139 - Suchness: Awakening to the Preciousness of Things-As-It-Is
141 - The Practice of Vow 2: Choosing the Direction We Want Our Lives to Take

How do we create a strong and sustainable Buddhist practice outside of a monastery? It takes determination, creativity, and flexibility. In some ways practice outside of a monastery is harder. We need to create structure for ourselves and build up good habits, but then the circumstances of our lives change, and our practice has to change. There are many competing demands on our attention and time, so we need to consistently maintain our practice (can’t just “set it and go”). We’re mostly doing this alone, relying on our own self-discipline instead of social support (or even “positive peer pressure”).

The key is giving our practice form, but also accepting that it will change, sometimes constantly; learning to hold it together like clay on a potter’s wheel but recognizing this is a dynamic process.





Practice Outside a Monastic Setting Versus Inside

For most of us, our Buddhist practice is what helps us stay relatively sane, resilient, patient, and grateful, especially in challenging times. However, it can be very difficult to find the time, energy, discipline, and enthusiasm to keep up our practice the way we’d like to. Traditional Buddhist practice was monastic, and in those settings, you just have to follow the schedule along with everyone else in order to focus on meditation, study, mindfulness, and appropriate behavior.

How do we create a strong and sustainable practice outside of a monastery? It takes determination, creativity, and flexibility. In some ways, practice outside of a monastery is harder. We need to create structure for ourselves and build up good habits, but then, the circumstances of our lives change and our practice has to change. There are many competing demands on our attention and time, so we need to consistently maintain our practice. We can’t just set it and let it go. We’re mostly doing this alone, relying on our own self-discipline instead of social support or you might even say positive peer pressure.

The key is giving our practice form, but also accepting that it will change, sometimes change constantly, and to learn to hold it together like the clay on a potter’s wheel; recognizing that it’s a dynamic process that is always in motion. Let me talk for a little bit about practicing outside of a monastic setting versus inside. Sometimes it’s helpful to look at Buddhist monasticism, not so much as even an ideal or something that we’re all aiming for, but as kind of a concrete manifestation of what we’re looking for. 

Traditional monastic life means that you are doing this full time. You are following a schedule usually seven days a week. Maybe you have a little bit of time off, but all of that time is scheduled, and into the schedule is built a balance. It’s a balance of work and rest, a balance of meditation and activity, and a balance of study and manifestation. The people around you are helping you keep the precepts, keeping the moral guidelines and other forms in your monastic life. You’re doing this in a community where everybody is doing the same thing. Even though, I mean, there are no monasteries that are prisons, you can leave, but for the most part, if you’ve signed up for the program, there’s positive peer pressure to just stay and deal with it. 

Now, outside a monastery is what you might call lay life. Even though I’m a Zen priest, essentially I’m living a lay life as well because I’m not in a monastery. From the beginning of Buddhism, this has been recognized as harder than monastic life in many ways. In some ways, monastic life is tough because you don’t get your own privacy and space and you don’t get sexual relationships, a home, and there’s many pleasures of lay life that you don’t get in a monastery. Sometimes you have to get up really early, you don’t get a lot of sleep, et cetera. 

From the point of view of Buddhist practice, from the beginning in the Pāli Canon, for example, you see life as described as a hard and dusty road. Sometimes this can be read as disparaging to lay people saying, like, you can’t do it. It really was meant to be a little bit more of an objective observation. Monastics had essentially the privilege of setting aside all of their responsibilities and living on alms and then just concentrating on practice. Whereas in lay life we have usually changing circumstances. We might create some structure around our practice. We’re going to meditate each morning at 8:00 a.m., but then circumstances might change and habits are difficult to maintain. Maybe suddenly we have to go to work at 8:00 or maybe we have to babysit our kids at that time or something like that. We have competing responsibilities and not just in terms of taking up our time, but also we’re invested in things. There’s demands and distractions; many things that we’re involved in. It can be difficult to stay focused on practice. We also have the lack of social support. We have to rely primarily on our own self discipline or our own motivation.

