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what gets in the way?

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Something’s been troubling me about this thing called practice. When I first came to Zen, my personal likes and dislikes got in the way. I didn’t like chanting lines in Japanese and Sanskrit, thought there was too much bowing, too many robes, too much mumbo-jumbo. Over time that very practice has helped me to see such “obstacles” for what they are, namely ego-based impediments that have little or nothing to do with living a good life. I’m now grateful for the ethical framework that Buddhism provides. It guides me through the chaos of everyday existence and people tell me that I’ve become more gentle and less judgemental. So far so good.

Recent conversations with friends about someone they believe would “really benefit” from meditating but “won’t come for x-number of reasons” cause me look a little closer at what I take for granted. If it’s such a good thing, this practice, why aren’t more people coming to it? What gets in the way? What turns people away from trying and what, should they give it a try, prevents them from returning? What barriers might we remove to provide freer access?

In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive. In our city (which is anything but a hotbed of Buddhist activities) meditation opportunities are offered in several flavours, including Tibetan, Shambhala, Vipassana, as well as Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Soto, and Rinzai Zen. Teachers sport such arcane titles as Reverend Master, osho, sensei, rinpoche, venerable, lama, priest, and roshi; others are called elders, monks, shusso, benji, doan, ino, or by given names in Asian languages. Websites refer to proper etiquette (such as when and how to bow, and which foot to put first when entering, how to hold your hands while walking, and so on). Pictures show people wearing special outfits (some crown-like hats), burning incense, bowing to statues, sitting on round cushions while facing blank walls, walking lock-step in close formation, ringing bells, hitting wooden boards, and holding their hands in what may well be prayer. Hello !!

All that so people can sit still and pay attention to their breath?

I know of formally trained teachers who have taken off their robes and offer meditation with little jargon, titles, and ritual. In some traditions, Vipassana (as taught by SN Goenka) for instance, the emphasis is on silent sitting and focusing on the breath: no Buddha images in sight. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), widely used in American hospitals, teaches patients meditation techniques to help lower blood pressure and improve immune systems. Abundant research attests to MBSR’s benefits, its Buddhist roots are rarely mentioned.

ps: This topic has resulted in a string of thoughtful comments over at Nathan’s blog.



13 responses »

  1. It’s interesting. The first thing that comes to mind is how similarly strange entering a Catholic church would feel to those of us who have never done so. All the ritual and religious clothing and titles can, and do, keep many away. The same can be said for entering a mosque or synagogue. It’s foreign to those who don’t know it. And think of all the different Protestant namings – I still can’t quite figure out what’s different between a Methodist and a Presbyterian in today’s manifestations of the two.

    I support some secular programming around meditation because it benefits people. MSBR is beneficial work, for example. And I’m not overly concerned with keeping every last ritualistic detail in place when it comes to Buddhist practices. However, at some point, if it all becomes simply about people sitting still and watching their breath, the power of the ethical teachings, and even of the rituals, disappears.

    • You put the finger on a crucial point of balance, nathan. as a fledgling meditation teacher i’m looking for the right blend of “just sitting” and “Buddhist teachings.”

      In today’s post I grappled with that difficult task. I enjoy the formalities of Zen as practiced at my monastery (or other practice centre), but most people don’t have access to such a place, nor would they feel comfortable to go there. My intention, my fervent wish, is to bring the mountain to the market place; to make teachings and practices accessible without diluting them.

  2. I think you have brought up some very valid points. It is known in certain circles that meditation practice is beneficial in decreasing stress and blood pressure.

    However, in western society Buddhism and meditation are not common practice to the general public and therefore unfamiliar ground on which to set foot.

    One has only to look at the changes in social technology over the past decades to realize what is new and unfamiliar here and now, may not be viewed with such unease in the near future.

  3. i think we come to something new when we are ready…i know that exercise and watching my diet are good for me, but i don’t always do that unless i am ready for it…the same i believe with meditation…

    • once experienced as you have it, the benefis of meditation are more easily discerned.

      my concern is that the “packaging” gets in the way of the “gift” itself.

  4. Bravo!

  5. This is an interesting can of worms that Peter has opened.

    We could as easily substitute Yoga for Buddhism and have a similar discussion.
    By accepting that yoga is regarded as the exercise/ keep fit flavor of the times, supplanting the earlier Pilates or whatever, are we opening the doors to people who would otherwise never hear about the other 40+ threads of yoga let alone be introduced to the social concepts of Patanjali’s yoga sutras/concepts?
    Or are we making a quick fashionable buck?
    Yoga has its own highly paid Pop Stars.
    And Buddhism?

    And perhaps it is useful to allow the practice of mindfulness training through meditation to work it’s own magic on us. And others. To accept that maybe in and of itself it is more than just sitting and watching the breath?

    So, I’d better come clean here.
    I resist any implication of the Buddha’s teachings as being religious. With the intent not to judge those who do choose it as a religion.
    To me it is a social code – a way of living: the cessation of suffering.
    And the hope that maybe, when my suffering is what?
    At an end? Understood? Mastered? Has ceased?
    I’ll be a better person, ‘enlightened’? Whatever that may be?
    So I resist the rituals and fancy dress and ‘secret handshakes’ even as I bow to the wall and my cushion before sitting each morning.
    How weird is that – bowing to a wall!
    Yet I do.
    And still I don’t see that as religion.
    (Reminds me of Shakespeare’s parody: ” … Oh Wall, Oh sweet, Oh lovely Wall, … Full often hast thou heard my moans … ” etc.)

