98 – Nine Fields of Zen Practice: A Framework for Letting Practice Permeate Your Life – Part 1
101 – The Koan of Awakening: Do You Know the Essential Truth Yet, Or Not?

Zen practice can permeate every aspect of our lives. To help lay practitioners appreciate this outside 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, Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity. In this episode I cover Precepts, Opening the Heart, and Connecting with the Ineffable.

Read Nine Fields of Practice Part 1 (Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight)



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Precepts – Letting Go of Self-Attachment
Opening the Heart – Exploring Non-Separation from All Being
Connecting with the Ineffable – Remembering Our Deepest Aspirations


Last week I introduced you to my Nine Fields of Zen Practice, and started offering explanations of each field. I got through Zazen, Dharma Study, and Cultivating Insight – fields I categorize as “wisdom” aspects of our practice. This week I’ll explain the next three fields, which I categorize as “compassion” fields: Precepts, Opening the Heart, and Connecting with the Ineffable. My third and final episode on the Nine Fields will cover Nyoho, Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity, fields I think of as being about “skillful action.”

Before I get into explanations, though, I want to say something about how I recommend working with the Nine Fields. I recently gave a Dharma Talk at Bright Way Zen, my local, “dirt space” Sangha, and people pointed out that making sure you were covering all Nine Fields at once would be a daunting task. Good point. I think it’s best to choose just a few fields to concentrate on at any given time – or maybe even just one. The bare minimum for practice is doing some amount of regular meditation and trying to live morally, but other than that you focus on a few fields that happen to be especially relevant or interesting to you. It can be helpful to form an intention or make a vow for a specific period of time, and identify what field it falls in. This is what people are doing in the Zen Studies Sangha practice groups – making vows meant to last for the duration of the group, which is at least 3 months. But you can certainly do whatever works for you.

The intention of the Nine Fields is to convey the possible breadth of practice – how it can permeate every aspect of your life, if you want it to. There’s no set timeline or objective measurement of when your life is sufficiently permeated, however, so be sure not to get hung up on ideals. Just keep the fields in mind and they may start influencing the way you think of practice.

Precepts – Letting Go of Self-Attachment

The next field on my list is Precepts. Precepts are the moral principles for Buddhists, such as not killing, not stealing, not misusing sexual energy, not lying, and not abusing intoxicants. I won’t go into detail about what the precepts are in this episode; in Episodes 22 and 23 (How Buddhists Should Behave: Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts) I discussed the centrality of moral behavior in Buddhism, and in Episodes 60 and 61 (Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist) I talked about how precepts manifest and are used in several different forms of Buddhism. What I want to talk about in the context of this episode is how we practice with precepts on a daily basis. I’ll be brief in comparison to how much I could say on this subject (and probably will someday), so if you’re interested in delving deeper into this topic I highly recommend Diane Rizzetto’s book Waking Up to What You Do as a guide to precept practice.

The precepts are valuable at several different levels, simultaneously. At the most basic, concrete level they give us rules for how to live our lives in a way that minimizes harm. Even if we’re not motivated by concern for others, if we want to make any progress in our spiritual practice – if we want to live a peaceful life, maintain our own health and well-being, and be able to achieve some measure of stillness in meditation – we can’t be going around killing, stealing, and lying. Life just doesn’t work that way. It can be challenging to follow the precepts well in your daily life, especially when you’re aspiring to the more subtle Mahayana precepts like not indulging anger, or not being stingy. Just struggling to keep them, as best we can, is worth it.

At a deeper level, however, the precepts describe enlightened action. If we’re enlightened, we’ve transcended small-minded self-interest and aren’t even motivated to break precepts. Therefore, when we’re tempted to break a precept we can take it as a sign that we’re experiencing some self-attachment. The precepts act like a mirror to our behavior, and our breakage of the precepts are like a red flag. In Buddhism there’s no divine being judging your behavior, so there doesn’t have to be a sense of guilt or shame about our mistakes, but if we sincerely want to learn how to transcend our sense of self – and thereby be more free of the three poisons of grasping, aversion, and delusion – we use the precepts as tools for studying ourselves.

The precepts are all about relationships, which is why I have categorized the Precepts Field under Compassion. In my lineage, we also phrase each precept in a positive way, so we aspire to things like cultivating and encouraging life, remaining faithful in relationships, communicating truthfully, and cultivating equanimity. This means precept work is perhaps the most pervasive aspect of our practice when it comes to our daily lives: As long as we’re around other people, we have opportunities to remember the precepts and work with them constantly, throughout every day. We find it’s impossible to keep the precepts perfectly, especially when we interpret them at more and more subtle levels. For example, what does it really mean to communicate truthfully? As long as we have any sense of separation from others and from all life, the precepts function as guides and as tools for reflection.

