Many of you, coming to this page, know something about what it means to practice and study Zen. We get our information from various sources. For the most part we get our information from books. Also, there are a growing number of Zen Centers in the western world today. There are not many eastern style Zen Monasteries and Temples in the west, but there are a few. The practice of Zen in the west is largely non-monastic. Methods of practice have been adapted to the western lifestyle and culture mostly from Japan, as well as Korea, and Vietnam, not to mention China. So when we, here, think of Zen we think "Japanese", and we get an image of a western style Zendo of sorts, of Soto Zen, in particular, of gathering regularly to sit in meditation for hours at a time while being whacked occasionally with a kyosaku preceded by chanting in Japanese. Yet, Zen practice in the west is being defined as I write, adapted from these various roots. We must not cling to any set image of what to expect. Such will just set us back into some imaginary world in which our expectations can not be met.
Given this backdrop it is useful to explain the Zen that you find here. First, the Zen presented here is of Chinese Origin. Really, it is "Ch'an", but that being harder to pronounce, and American Zen being now quite grown, we just call it Zen. Zen came into existence in China. It was brought by Bodhidharma from India. He claimed to teach the Buddhism that the Buddha originally taught, emphasizing the mind to mind transmission, as Buddha passed it on to Kashyapa when he held up a flower. Bodhidharma's Buddhism, naturally fused with the indiginous mysticism of China, Taoism, became known as Ch'an. From here it traveled to Japan, and other oriental lands, in each place, once again transforming according to local culture. This transformation is still taking place in the west. ZBOHY and I are part of that transformation. We bring Ch'an directly from China, fused with the western spirit, and our modern internet age.
First it's important to note that the practice of Zen, and coming to true understanding, entails Zen practice, and not merely the reading and philosophising of idea in Zen books. One can only know Zen through experience, which cannot be gotten by intellectualizing over it. The intellect cannot know Zen.
In Ch'an, our primary (only) concern is to guide people to spontaneous instant enlightenment. We do not emphasize rituals or social gatherings. Rather, we focus only on the individual and looking deeply. Rather than living a sheltered life apart from this Samsaric world, we endeavor to reach enlightenment while living fully in this world. Accordingly, we emphasize an individual practice, in which the students are always encouraged to examine fully their entire lives. In this way, the practice of Ch'an is a very private and solitary practice. Likewise, the primary function of the priest is to help set up, oversee, and guide students in their private practices. We emphasize taking refuge within oneself, rather than refuge in any external source.
Taking refuge within oneself is a manifestation of taking refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. We are all Buddhas, but we have not yet realized this. This realization is the goal of our practice. A first step is to realize that we all have a Buddha nature. This is the Buddha within us, our true identity, our Self. Thus, to take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in our Selves. This we learn from the practice of Ch'an. Our primary means of attaining this goal is our Ch'an meditation. This is our first lesson, of first and foremost importance.Thus the Ch'an student is taught and encouraged to set up a regular practice within his/her own home, one that fits into his/her daily life. He is encouraged to set up a sacred space within his home, where he is to practice daily. Meditation is a sort of home base or launching pad for deep-looking. Without regular meditation we cannot look deeply or see clearly into the nature of existence. The clarity and peace obtained in meditation follow us through the rest of our lives, forming the foundation for deep looking, transforming our very being.
The relationship between the priest and the student is very important to this method of practice. This relationship must be strong with complete trust. It is the priest's role to guide the student through all phases of practice. The practice may get very intense, to put it mildly, thus the importance of an experienced guide. This is the nature of Zen.