There’s a reason why Sangha, or community, is one of the three jewels of Buddhism. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha emphasized that associating with what he called “admirable people” was essential to our success in practice. He defined “admirable people” as wise practitioners who are firm in their conviction spiritual practice is important, and are strong in virtue, generosity, and discernment.[1] The following is a famous passage from the Pali Upaddha Sutta (note: in this passage, the Buddha is called “the Blessed One”):

“…Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’

“‘Don’t say that, Ananda. [The Blessed One responds.] Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the noble eightfold path.”[1]

Sangha manifests in many different ways: it manifests as the group of people that we practice with and also manifests as our teachers, it manifests as the people from whom we learn. They may be our peers or our teachers or people who’ve written books, for instance. These are other people that we learn from. Frankly, Buddhist practice never would have occurred to me. I probably would have been a very miserable and neurotic person, but someone shared these teachings and these practices with me, explained them to me, and helped me do them. That’s also Sangha.

It’s important to maintain connection, and I think those of us who are involved in largely lay Sanghas certainly value our connections. For the most part we’re getting together once or twice a week, maybe for a few hours, and even then we value those relationships and that time. This is much less connection and support, then of course, we would have had in a monastic situation where we’re living with one another 24/7 and following a communal schedule and a communal form of practice together.


Holding Our Practice Together Like Clay on a Potter’s Wheel

Our practice needs some kind of form and a structure, shape, physical manifestation, and that is what is provided in a monastic situation. Even outside of a monastic situation, we’re human beings this is the way we work. It’s true that at the most subtle and formless level practice can’t be defined or given form. I like to think of it as deliberately living by choice, moment by moment and exploring what choices we have instead of living on autopilot or according to habit energy. Really at this level, at this subtle and formless moment by moment level, we don’t have to sit zazen or attend Sangha events or even be Buddhist to do this. Much or most of our practice is this moment by moment turning of our minds and hearts toward wisdom and compassion. 

The truth of this is reflected in a Buddhist saying; monk of body, monk of mind. The monk of body is the monastic and the monk of mind is the lay person or the person outside the monastery who is embodying the practice, perhaps not in a visible way, but is embodying this moment by moment practice in the mind. As some of our Zen ancestors have pointed out, if you’re just a monk of body, which some folks in monasteries have been, they’re just going through the motions. If they’re not also a monk of mind, it’s not very useful. Then at the same time, if we’re only a monk of mind and there’s no aspect of monk of body in our life, it can be very difficult to maintain the thread of our practice, the form of our practice, the things we actually do. The form supports, deepens, informs, challenges, and helps us grow. The reality is really a hybrid of monk of body and monk of mind. 

Today, I’m going to talk about how we can give our practice form. How do we hold it together in some way? How do we give it some kind of physical manifestation, some kind of structure, given our constantly changing life circumstances, our competing responsibilities, distractions, and limited social support?

Buddhist PracticeI’ve started thinking about the effort to shape our practice as working with clay on a potter’s wheel.  The wheel is turning. We have a big lump of wet clay that we are trying to shape. It’s a constant, dynamic process. If we don’t do anything, it’s just a big lump. If we apply some pressure, we can shape that clay. If we apply too much pressure, then we break whatever is forming. The turning never ends and we never end up, this is kind of where the metaphor breaks down, but it’s appropriate, we never end up with a nice finished baked pot that we can just stop working on and set aside. That’s just not the nature of practice. That reflects that we do want to achieve some kind of finished practice, “Oh, I’ve got it now!” When actually we’re just going to be working at this for the rest of our lives, sitting there at the potter’s wheel and accepting that this is part of the process of maintaining our practice; not getting caught in expectations that it will look a certain way or or stay in a certain fixed form. This can help us, actually.

We want to talk about a number of things that we can do to give our practice form, but I have to admit, this doesn’t make a neat list. I like neat lists, but basically there are all kinds of tools, practices, approaches at our disposal. I might want to just invite you to take a moment to reflect: If you could give your practice more form, what would you like to add to it or strengthen? Form again is something we do, which many times when I think of what I would like to improve in my practice, I’m actually thinking a little bit more in terms of my mind. I would like to feel less caught up in my anger or I would like to be more attentive in my zazen. In some senses, that’s just the monk of mind aspect. Think about what would you like to add to your life or transform in your life so that you had more of a sense that your practice had shape.


Getting Clear About All the Forms Practice Can Take

The first thing I’m going to suggest is that it helps to be clear about all the forms that practice can take. This is what I tried to convey in my nine fields of Zen practice, which there’s a link to that formulation on the website. The Nine Fields are Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Precepts, Opening the Heart, Connecting with the Ineffable, According with the Dharma in Everyday Activities (Nyoho), Karma Work, and Bodhisattva Activity.

When I created that formulation of practice, part of what I was trying to do was to point out that practice isn’t just limited to your zazen and attending Sangha meetings and what Dharma books you read. In fact, it can permeate your life. Every aspect of our life can be practiced in not just a monk of mind way, but in a more concrete way. Therefore we’re not as likely to compartmentalize as we go about our lives, thinking: “Now I’m practicing. Now I’m not practicing. Now I’m just washing the dishes. Now I’m just dealing with my difficult human relationships. Now I’m just dealing with my own negative habits.” 

If we can see all of these things as practice, then it’s more likely that we will have an attentive and diligent attitude toward them. Practice shouldn’t just be an add on to our already busy lives. Everything we do, every moment is an opportunity to live deliberately. For example, According to the Dharma and everyday activities, Nyoho, is something that can be like picking up teacups with two hands or saying the meal verse before you eat. Perhaps you eat one meal a day in silence without reading or something like that. There’s all these different ways that practice can be incorporated into your everyday life. Learning to see things through the lens of our practice can take a while. It helps to talk to one another, talk to other Sangha members, and to a teacher about our life in practice terms. This helps us to learn to recognize and kind of interpret things through that lens.


The Power of Vow, or Tapping into What You Really Want

Then there is the power of Vow, or tapping into what you really want. One of my favorite stories Dogen tells in one of his Shobogenzo fascicles, he talks about a prostitute who put on a nun’s okesa or a nun’s robe for a joke in a past life. Then in a subsequent lifetime, she became a nun. This is kind of subtle, but the idea is that something in that prostitute was awakened or touched, or inspired, and then that developed when she put on the robe. 

This is, in a sense, what we want to tap into in Vow: learning how to plant a seed, learning how to allow some level of intention to give shape to our life over time. I think Vow is especially effective and clever as a practice approach because, as modern psychology is proving, Self is very complicated. We usually think that there’s an executive “I” in charge. The executive “I” decides what the vow is: “We’re going to do this. We’re going to act in a particular way and it gives the command from on high and all other aspects of ourselves are bound to follow.” Of course, for most of us, that does not actually work. We make a vow, we stated an intention, maybe we keep it, maybe we don’t. There’s a lot of resistance. Vow needs to be wielded gently by most of us. There’s different ways to approach it, different ways to tap into this effort to give some shape to and acknowledge our aspirations, and let them give some shape to our lives.

Vow is one way to put it. Intention is another way to put it that sometimes feels a little less commanding. Another way to put it is I want to. “You might say, I vow to sit five days a week,” whereas, “I have an intention to sit five days a week”, is a little bit softer. “I want to sit five days a week.” 

Now, if that’s something that you repeated to yourself regularly, maybe you don’t sit five days a week, but nonetheless, you want to. It’s that repeatedly checking in with that aspiration, that deeper desire. At an even more subtle level, you can say, “May I sit five days a week.” This is an acknowledgment. In some ways it ties into devotional practice, right? Maybe this is why devotional practice actually can be transformative, whether or not you believe there’s some deity or being or power out there that is going to grant a wish of yours or something. Somehow, saying may I do this thing, may I sit five days a week, taps into part of you that wants to, part of you that also recognizes that this can be challenging and that you may encounter resistance within yourself. It’s an even gentler way of coaxing yourself toward an aspiration. 

There’s many different aspects of Vow. Vow is a practice in and of itself. That includes not just keeping the vow, but getting good at making vows. What’s an appropriate vow? What are you actually capable of at this time? How specific should the vow be? Should it be time limited. Can it be witnessed by others?

One thing that I’ve repeated advice is to set ridiculously low expectations for yourself. This is, of course, if you’re having any difficulties fulfilling your own aspirations. So, you have this vow to sit five days a week and you find yourself not sitting at all or maybe once. It’s frustrating. Then you might go, “well, I vow to sit, I intend to sit twice a week.” Basically, if it’s more than you’re doing and it sounds almost disappointingly easy, then that’s probably the place to start. If it sounds disappointingly easy, that actually might be the space you have for making some kind of change. 

Then finally, I would say about vows, to keep them around even when you can’t keep them. The classic example of this is Alcoholics Anonymous or addictions work where your intention is to stay sober and then perhaps you relapse, but you don’t relapse and think, well, hopefully you don’t relapse and then go, well, screw it. You relapse, and then as soon as you can, you pick up that intention again, no matter how many times you have to do it, you just pick it up. Sometimes vows need to be changed or adapted or made simpler or easier, but sometimes it is just a matter of recognizing that a part of you really aspires to this and you want to honor that, even if you’re not the best at following through to the letter.


The Treasure of Sangha: Social Support for Your Sustainable Buddhist Practice

Moving on to social support in terms of giving your practice some structure, some form: Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, touches on the importance of refuge. He says,

 “Sangha is the fourfold community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, as well as the other elements that support our practice… In my country, we say that when a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowlands, he will be caught by humans and killed. When a practitioner leaves her Sangha, she may abandon her practice and ‘die’ as a practitioner. Practicing with a Sangha is essential.”

I think what this comes down to is that we’re social beings. Human beings are very, very, very social beings. I’ve only known a few people out of over the years, hundreds of practitioners, hundreds of Buddhist practitioners, who have the self-discipline to practice as they really want to without needing support from others. I certainly need the support. 

Right now, actually, my practice has all the form, all the structure that I feel the need for. A lot of that comes from my commitment to Sangha. I have to lead the Sangha on Tuesday evening. I have to lead the Sangha on Sunday mornings. I have to be there for Sangha discussion on Saturdays. I have made the commitment to be there Wednesday through Saturday morning for zazen. I have a commitment to produce this podcast, so I have to do Dharma study. There’s all kinds of ways that I have created a structure in my life because of my fortunate circumstances, even if I don’t live in a monastery, of serving a Sangha. I just created the support that I could. If I didn’t have those things, I would struggle. I would struggle to sit. I would struggle to study the Dharma. I would struggle to fit those things in. 

I was very encouraged once when I heard the abbot of a monastery, who I respected very much as a  teacher and long time practitioner, at one point I overheard her say, “Yeah, I knew that I wanted to live in Zen community because otherwise I would never sit.” I found that just so encouraging. I mean, here’s someone that I would admire so much and imagine even with her practice and her level of realization, surely she loves zazen and would be naturally drawn to it. But, no, she needs the social support as well. It really comes down to what works. 

You know, I always use the example of exercise. I find it extremely difficult to make myself do any exercise. In this time of pandemic, when I’m shut in, I’m hardly doing any exercise, but I have no problem attending a scheduled class. Before the pandemic, that was no problem. I had a gym membership where I had classes. I signed up for the classes and I had to show up for them and it worked perfectly. What is that? Even that level of social support where no one actually, personally cares that I show up to the class, but I’ve signed up. There’s just that slight social pressure. If we’re relying only on what we want to do or feel inclined to do at any given moment, we’ll lose touch with our aspiration because our wants and desires change. Then later, we’re going to feel regret because our vow, our intention, etc. really does reflect something we recognize as being good, as being beneficial in a longer term sense. 

In addition to helping us stay true to our intentions, positive peer pressure, we can also see what others are doing, what they’re capable of. This challenges and inspires us to push ourselves further. That positive peer pressure term is what occurs to me when we’re sitting in the Zendo together, and you really want to move and scratch, but nobody else is moving. Just looking around in that way during a long meditation retreat and you feel like you can’t take it one more minute, but everybody else is doing it. Peer pressure can be a negative thing, but it also can be a positive thing. 

