Zen practice can permeate every aspect of our lives. To help lay practitioners appreciate this fact outside of the full-immersion experience of residential training, I’ve defined Nine Fields of Zen Practice: Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Precepts, Opening the Heart, Connecting with the Ineffable, Nyoho (according with the Dharma in everyday activities), Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity.
Quicklinks to Article Content:
Framing Our Lives as Path
Introducing The Nine Fields
Zazen – Making Space for the Absolute
Dharma Study – Exposing Ourselves to the Teachings
Cultivating Insight – Knowing for Ourselves
Buddhist practice can permeate every aspect of your life. You’re welcome to engage it in any way and to whatever degree you want to; generally speaking, you can be sure the results will be positive! But if you’re interested, you can make everything into practice: your work, relationships, moral choices, and world view. You can let practice inform, and be informed by, how you treat your body, set your priorities, participate in political processes, deal with your emotional challenges, and spend your leisure time.
Sometimes I ask people to reflect on, and share, something about the “state of their practice.” Frequently, what I hear people speak about is more or less limited to how much meditation they do, how often they manage to make it to the Zen center, and how much Buddhist reading they do. I totally understand these being the first things that come to people’s minds when they think of their Buddhist “practice,” but this situation always leaves me wondering whether I’ve done enough to convey how everything can be practice, at least as I define it, which is: Living deliberately. Living deliberately requires mindful awareness of what’s going on, followed by being diligent in making choices we believe will lead to greater peace, wisdom, and compassion. This definition of practice can apply to anything!
If you live in a monastery, or are bound by 250-plus Vinaya precepts, it becomes immediately clear that everything you do affects, and reflects, your practice: How and when you sleep, what you wear, how you interact with your fellow monastics, etc. You’re completely immersed in the Dharma, explicitly as well as implicitly.
The modern lay lives of most Buddhist practitioners lack the context and structure of the full-time residential setting enjoyed by monastic Buddhists throughout the centuries. In the interest of conveying what full-immersion practice can look like in the midst of daily householder life, I’ve created a framework I’m calling the Nine Fields of Zen Practice: Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Precepts, Opening the Heart, Connection to the Ineffable, Nyoho, Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity. I’ll introduce the Nine Fields in general, and then share the first three of them with you today. I’ll finish up by describing the last six Fields next week. Some of the Fields are presented with a particularly Zen approach, but I think you’ll find all of them translatable, if not directly accessible, even if you’re not specifically a Zen practitioner.
Framing Our Lives as Path
Before I get into each of the Fields in detail, I want be clear about an underlying assumption behind them: Our life is a spiritual path, or journey, involving growth and transformation that never ends. As I discussed in Episode 89 – Buddhist Practice as a Lifelong Path of Growth and Transformation, Buddhist practice has traditionally been more than something you do to make everyday life more pleasant; it’s a path of training and study aimed at becoming an awakened, liberated, wise, compassionate, and skillful person. The ideals of Buddha and bodhisattva are not something most of us have any hope of achieving in this lifetime, but the idea is to think beyond our limited ideas of self in terms of both space and time. We ennoble our lives, and benefit others, by committing wholeheartedly to walking the path – approaching embodiment of the Buddha Way as closely as we possibly can.
Framing our lives as path means walking the middle way between getting stuck in an endless self-improvement project, and giving up any hope of meaningful change out of despair or complacency. Either of those extremes is a huge obstacle in practice. Path as a middle way requires patience and humility, but also determination and faith. The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that change is possible. For anyone.
Introducing the Nine Fields
On to the Nine Fields: Obviously, there are many ways to describe and categorize aspects of our practice. The Buddha himself offered the Eightfold Noble Path. Daido Loori established “Eight Gates of Zen” to use with his students. Use whatever description works for you!
For me, no list of practice aspects or gates has quite been comprehensive enough, or it’s included things I feel are a little too specific. I’ve contemplated this list of Nine Fields for close to ten years, maybe longer, and it’s proving to be fairly resilient even in the face of my inner critique and effort to improve and revise. I tried to make each Field an area in which you can focus your attention, explore particular practices, or make vows.
For the sake of coherence and elegance, I’ve also put them into three groups of three: The Wisdom group includes Zazen, Dharma Study, and Cultivating Insight; the Compassion group includes Precepts, Opening the Heart, and Connection to the Ineffable; the Skillful Action group includes Nyoho (according with the Dharma in everyday actions), Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity. Wisdom, compassion, and skillful action are seen in my lineage tradition, Soto Zen, as the three essential aspects of practice, often represented by our three central archetypal bodhisattvas: Manjushri (wisdom), Kanzeon/Avalokiteshvara (compassion), and Samantabhadra (skillful action).
