Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Study Hall and the Newcomers' Table

In the midst of reading Albert Low's commentary on 'Hakuin on Kensho', I was a little perturbed to read this:
"At the Montreal Zen Center, before a member is accepted as a student, he or she must answer three questions. First, do I want to see my true nature, or am I simply 'practicing zen', wanting to find peace and comfort or whatever? Second, am I prepared to do the work that is necessary, and to go on doing it until I have penetrated to the root? Finally, do I have faith in the teacher, and will I be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt when necessary? If the student can answer 'yes' to all three, then he or she is accepted as a student".
I have been trying to figure out for a few days how to resolve what seems like a tension between this approach and what happens here at Zen Center, and I haven't really figured it out yet. Mostly I wonder how long a student has to be at the center before they are subjected to these questions...

Recently we have been offering a newcomers' table on Saturday for the lunch at the end of our busiest public program; for the last two weeks I have been there fielding enquiries from people as we eat, some of whom are completely new, some who have been coming for a few weeks, and are just figuring out their direction and need help with the next steps. I have found it very energising to meet people in this kind of process, and I hope that I am encouraging them to continue and progress.
We often chant 'dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them', as one of our Bodhisattva vows, and I take it to mean that there are many ways to come to Buddhism, and many possibilities for practice. And not everyone is ready to enter the gate when it presents itself, sometimes the time isn't right, and a person might circle around for years before finally deciding to commit themselves. I hope at Zen Center that people feel free to come and go for as long as they need, and to disengage if it doesn't seem right for them. After all, there was a large group of people who left the assembly when the Buddha started to preach the Lotus Sutra.
I suppose the common ground here is that it is our job is to make the practice freely available. I would write more, but I have to put on my robes for afternoon zazen...

1 comment:

Melanie said...

The three questions you describe seem incongruous with the zen practice I've been experiencing during the last 7 months that I have been sitting. I was on the Austin Zen Center's email list for years before I finally showed up for a Saturday beginner's class last December. No one at AZC has ever said a word to me about how much (or how little) I sit or implied that my (initial) reasons for being there weren't up to snuff. In fact, no one said a whole lot to me at first except that they were glad to see me there and hoped I'd return. It was just what I needed. Maybe you get to the point where these three questions could be answered in the affirmative in the course of sitting over a period of time, but I think one can arrive at the shift in point of view without the stern judgment these questions contain, let alone the implied warning not to question the teacher. Soto Zen Buddhism appealed to me initially because you don't have to believe a whole lot of stuff. I had no idea I would find out that it's all so much deeper than I imagined. I can see that consistent, regular sitting is key. And the teacher has shown me that he is a human being with faults, too, not some perfect god or guru. I'm so grateful for that. Maybe it's possible for me to get to that same place of equanimity one day. I probably would have been less likely to return and continue sitting if I had been made to feel like a lazy, comfort-seeking, unforgiving doubter of authority who wasn't worthy of time with the teacher. I'm being blunt and I'm exaggerating, of course. Questions like these that judge and measure, along with an implied warning not to judge or question the teacher, seem to lack compassion and could be potentially dangerous.