  6. Daishin,
    what an impassioned blog. a sudden shift to questioning? but is that not what Buddhism is (somewhat about) the first of the eightfold path, right view? knowing what is can also be read as knowing why we do something. I’ll probably be writing something soon on my own blog about this topic.

  7. Part of the concern I have is that Buddhism isn’t just meditation. In fact, sitting meditation, or zazen, is not a regular part of the lives of many Buddhists in the world today. Like the emphasis placed on asanas in Yoga practice by “westerners,” so to there has been a similar emphasis on meditation, and an underlying assumption that this is “the core” of practice.

    The thing is, nearly every major spiritual tradition includes meditation in some form or another, so if you strip everything else away, what’s unique?

    I actually have a similar desire to approach Zen practice differently than the primarily monastic one we’ve been handed. The world needs more dedicated lay practitioners who are engaged in their communities, and in the world in ways different from that of monks and nuns (we need both). But if there is mostly a focus on just sitting, shikantaza, then you might have people who are less frustrated and more self-aware, but will these same people strive to be bodhisattvas? Will they see the world in a radically different way, and act accordingly?

  8. Can of worms or great question, I’m not sure which!
    I think Nathan raised a good point with his comparison of the Catholic Church, that in an Asian context a lot of the ritual is, in a sense, taken for granted. It’s just the way things are done. First you do this, then you do that. Just the way things are. There may also be a lot of that culture’s ettiquete folded into the mix, which would be one more thing that native practitioners would take as natural.
    I think the best teachers also sense this and so don’t insist on much of it with students from different cultures. Whereas I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with a teacher who continuously insisted that I manage to keep up with all those forms. I’ve seen numerous times where someone (often me!) violated some protocol, and junior monks or nuns were shocked, while the senior monks or nuns just smiled or outright laughed. They could tell that there was sincerity involved, and not deliberate rudeness or laziness. I suppose I can say that in my experience, it is the junior practitioners that are hung up on this stuff. Those who seem to have had an deep experience of emptiness don’t seem to worry too much about things like this.
    That said, I can imagine cases where an insistance on forms might help someone develop a sense of deliberateness. If you completely throw yourself into the form, even “I” can disappear.

  9. from someone who came to sit with us this morning at

    “After reading all the wonderful comments on this post, I just wanted to say that I think you’ve found the balance seeing how you taught today at the meditation. You kept the rituals, but you also explained their purpose and significance without asking anything from anyone. Yes they can be weird, but this is why we do it. That takes down a wall.”

  10. This topic resulted in a string of thoughtful comments over at Nathan’s

  11. Beloved…
    If Buddhism were a language
    I wouldn’t know enough of it to get me from the airport to my hotel in its country…
    nor would I be able to order of a menu and know what I had asked to be served.

    It was St. Benedict (or was it St. Bernard)
    who said… Have the experience, and you will understand what I am talking about.
    In the experience then…
    I can make a ritual out of making tea, or a peanut butter sandwich by being thoughtful of my actions, by assigning meaning to my actions. Such patterns are comforting, reassuring and reinforced through repetition over time.
    I cannot make a sacrament…
    It isn’t the decor, the clothing, the music, the physical postures
    that is the stuff, of ritual… The Mass, is a sacrament.
    The Eucharist
    In the experience…
    a Sacrament is the action of God, affirmed by the Bride of Christ the Church…
    The Source of the Action, God’s love…
    have the experience and you will understand what I am talking about…
    In the experience a Sacrament is different than experiencing a ritual…
    In the experience.. Life…breathing comes from God…

    Receiving the Sacrament of Baptism, sign of God’s Love
    Baptized into the Body of Christ, received the Sacrament of Confirmation, Confirmed by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit..
    not by ritual… by Sacrament,
    by the Life Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
    Breathing in the Body of Jesus Christ…

    In the experience of a Sacrament
    as the action of God affirmed by the Bride of Christ the Church…
    breathing awake…breathing alive… in Jesus Christ

    Inhale… Jesus
    Exhale… Christ

    Inhale…Lord have mercy
    Exhale.. Christ have mercy

    Inhale… Christ has died
    Exhale… Christ has risen
    Inhale… Christ will come again

    and then slowly… no words, no visuals, no distractions, no head chatter,

    In the experience…
    an ecumenical movement of the Breath of God…
    zazen…in peace
    standing in a yoga asana, in peace
    in a tai chi posture, in peace
    in walking meditation, in peace
    riding the bus, in peace
    at Mac Donald’s, in peace

    In the experience…
    a Sacrament isn’t something, I can take off and put on like a robe.
    or light up like a stick of incense, or ring a bell to re-awaken
    a Sacrament isn’t sustained by my conscious awareness or activity…
    it is a sign of my covenant relationship with God, a sign of God’s love for me.
    sitting, breathing with you, loving you
    my Beloved…


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