Zazen – Making Space for the Absolute
The first field is Zazen. Zazen is our central practice, and it works on us at many different levels. It’s the simplest possible activity we can engage in and still remain alert; it invites us to surrender completely to the physical act of just sitting and let go of all of our mental discrimination and willful effort. (If you practice a different type of meditation, of course, that would form this field of practice for you.)
When the practice of zazen leads to samadhi – a state of non-dual awareness – we personally awaken to certain critical aspects of the Dharma such as no-self, emptiness, suchness, and buddha-nature. However, we do not practice zazen in order to achieve samadhi. We put ourselves in the posture of zazen to humbly make ourselves receptive to samadhi, or, more accurately, to the truth – as if we were making a lap and hoping for a cat to come curl up in it. In many ways, zazen is to the Zen Buddhist what prayer is to a Christian, Jew, or Muslim: An opening to God. A devout or contemplative theist may hope to hear from God or feel connected with Him through their prayer, but they do not demand this happens, nor do they see their prayer as somehow coercing God into showing up. The important thing is the attitude and act of prayer, not what the devotee gets out of it.
And so, we practice zazen day in and day out, year after year. Doing so in a fruitful and vital way means, once again, navigating a middle way. We try to avoid getting stuck either in striving for a particular outcome, or in passivity and complacency (sitting zazen like a sack of potatoes, zoning out because we’re not trying get anything out of the activity). There are many ways to deepen our zazen practice without resorting to striving, as I discussed in Episode 69 – The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying. Perhaps the most important way to cultivate the Field of Zazen is to do more of it – working it into our daily lives as often as we can, and, if we have the good fortune to be able to do so, attending sesshin (or meditation retreats).
Sometimes people get confused, thinking that because zazen is doing nothing and it’s our central practice, Zen practice in general is about doing nothing. They think Zen is about taking a passive, accepting approach to everything, and has nothing to say about action, right and wrong, taking responsibility, love, or creativity. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as I’ll hopefully make clear as I describe the EIGHT other fields of Zen practice! The thing is, zazen is about making space in our lives for the non-dual. Just as the devout Muslim makes space in his life for prayer – putting Allah first and foremost – five times a day, we carve out time from our busy lives for zazen. We put aside all other activities, suspend judgment, and give up striving. We do this not because we should, in general, give up all other activities, suspend judgment, and give up striving! We practice zazen because otherwise we would forget about the non-dual, the absolute aspect of reality, the Ineffable. If we do not make space for It, we will be overwhelmed by all the details of life and lose touch with That Which Is Greater.
Dharma Study – Exposing Ourselves to the Teachings
The second Field is Dharma Study. Some Buddhist practitioners feel that it’s sufficient to meditate and practice mindfulness in daily life, and they largely opt out of studying the Buddhist teachings. Of course, that’s okay; like I said earlier, whatever aspects of the practice you do will be beneficial. If you’re interested in being transformed by Buddhism, though, it’s important to gradually expose yourself to Buddhist and Zen teachings, and wrestle with them. The teachings come to frame our practice and experience, and inspire us to engage in the habit of profound thought. I like to think of Dharma Study as being much less about the accumulation of new ideas, and much more about challenging the ideas we already have.
As I discussed in Episode 68 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 2: Wrestling with the Teachings, we don’t have to worry about fully understanding the teachings right away; they influence us whether we realize it or not. We also don’t have to agree with, or like, the teachings! It’s through wrestling with them and deeply questioning them that we achieve authentic insight.
The first question that arises for practitioners when they approach Dharma Study is where to begin. Even the Pali Canon – the original teachings of the Buddha as maintained by the Theravadin school of Buddhism – is huge. Then there are all the writings and teachings produced by Buddhists throughout the last 2,500 years! Fortunately, we don’t need to master or memorize every last Buddhist teaching, which is impossible in any case. In Episode 67 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 1: Their Abundance, Diversity & Authenticity, I describe the vast collection of Dharma teachings and how best to approach it.
Basically, you can think of the collective Dharma as a tree, with the Buddha’s basic teachings as the trunk. The largest limbs of the tree are the major types of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana), and you follow a particular branch out to its end in order to trace a particular lineage. If you want a strong Dharma foundation for your particular kind of practice, it’s helpful to concentrate on studying the trunk of the tree (I’ve already covered the major teachings of the Buddha on this podcast), then the many teachings found along your particular branch. That’s not to disparage the brilliant contributions of other lineages of Buddhism, but for the sake of clarity and expedience, you may want to study them later.
