Zen lineages place great emphasis on a particular proper posture for meditation. Ours places more emphasis on the mind of meditation, leaving the physical aspects to be tailored to the body and constitution of each individual. This, of course, requires the instruction of an experienced meditation teacher, and you would be well advised to keep in consultation with a priest or lay minister of our Order if you choose to practice serene reflection meditation. They can help you find the best meditation postures for you, answer ongoing questions about both the physical and mental aspects of the practice, and refer you to a master when needed. Booklets devoted to our type of meditation are available at all meditation groups and temples, and books can be suggested.
The Mind of Meditation
The founder of our Order, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, who studied meditation under some of the greatest meditation masters of Japan, translated the classic Zen texts on the mind of meditation as saying that the critical element is, “Do not try to think, and do not try not to think”. She likened the mind of meditation to a person sitting under a bridge beneath a busy road. The “traffic” on the road is our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, emotions, etc. To try to mentally stop the traffic is to “try not to think”. The same is true of dulling the mind to the point where no traffic is noticed at all. These approaches would seriously unbalance the harmony of meditation: the first one by increasing concentration to the point of excluding awareness, the second by decreasing awareness to the point that only concentration is left. On the other hand, to leave one’s sitting place, get up and accept a ride in one of the cars is to “try to think”. One’s mind is literally “captured” and “carried away” by a particular thought or feeling, so that what was simply a passing thought turns into a ten minute chain of thinking. Here, the concentration has been insufficient, and awareness has lost touch entirely with the basic fact of things-as-they-are: the fact that we are just sitting there. Whenever we find that we are doing something other than just sit there, we gently bring our mind back. This is done over and over again, and is the work of meditation practice.
Another useful observation which Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett made about meditation was the distinction between natural and deliberate thought. Suppose, for instance, that a dog barks while we are meditating. We naturally hear the sound, and perhaps the thought occurs to us that a dog is barking. These are examples of natural thought; they are part of things-as-they-are, part of simple, aware sitting. This is meditation, and nothing needs to be done about it. But suppose that we continue the chain of thought: we next think that the barking disturbs our meditation, that our neighbor should control their dog better, that something really should be done about this lack of consideration·, and the next thing we are aware of is that we “wake up”, realizing that we have spent the last five minutes giving our neighbor a lecture. This is deliberate thought and is inconsistent with serene reflection meditation. We need to bring our mind back to the awareness of simply sitting there.
by Rev. Master Kinrei Bassis
Mindfulness is the heart of Buddhist training. When we are mindful, we are being still and aware of the present. This means not dwelling on our past or on our future, but bringing our attention to our present activity, whether that is driving, a conversation, cooking, working or watching TV. Most people drift through life, spending much of their time lost in a swirl of speculation and judgments about their past and their future. Then they wonder why their life often seems to lack meaning and strength, but they fail to see that the real, vital connection to our life is through being present and mindful of what we are experiencing right now. The ground of Buddhist spiritual training is the teaching that the heart of Buddha can be found in all activities, in all possible places, and at all times. Sometimes I find myself bored or uninterested in many of the mundane activities of my daily life. Yet when I am willing to let go of my expectations and judgments and be wholeheartedly present, my heart often opens to the deep inherent meaning of whatever I am doing, and gratitude and reverence arise quite naturally.
Mindfulness is more than just being aware of what we are doing; it is also an awareness of what we are thinking and feeling. Mindfulness allows me to be aware when my mind keeps turning down some well-worn karmic rut of worry or fear, inadequacy or pride. I can still spend untold hours, days, or even weeks criticizing myself or justifying myself, blaming myself or blaming others. Yet I never would think of making a conscious decision to spend all that time enveloped in self- criticism or blame. It seems like my thoughts and feelings are out of my control. Sometimes I notice that my whole day has an undercurrent of worry flowing through it. Worry may be telling me that some aspect of my life needs attention, yet the activity of spending the whole day endlessly replaying my fears is a useless waste of my energy and causes me considerable pain. Through the attention of being mindful, I can become aware of how much pain I am causing myself with my worrying. I then can also see that I have been choosing to worry and that I have a choice to let go of my worries and return my awareness to my present activity. Mindfulness allows me to see that I can choose to turn toward something positive like trust rather than worry, choose to forgive rather than blame, choose faith rather than doubt. If I feel despair, it is my choice if I allow myself to turn away from my faith and project a future without hope.
