Developing a Practice

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Practicing with others

The Buddha is the one who realizes. The Dharma is what is realized. And the Sangha is the harmony of practice, both communal and individual, in accord with the Buddha-way. In this way, all relationships teach us, even as we appreciate and polish each other, endlessly.  Taizan Maezumi Roshi

Ultimately, sangha points to the very fact of interrelatedness, of interdependence — that everything functions together. That’s the sangha principal.

I can not emphasize enough the importance of sitting with others — as well as on one’s own — and practicing together with a qualified teacher and a community group of practitioners. It’s really a shame that many people who are interested in practicing meditation have little sense of the importance of working or sitting or communing with a group of like-minded others.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice if you live far from a Zen community. But at some point it becomes really really worthwhile to say “OK, I’ve gotten to where I’ve gotten with my solitary practice and now it’s time for me to find a teacher, to find a group, a sangha with whom I can relate, so that aspect of my practice can develop."

In the old days you’d have to travel abroad or travel long distances by foot. Dogen traveled to China ("to dusty lands”). Ultimately it becomes important to spend at least some time practicing as part of a Zen community. Even one sesshin a year can be a source of inspiration, encouragement and guidance.

Intensive training

Group practice in a Zen community usually includes daily practice, intensive training periods, and the special meditation retreat called sesshin.

Most centers also schedule intensive training periods which include a strong emphasis on sitting as well talks by a teacher, individual study and contact with a teacher. You may find that in temporarily setting aside the usual routines of your life and engaging in such practice, you gain new awareness of your strength and flexibility (or lack thereof), and the perspective that emerges through training can help you to deal more creatively with relationships.

Periodically Zen communities hold intensive sitting retreats (sesshin). The word “sesshin” comes from two Japanese words: setsu — " to unify” and shin —“heart” or “mind”. So a sesshin is a special time devoted to unifying the heart/mind, not only with oneself but with others.

Three to seven day sesshins provides an opportunity to live, eat, sit, work, and sleep inside the monastery or Zen center. While the emphasis is on sitting, there is also work-practice, liturgy, talks by the teacher, and daily personal encounters between teacher and student.

Such immersion offers an important change of pace and focus from everyday life that can have cumulative and far-reaching impact. You build strength and confidence, awaken you to the preciousness of time, and experience the support of intensive group practice.

Sesshin leads you through confusion and scattered energies, past self-centered thinking. can be a rugged and sobering trek, with deep valleys and high peaks. But it is in the making of the journey that the individual and the community discover and create themselves from moment to moment, . In a way you may have never experienced, sesshin relieves you of the need to break concentration even briefly. Every moment, every action can be experienced as arising from the moments and actions preceding it. In sesshin you can explore what it really means to pay attention, moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day. And as your awareness deepens, you may well begin to wonder how much of your so-called “everyday” life passes unnoted, unappreciated, unused.

Sesshin is an opportunity to rediscover life.

It is common to see the individual and the group activities as polar opposites. But in sesshin, it becomes clear that, far from being opposites, the individual and the group create each other.

[To learn more about sitting in sesshin, see Zen Meditation in Plain English.]