As for what order to study things in, obviously the branches of the tree depend on the trunk and what’s below them, so you may want to start with a fairly systematic study from the bottom up (or, alternatively put, down through time). However, it also seems to work fine to more or less “follow your nose,” focusing on what interests and inspires you most. Over time, you can wander up and down the Dharma Tree, gradually absorbing teachings until one day you realize you’re actually getting a coherent sense of the Dharma as a whole.
The second question practitioners tend to have about Dharma Study is how much time to spend at it. This is entirely dependent on your interest level and life circumstances, but hopefully you can – once again! – walk a middle path between neglecting Dharma Study entirely, and spending so much time reading that you neglect other Fields of practice, particularly zazen.
Cultivating Insight – Knowing for Ourselves
Whereas Dharma Study is about exposing ourselves to the teachings through reading, listening, and study, the next Field, Cultivating Insight, is about working on a personal, direct, insight into the deeper truths the teachings are trying to convey. Buddhism has never been about simply memorizing, accepting, or believing a set of doctrines. Real liberation comes from insight and subsequent skillful action based on that insight, as the Buddha made clear in his very first sermon on the Four Noble Truths.[i] In that sermon, the Buddha listed and defined the Four Truths, but didn’t stop there. He went on to explain to his audience that he was only liberated from suffering once he saw clearly and intimately what each truth was, what it implied, and what skillful action it required – and then he carried out that skillful action.
Every obstacle or limitation we encounter is an opportunity for insight: Each thing we don’t understand or resist; every fear, aversion, insecurity, or obsession; every instance of self-attachment, judgment, or grasping. A perfect Buddha would move through the world selflessly and generously; whenever we don’t, it’s a sign that there’s something we do not yet fully comprehend. If we really, truly saw what was behind our small-mindedness and selfishness, if we really, truly saw what harm it caused ourselves and others, we would be naturally inspired to change, because by nature we avoid pain and seek happiness.
If you delve far enough below the surface of your personal problems and limitations, you’ll find a spiritual cause.[ii] Fundamentally, we all have an intuition of emptiness and no-self. Without deep, personal insight into what these conditions really mean, we react with fear, seeking to reify, strengthen, expand, and solidify the self in a myriad – often harmful, always limiting – ways. It may sound dramatic, but behind negative behaviors like indulging anger, avoiding intimacy, or grasping after material objects, lies one or more existential fears: That the self is – that we are – insubstantial, under threat, isolated, in danger, or actually just a meaningless void. Fortunately, through Dharma practice we can face these fears and resolve them, because the reality of no-self and emptiness is actually joyful and liberating.
Practice within the Field of Cultivating Insight means we learn how to view our challenges and limitations through the lens of Dharma. This doesn’t mean we obsess over our every flaw, or blame ourselves for every challenge we face. This does mean we turn toward our issues, and toward Dharma teachings we do not yet understand, with passionate curiosity. In order to stay the course until we achieve some insight, we also need to cultivate faith in the Dharma, and in ourselves. Many people believe they’re not up to task of achieving direct, personal insight into the profound Dharma teachings of emptiness, no-self, suchness, or Buddha-nature, but that’s only because they don’t yet understand that these are not profound, transcendent experiences reserved for spiritual adepts. The essential truths of Buddhism are like jewels we discover in our pocket – we’ve always had them, we just have to recognize it.
When practicing in the Field of Cultivating Insight, it helps to have the support of a teacher. Your teacher doesn’t have to be a perfect Buddha, they just have to be a few steps ahead of you on the path of Dharma practice. A teacher can help guide your exploration of the Buddhist teachings, and demonstrate how to frame the issues in your life in Dharmic terms.
Working with a teacher, or with a group of peers, also helps you to stay on track as you’re exploring a particular topic or issue. There are always many layers to our spiritual discovery. For example, behind a tendency to be judgmental of others might be an insecurity instilled in us by a critical parent. But underneath that insecurity might be a sense of unworthiness much deeper than can be blamed on childhood experiences. Beneath our sense of unworthiness, we might recognize the existential fear of isolation, which can only be resolved by insight into emptiness. Without the support of a teacher, we’re unlikely to do more than scratch the surface of our spiritual issues, although you might be able to stay on track by phrasing your issue in the form of a question, journaling, or regularly checking in with peers in the practice.
[i] Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11), https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN56_11.html
[ii] This is not in any way to say you are to blame for all of your problems, such as sickness, poverty, or suffering the effects of injustice or violence. By “personal” problems I mean those things over which we have some influence, and for which we have pretty much sole responsibility: the state of our minds and bodies, our behavior, our thought patterns. According to Buddhism, if we achieve true liberation, we can have peace of mind and heart even as we experience difficult circumstances.