Mindfulness is not just being mindful of what we are doing, it is also being mindful of the Buddhist teachings. An example of this mindfulness is maintaining an awareness of the second of the Four Noble Truths, “The source of suffering is desire and attachment.” This helps by reminding me that the sources of my suffering are not the hard and difficult things happening to me; the true root of my suffering lies in what I am choosing to grasp. When I am making a choice, it is important that I keep an awareness of the Precepts so that I am trying to do what is good. At times, I have a problem with doubt, particularly with a doubt that I cannot really follow the Buddha’s teaching and successfully deal with my karma. Yet when I study the Dharma, I am aware that to doubt myself is really to doubt the Dharma. All beings, including me, are Buddhas. When I look at myself and let go of my self-centered harsh judgments, I can see that I am like everyone else. Buddhism is not for some special people; it provides the real cure for all suffering and is the way to find a peaceful and joyous heart. It helps me to recognize that it is my choice to cling to my doubts rather than let them go and trust the Buddhist teaching that eventually all resistance and obstacles in my heart will dissolve. Mindfulness has freed me to see that the seemingly great difficulties in my life arise from my own choices, and I have the freedom to let them go.
When I was a new to Buddhism, I used to think that I was being mindful in my work by working hard with concentrated mind, but often I was unknowingly creating waves of suffering for myself by forgetting to be mindful of the Dharma. For instance, I can remember working very hard for a week on a construction project and, due to someone else’s innocent mistake, all my work needed to be torn down and redone. Since I was unknowingly caught up in strong feelings of pride and accomplishment, I became angry, critical of others and depressed. One of the purposes of mindfulness is not to get caught up in our momentary goals and desires, but to keep our hearts and minds open to a much deeper perspective.
I find the devotional aspect of spiritual life to be a vital part of mindfulness. One reason I find it very difficult to be mindful is often I do not care about what I am doing. I am just trying to get through some activity so I can get to what I feel is the meaningful part of my life. When we view mindfulness as a mere technique, it is hard to be motivated to let go of our dreams and fears so we can simply be fully aware of our seemingly boring present. Yet when I cut my life in pieces and decide this piece is the one that counts and this piece does not matter, my whole life starts to lose its meaning. It is like people trying to get through their work week so they can live their real life on the weekend. Mindfulness generates profound meaning in our life when we act in faith that our whole life is the life of Buddha. Everything is part of the Buddha, and when we are willing to give our attention and respect to whatever we do, we open ourselves to experience the deep spiritual meaning of each of our actions. Being devotional in daily life means we try to treat each of our activities with reverence and gratitude. When we express reverence and gratitude for what we are being given, we are helping ourselves to awaken to the deeply spiritual significance of our seemingly ordinary lives. A key aspect of Buddhist training is that we need to turn our hearts toward the Buddha instead of allowing all our longing to be directed toward the ephemeral aspects of the world. Mindfulness allows us to see where we are directing our desires and longing, and when we use the awareness of our mindfulness to cultivate our devotion, this helps all our longing flow toward its rightful home.
Buddhism points us toward our most fundamental need and desire: to experience and live from the Heart of Buddha. When we orient our life toward that deep spiritual purpose, then we can gradually free ourselves from getting so emotionally caught up in the varied scenery of our lives. Mindfulness is pointing us toward trying to see everything in our lives as just passing through the mirror of our minds, and it is spiritually important to be willing to let everything go. When our hearts and minds move from this meditative place, then we get caught up in our endless series of goals and desires, fears and worries. The willingness to be mindful, to live from the still heart of meditation, allows all our scattered goals and desires to flow back into our deepest and most heartfelt desire: to awaken to the living heart of Buddha. Mindfulness allows us to see that we are always free to choose to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha.