First Steps in Practice at GPZC
Zen Practice can be divided into three basic areas or aims: Precepts (kai), Concentration (jo) and Wisdom (e). This is not a linear progression. Each of these three develop simultaneously and support each other. If we neglect one of these areas, our practice becomes unbalanced and lopsided, like a wobbly stool. One of the most important reasons to have a teacher and a practice community (Sangha) is to help us maintain focus on all of these and to let us know when we are becoming wobbly.
Our founding teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, strongly emphasized precepts, or how to conduct our daily lives in thoughts, words, and actions. The Buddha recognized that paying attention to how we are living is probably the most concrete and understandable of the three aims and also necessary for settling down so that we can enter into deep concentration and cultivate wisdom. At the same time, bringing our thoughts, words, and actions into alignment with our understanding is a difficult and lifelong practice. All Zen practitioners are encouraged to use the Buddhist precepts as guidelines for living their lives. When practitioners reach the point of wanting to become a Buddhist and commit to following the Buddha way, they take the precepts in a formal ceremony called jukai. Learn more about the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts and jukai.
The second aim, concentration, is a common translation of the Sanskrit term, samadhi. This is not concentrating on an object but is rather being in a state of one-pointedness. It is like a bucket of muddy water. When the bucket is perfectly still, over time, the mud settles at the bottom and the water is clear. This one-pointedness is a profound source of stability and evenness, allowing us to remain open to whatever happens, whatever feelings we have, without losing our groundedness. We may react swiftly, such as running out of a burning building, but we do not lose our sense of presence and grounded awareness. This helps us to see ourselves and others clearly without distortion. Zazen, or sitting meditation, is one of the best ways to develop concentration. In Zen practice, we are encouraged to apply this same one-pointed concentration in whatever we do. Many components of our silent retreats (sesshin) are good opportunities to practice being fully present and engaged in whatever we are doing: work practice, silent meals (oryoki) zendo procedures and chanting services.
The third aim of practice, wisdom, is perhaps the most difficult to understand. This is not book knowledge or information, but rather a direct experience of who we are and what our life is. Practicing the precepts and sitting in meditation cultivate the ground for the arising of wisdom. While awakening or the experiential aspect of wisdom cannot be directly caused, we can create conditions that allow it to arise. Study with a teacher is very important. While it is the student who awakens, the teacher can help guide the student away from the endless tendency toward conceptualizing, trying to understand intellectually, and getting continually sidetracked by ideas, preferences, and judgments. When we do wake up, we realize that in fact, we have never been apart from Buddha Nature itself. We simply could not see our nature clearly because of our self-centered viewpoint. Learn more about working with a teacher.
We recommend that those exploring or starting practice begin with an Introduction to Zen Practice Workshop. These are offered twice each month, once at Great Plains Zen Center at CCUU in Palatine, IL (a northwest suburb of Chicago) and once at Great Plains Zen Center, Monroe, WI. This workshop is based on the series of twelve lectures created by the renowned Zen Teacher Hakuun Yasutani Roshi to introduce Zen to Western students. The lectures can be found in their entirety in the Editor’s Introduction at the beginning of Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau. Read more about and register for one of the Introductory Workshops listed on our Events Calendar page.
Following the Introductory Workshop is a series of four Aspects of Zen Practice classes, designed to give the beginning student further instruction in the basic elements of Zen practice. The four classes of the series are offered monthly and can be taken in any order. Our Aspects of Zen Practice classes can be found on our Events Calendar.
If you arrive at one of our regular evenings of zazen (Zen meditation) at any of our locations, a senior student will give you a brief introduction so that you will know how to participate. It is then recommended that you follow up with the full Introductory Workshop mentioned above. For those who are unable to attend an Introductory Workshop in person, online participation is available.