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.

Traditional Buddhist practice – Monastic life – describe

Outside, “lay life” recognized as harder since the beginning

Changing circumstances – structure, habits difficult to maintain

Competing responsibilities, demands, distractions – practice needs diligent maintenance

Lack of social support – rely on self-discipline, our own motivation alone

  • Reason Sangha is one of the three jewels!
  • 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 – important to maintain connection, we all value; even so, different connecting once or twice a week for a few hours as opposed to living with others, following a communal schedule together


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

Our practice needs some kind of form – structure, shape, physical manifestation

We’re human beings, this is the way we work

True, practice at the most subtle and formless level = living deliberately, living by choice, moment by moment (we don’t have to sit zazen or attend Sangha or even be Buddhist to do this)

And much/most of our practice is this moment by moment turning of our minds and hearts toward wisdom and compassion

Monk of body, monk of mind

But the form of our practice, the things we actually physically do, supports and deepens, informs and challenges, helps us grow – reality is a hybrid of monk of body, monk of mind

Today: How do we give our practice form, hold it together?

Constantly changing life circumstances, competing responsibilities, distractions, limited social support = need for determination, creativity, and flexibility

Buddhist PracticeHolding practice together like clay on a potter’s wheel – changing, dynamic; need attention, effort, pressure

But the turning never ends, we never end up with a nice baked pot we can stop working on

Accepting this is part of the process of maintaining our practice, not getting caught in expectations that it will look a certain way, while also not giving up

Today, then: A number of things we can do to give our practice form (doesn’t make a neat list; basically, there are all kinds of tools, practices, approaches, etc. at our disposal)

Take a moment to reflect? If you could give your practice more form, what would you like to add to it, or strengthen? My answer…


Getting Clear About All the Forms Practice Can Take

Nine Fields: Zazen, Dharma Study, Cultivating Insight, Precepts, Opening the Heart, Connecting with the Ineffable, According with the Dharma in Everyday Activities (Nyoho), Karma Work, Bodhisattva Activity

Learning to see every aspect of our life as sustainable Buddhist practice

Therefore, we don’t compartmentalize – put in the effort in certain areas, then slack off because “this isn’t practice”

Practice shouldn’t just be an “add on” to our already busy lives

Everything we do, every moment is an opportunity to live deliberately.

Learning to see things through the lens of our Zen practice, talk to one another and the teacher about our life in these terms, helps us recognize and step up to those opportunities

Extends “practice” beyond the formal, special, dedicated parts, which will always be limited in terms of our time and energy, allows practice to permeate our lives


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

Dogen’s story about the prostitute who puts on a monk’s okesa for a joke, becomes a nun in subsequent lifetime

Self is complicated, there’s not actually an executive “I” in charge

Vow reflects some aspect of our aspiration, but it’s not a command from on high that other aspects of ourselves are then bound to follow (See Episode 124)

Must be wielded gently by most of us for it to help us create a sustainable buddhist practice

Different ways to approach this same aspect of practice: Vow/intention/I want to/may I

Getting good at the practice of vow – what’s appropriate? What am I capable of? How specific should this be? Time limited? Witnessed by others?

Setting ridiculously low expectations for yourself

Keeping your vow around even when you can’t keep it


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

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.”

We’re just social beings

I’ve only known a few people – out of hundreds of practitioners – who have the self-discipline to practice as they really want to, without needing support from others

I need the support – my service, commitment to Sangha

E.g. of abbot of monastery I heard say she chose to live in community because otherwise she’d never sit

What works?! My example of exercise – unable to make myself do it, but no problem attending a scheduled class

If we’re just relying on what we want to do, feel inclined to do, at any given moment, we’ll lose touch with our aspiration because our wants and desires change!

Then later though, we feel regret because the vow/intention/etc. really does reflect something we recognize as being good, beneficial in a longer-term sense

In addition to helping us stay true to our intentions, positive peer pressure – see what others are doing/capable of, challenges and inspires us to push ourselves further

Plus habit of staying in contact carries us through when our own motivation lags

Attendance at Sangha events, deeper engagement (precepts, study groups, speaking up, being seen, volunteering, cultivating Sangha friendships, meeting with the teacher)


Making Space for Taking Care of Our Spiritual Lives

Seeing Taking Care as a legitimate part of our work/service/responsibilities/ even our enjoyment/pleasure (see Crisis Buddhism, Bearing Witness, Taking Action, Taking Care)



Other nourishing activities as well, but in Zen practice, particularly these – space, silence, simplicity, letting go


Doing Whatever It Takes to Create a Sustainable Buddhist Practice

Middle Way between extremes – one hand, everything is practice, having any ideas or goals is just dualistic, accept things as they are; other hand, what can be realized is infinite and life is short, practice as if your hair is on fire

Our practice does need form, but it isn’t going to be a fixed form, and it will probably never fit our ideals.


  • Thinking we can/should do it all on our own
  • Fixed idea about what practice should look like
  • 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!

Result is what matters, don’t get stuck in ideas about what practice should look like, what other people’s practice looks like, etc.

What is that result? You feel like your practice has some satisfying form, like the clay on the potter’s wheel. You feel engaged.

You’re 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