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why open the gate and ring the bell?

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After last night’s meditation, two of us stayed to talk about our zendo. Why is it, I wondered, that so many people come to sit for a while and then drop by the wayside? Years ago my monastic teacher told me not to worry, but to announce the times, sweep the walkway, unlock the gate, light a candle, and be ready to receive whoever comes to the door.

If one person shows up, he said, be glad and ring the bell. If ten or twenty come, likewise. But what if no-one comes? Ditto: light incense, bow, ring the bell, and sit. Make sure you meditate regularly and don’t get hung up on numbers. Concern yourself with your own salvation and leave everyone else to attend to theirs. People will come when they need to. 

My zendo friend and I also touched on the weight of having a teacher present, and of following certain forms and rituals. Might that be the reason people flock to centres  where there’s someone in a robe and a title? How is that people spend hundreds of dollars to travel and sit among a large audience to hear someone speak in translation — but won’t sit on a cushion once a week, free of charge? We both agreed that yes, a teacher is important and sooner or later most everyone can benefit from being pointed along a path, but that meditation, the fundamental ‘work’ of awakening from delusions, requires individual effort. The purpose of a sitting group, then, is to bring together a group of people — a sangha in the Buddhist tradition– to support and accompany each other.


5 responses »

  1. In my opinion, a teacher makes all the difference, hence my regular participation at Fernwood Zendo.

  2. I agree that the individual work is the meditation, and that in meditation the sangha definitely helps, in gross and subtle ways. But my recent experience with the Vipassana teaching by Mr Goenka suggests to me that one’s “teacher” is not always easy to find (as many zen stories relate). Non-attachment cannot (so I think) be attained by simply denying or negating one’s existing personality. One must be able to absorb the teaching offered, chew it over, digest it, and absorb it in pieces. If the disparity between student and teacher is too great, this is very difficult. So students move on. This seems normal to me. As a student, I do not worry about it; I meditate. If there is a teacher out there waiting for me, he or she must not yet be ready for me…..

  3. I love our sangha. It works for me. Thank you Peter for you unfailing generosity. Nothing is permanent.

  4. Peter, I’ve been thinking about “zen in the West” and your concern of why people come and then go. One thing that occurs to me, based on my past practice in psychotherapy, is that many people who test zen are not prepared for “sangha.” I suspect that many come to sample with the idea that zen is like Theravadin meditation, isolating and intense. And then they encounter a Mahayana sangha which is mutually supporting and whose members are somewhat open (very relative, that openness), and they are not prepared for this. It can be challenging if not scary.

  5. Another clue by Ronald D. Siegel, a Harvard psychotherapist: “Mindfulness practice challenges our defences and makes us vividly aware of everything that is happening in our minds and bodies right now — including the uncomfortable stuff. And we …. instincively withdraw from pain.”

    (2010). The mindfulness solution. NY: Guilford Press, p. 98


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