Opening the Heart – Exploring Non-Separation from All Being

The next of the Nine Fields, also in the category of Compassion, is Opening the Heart. This Field isn’t one you find explicitly emphasized in Zen very much, although that doesn’t mean the message isn’t there. Theravadin and Vipassana Buddhism tend to teach the Four Brahmaviharas (goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), and the associated practice of Metta, or extending goodwill to beings in a conscious way. (I discuss these teachings in Episodes 63, 66, and 71, The Four Brahmaviharas, or Sublime Social Attitudes.) In Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the main practices is often a visualization practice centered on the bodhisattva of compassion, who they call Chenrezig. Zen, for the most part, counts on you to arrive at a sense of connection and intimacy with all beings – with everything – through practice in the other fields, such as Zazen, Cultivating Insight, and Precept Work. We strongly believe goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity will be a natural – and essential – outcome of practice.

However, it’s useful for us to be conscious and proactive about Opening the Heart in our practice, because some of us manage to be diligent in other Fields – even keeping precepts, which are all about relationships – and still keep our hearts somewhat closed off. Often, it’s because of fear, past trauma, or a sense of inadequacy. Sometimes we prioritize cultivating wisdom or skillful action over compassion, thinking of openheartedness or warm human relations as soft, simpler, or even weak. Maybe we think it’ll be a nice side benefit of enlightenment, but it’s not really the point. This kind of thinking is unfortunate, because a closed heart is perhaps the clearest indication of all that we are spiritual immature or still deluded. Working directly on that closed heart may be one of the most important ways we have to resolve our karmic obstacles and become receptive to the insights and rewards of practice.

Zen is not without teachings on Opening the Heart. Zen master Dogen, one of our most revered ancestors in Soto Zen, composed a beautiful essay in the Shobogenzo called “Shishobo” or “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance.”[i] The four methods are giving, or non-greed; kind speech; beneficial action, and “identity action,” or “nondifference from self, nondifference from others.” Dogen says, “Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.” In a commentary on “Shishobo,” Shohaku Okumura says that while “Methods of Guidance” is a decent translation of the title:

“…when Dogen Zenji expounds these four practices… I think, he does not merely mean that these are methods guiding people to enter the Buddhist path. Dogen teaches that these four practices allow the bodhisattvas themselves to be free from the three poisonous states of mind: greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance. These practices benefit both the person practicing and living beings at the same time.”[ii]

As practitioners we can study and practice the Four Brahmaviharas, the Six Paramitas, or Dogen’s Shishobo. We can also contemplate the Bodhisattva Vow we take as Mahayana Buddhists, to free all beings even though they are numberless. Also useful is the Metta Sutta from the Pali Canon, a deeply inspirational text to remind us of how a Buddha acts:

“Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings.”[iii]

In addition to teachings, we can practice in the Field of Opening the Heart in all kinds of ways in the midst of our daily lives. We become aware of our closed heart, and seek ways to challenge ourselves and open to connection with others. We take responsibility for our negative feelings about others, and seek to transform them even as we fulfill our responsibilities and keep appropriate boundaries. Our practice manifests in how we relate to family, friends, co-workers, communities, and nations. Finally, as Buddhists, Sangha presents us with an awesome – and challenging – opportunity to work on Opening the Heart as we negotiate relationships with people with whom – supposedly! – we share a common aspiration, as I discussed in Episode 16 (Sangha: The Joys, Challenges, and Value of Practicing in a Buddhist Community).

Connecting with the Ineffable – Remembering Our Deepest Aspirations

The final field I’ll talk about today is Connecting with the Ineffable. The word “ineffable” describes something you can’t describe in words, generally because it is too great, profound, subtle, mysterious, emotional, or wonderful. Ineffable has a positive connotation, and in this case, I’m capitalizing the word.

Zen is not based on a belief in God in a theistic sense. However, at its core is a strong emphasis on a reality much more profound, inspiring, significant, and hopeful than the bleak, mundane, and discouraging one people sometimes experience in their ordinary daily lives. You can call this “greater reality” anything you like – God, the divine, That Which is Greater, Other Power, the Ineffable, the Great Mystery, the Great Matter of Life and Death – but you have undoubtedly touched or experienced it at peak moments of your life. In Episode 8 (It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God) I talked about how Zen presents the Ineffable, and why it doesn’t talk much about It in an explicit way, the way theistic religions talk about God.