Another good thing about being around Sangha is that it carries us through when our own motivation lags. Meditation retreats are another great example of this, where you’re totally tired and done with this, right? Then you see other people going to the Zendo with a sense of energy. For instance: we stay involved in Sangha, even though sometimes we’re like, “oh, I don’t know, I don’t know about this practice.” We stay involved, and then we hear other people expressing gratitude for the practice, other people experiencing insights or changes in their lives. Then that can get us through our own dry spots. 

We can deepen our experience of Sangha. That’s something that I would love to be able to offer more over the years. Right now, we have a certain number of meetings each week. There’s also studying the precepts, taking the precepts, and formally becoming a Buddhist. That’s another way to deepen your engagement with Sangha. Our Sangha has study groups. In addition, when you’re present with Sangha, you can speak up more and be willing to be seen. You might volunteer, cultivate Sangha friendships, or meet with the teacher. There’s ways that you can deepen, even within a lay situation, your relationship with Sangha.


Making Space for Taking Care of Our Spiritual Lives

There’s also making space for taking care of our spiritual lives. When we’re trying to maintain a practice in lay life, I think a lot of times what happens is we get very busy, we have competing demands, competing distractions, and we give the essence of our practice a short shrift. We don’t have time. It’s like that’s the last thing on our list because it’s more important to do things and take care of things and get things done. Then we’re exhausted so we just entertain ourselves. However, if we can see taking care of our spiritual lives as a legitimate part of our work, our service, our responsibilities, our relationships, even to some extent our enjoyment and pleasure then taking care of our spiritual life is serving all of these things.

I don’t know if that helps you, but it does me because I am very enthusiastic about my projects and my jobs and my responsibilities. I have to remind myself that if I take the time for spiritual practice, particularly zazen, particularly meditation retreats, particularly those times and spaces where we’re cultivating silence, simplicity, letting go. If I do those things, I’m actually going to be better at my work. I’m going to be more energetic in my service. I’m going to be more present and available in my relationships. I just invite you to think about that in terms of your own life and give yourself permission to take that space in order to meet your responsibilities in the rest of your life.


Doing Whatever It Takes to Create a Sustainable Buddhist Practice

Finally, there’s basically doing whatever it takes to maintain your practice. Reality is a middle way between extremes. In this case, on the one hand, everything is practice. Having any ideals or goals is just dualistic. Practice accepting everything just as it is moment by moment. That’s formless practice. Now, on the other hand, what can be realized in this lifetime? The amount of transformation and liberation each of us can achieve is infinite and life is short. This is why the ancestors say that we should practice as if our hair is on fire.

On the one hand, everything is practice, and on the other hand, what are you talking about? Life is short. Our practice does need form, but it isn’t going to be a fixed form and it will probably never fit our ideals. Some of the obstacles that we have in making peace with our own practice and giving it the form that we would like it to have are:

  • Thinking we can/should do it all on our own
  • Having a fixed idea about what practice should look like
  • A refusal to accept how practice is actually manifesting for us
  • Limited Creativity – thinking outside the box in order to provide ourselves with support, inspiration, and structure.

If it helps you to keep a streak going on Insight Timer, or making a bet with a friend that you’ll fulfill a vow or owe them dinner, or if you incorporate your intentions in a prayer you address to Jesus, go ahead!

What works for you? What matters is the result, and not getting stuck in ideas about what practice should look like or what other people’s practice looks like. What is the result we’re looking for? I guess it’s like you feel like your practice has some satisfying form like that clay on the potter’s wheel, and you feel engaged. You are not using so much pressure that the clay breaks up and falls off the wheel. You’re not walking away from the wheel and letting the clay dry out. You’re involved in the process, mindful and appreciative.



[1] “Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)” (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html.

139 - Suchness: Awakening to the Preciousness of Things-As-It-Is
141 - The Practice of Vow 2: Choosing the Direction We Want Our Lives to Take