Posts Tagged ‘Roshi Joan Halifax’

Roshi Joan Halifax

Zen is not a methodical practice. Its character is more holistic than linear. Insofar as method connotes an immediate goal or predictable outcome, the word and the outlook it represents run counter to Zen teachings. “There is nothing to be attained,” the Heart Sutra sternly reminds us. The byword of practice is not attain but continue.

All that said, methods can be useful, especially for newcomers and those whose practice is in need of renewal. Of the methods available, one of the most helpful is a six-step set of instructions formulated by Roshi Joan Halifax, Founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Upaya is a Sanskrit term meaning “skillful means,” and the Upaya instructions are at once skillful and comprehensive, both as a structure for meditation and as a means toward meditative insight. What follows is a summary of those instructions, interpreted in accordance with my own experience.

  1. Settle the posture

A stable posture is essential for Zen meditation. In its absence, the body slumps and fidgets; the mind tends to wander. Conventional instructions range from vague injunctions to sit upright to detailed checklists, specifying the correct position of legs, hands, and so on. Occupying a middle ground, Upaya instructs us to “gather [our] attention” and “settle into a posture that supports [our] practice.” Toward that end, practical options include the traditional cross-legged postures (full lotus, half-lotus, etc.), a kneeling bench, or a chair. What is most important is that the chosen posture provide a secure foundation for physical stillness and alert, relaxed attention.

  1. Recall your intention

An intention is not a goal. Rather, it is an aspiration, a guiding star. For example, we might aspire to embody clarity of mind or compassionate wisdom. Upaya’s instructions advise us to cultivate an “unselfish motivation,” an “intention to awaken in order to serve others.” By recalling this intention, we align our present endeavor with our abiding values, including and especially service to others. We may also recall the general themes of Zen practice: to awaken; to relieve suffering; to extinguish delusion.

  1. Place your attention on your breath

Classical instructions for Buddhist meditation, as set forth in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, enjoin the practitioner to focus on both the in-breath and out-breath. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. / Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” By contrast, Zen teachers instruct students to count their exhalations from one to ten. Whichever technique we might choose, the primary purpose, as stated by Upaya, is to “cultivate attentional balance and concentration.” This prepares us for the next stage of practice.

  1. Notice the arising and passing of phenomena

Once the mind/body has been stabilized, it becomes possible to observe sensations, thoughts, and other mental phenomena as they arise and pass away. By so doing, we become aware of fixed ideas and recurrent patterns of feeling that might otherwise govern our lives. No less important, we experience, in granular detail, the reality of moment-by-moment change. By taking the “backward step,” as Eihei Dogen called it, we gain insight into the impermanent, interdependent, and selfless nature of all conditioned things.

  1. Open the attentional field to choiceless awareness; practice shikantaza.

The term “choiceless awareness” was coined by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). It refers to a panoramic state of mind in which everything in the present is included in one’s awareness, and nothing is consciously excluded. Zen practitioners cultivate a state of choiceless awareness by practicing shikantaza (“just sitting”). Because the natural tendency of the untrained mind is to want to be elsewhere and things to be otherwise, this practice requires wholehearted effort. It runs against the grain. But, paradoxically, the long-term objective is a mental state in which even the most unwelcome thoughts, feelings, and physical conditions are accepted, just as they are, and the mind rests in open awareness.

  1. Dedicate merit to others

Like the recollection of intention, this element of formal Zen practice is often neglected in informal settings. Too often we practice mainly for ourselves. In keeping with a commitment to service, silent or spoken dedications transfer to others whatever good may have arisen. Whether those others be specific persons or “all sentient beings,” this ritual gesture reminds us of the true nature of Zen practice. However self-directed it may sometimes seem, it is ultimately not about ourselves.



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