To give you a sense of Connecting with the Ineffable as a Field of Practice, I hope you don’t mind if I repeat a couple paragraphs from Episode 8:

“We know the Ineffable when we encounter it. We know It in our so-called ‘hearts,’ which can’t be located physically in our bodies but seem to function as sensors attuned to the Ineffable. Our hearts swell when we witness incredible acts of compassion; when we hear stories of individuals who dedicated their lives to a noble cause; when we witness awesome spectacles of nature, listen to beautiful pieces of music, join in hearty laughter with a child, or read good poetry. Personally, I also think we perceive the Ineffable, or It-with-a-Capital-I, whenever we look into another person’s eyes, and that’s why it’s usually too intense to do that for very long.

“In these heart moments, it’s like the clouds briefly part and the sun shines through. Or, for a moment, we remember what’s really important, and all of our petty concerns and fears melt away or are at least put into perspective. For a moment, we are relieved of our skepticism and have a child’s open, hopeful, innocent heart. We know love is real and the beauty of this world is beyond comprehension. We have a sense of who we are, what is means to be human, and why life is worth it.”

In Episode 8 I also talked about why it’s important – for our spiritual practice as well as for our mental health – to build a relationship with, or faith in, or a sense of, the Ineffable (use whatever terms work for you). To practice in the Field of Connecting with the Ineffable, what can we do? This is a tricky endeavor, because as soon as we conceptualize It, we lose It. What I think is most important is to cultivate faith that what we perceive at the peak moments I just described is reality, as opposed to such moments simply being transient emotional experiences on par with those associated with worldly pleasures and pains. This isn’t a matter of adopting a Pollyannaish attitude that denies the reality of suffering, it’s learning to take a larger perspective that includes everything but still offers a sense of meaning, order, and helps us feel life is worth it.

How do we cultivate faith that the Ineffable is real, and gain a sense that we are not separate from It? The wisdom practices – Zazen, Dharma Study, and Cultivating Insight – help with this. To some extent you might even say Connecting with the Ineffable is a large part of the purpose of the wisdom practices! However, just as we can consciously and deliberately work on Opening the Heart, we can work on Connecting with the Ineffable. I see there being two ways we do this.

First, we try to keep the Ineffable in mind. This is actually quite hard, even when we’re sitting zazen. It’s in our nature to forget. So, whenever we remember to do so, we recall That Which Is Greater. It’s not necessary to conceptualize It (it’s better if you don’t), but you may want to recall images, words, feelings, memories, or aspirations you associate with ineffable experiences you’ve had. Whatever works for you! It doesn’t matter if you believe in something called “the Ineffable” or feel you have any kind of understanding or experience of It. Just ask yourself what really matters to you, at the deepest and most profound level. This may sound like a minor endeavor, but it can actually make a big difference to whatever you happen to be doing at the time. One minute you’re just zoning out through another moment of zazen, the next you’re motivated to sit up straighter because of how much you love your children.

Second, we invite a deeper relationship to the Ineffable. This can involve anything along an emotional spectrum from curiosity to passionate exploration. What is This? What’s going on? How can we perceive the Ineffable more often? The ancients say we aren’t separate from It (Dogen says “We ourselves are tools which [the Ineffable] possesses within this Universe in ten directions.”[iv]) – how can we experience deeper connection with It? It doesn’t work to insist on, or willfully create, a personal connection to the Divine, because that’s based on self-interest. However, a deeper connection can be cultivated if we work on letting go of self-attachment, seeing the empty nature of self, opening the heart, and making space for the Ineffable by sitting zazen.


[i] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010. For an online translation see https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Bodaisatta.html
[ii] Shobogenzo: Bodaisatta Shishobo, True Dharma Eye Treasury: The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions. Lecture (1) by Shohaku Okumura. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/dharma/pdf/de12/de12_10.htm
[iii] “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8), translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html .
[iv]Inmo,” in Nishijima, Gudo, and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 2. London: Windbell Publications, 1996.


98 – Nine Fields of Zen Practice: A Framework for Letting Practice Permeate Your Life – Part 1
101 – The Koan of Awakening: Do You Know the Essential Truth Yet, Or Not?