1. I’m totally new to meditation, or I have practiced other styles of meditation. Can I come?
Yes, please join us. We can show you the basics of zazen in about 10 minutes. Whether you’re a new meditator or you’ve done other styles of meditation, please contact us if you’ll be joining us for the first time. We offer monthly Newcomer Nights. See the event schedule for details. Newcomer night begins at our regular time of 5:00p.m., Sunday evenings.
2. What happens at weekly meditation practice?
Our practice usually includes two sessions of zazen (sitting meditation) of around 25 minutes each, with walking meditation (kinhin) in between. After meditation you might experience other aspects of Zen such as readings, dharma study, chanting of sutras, or mindful practice discussion.
Zazen is a silent practice that has analogs in all major world religions and thus knows no conflict with other traditions. All are welcome.
3. What do I need to wear or bring?
We have some meditation cushions, but if you have your own favorite one, please bring it.
Wear loose, non-distracting clothing (think martial arts class, not yoga class), if possible in muted colors and without pictures or writing on them. This will help keep a neutral environment that is conducive to meditation for all.
4. Does it cost anything to participate?
It is the tradition of Zen to operate on a donation-only basis. We request a $5 donation per person, per visit – more if you can, less if you can’t.
Selfless giving (dana) is one of the six paramitas (basic practices) of Buddhism. Giving – whether in the form of time or money – dissolves the grip of ego-centered selfishness, allowing us to let go our unhealthy attachments to material things.
Your donation allows this organization to continue and grow, making the Dharma available to the wider Memphis community. This is one of the most honorable ways to use your available resources.
One third of your donation will go to the Memphis Friends Meeting for allowing our sangha to meet there. Another third goes to our overarching organization, Mokurai Silent Thunder Order. The remaining portion goes to MZC, which will allow us to maintain this website, create promotional materials, make photocopies, and purchase more cushions or mats as needed. It will also go into savings towards greater goals, such as establishing 503c non-profit status, incorporating as an organization, and in the longer term, to work towards the dream of a dedicated practice space from which to operate.
As we like to say, “The Dharma is free, but rent is not.” We operate for no other reason than to make Zen meditation and practice available here in Memphis. We hope you’ll help us do that.
5. Will this be weird?
Maybe? A few elements of Zen may seem unfamiliar at first, but soon they will become an integral part of the meditative experience. Zen is a specific tradition with a very long history. It may not look or feel like other types of meditation you have tried. That’s okay. Here are some things you may notice:
We follow a certain format to minimize distraction for everyone. Follow along with others until you’ve gotten the hang of Zen etiquette. It’s not about conformity, but instead about practicing as a community to create a conducive atmosphere for all of us.
Silence will become your new norm. It is a natural state one falls into with time and practice, though at first it may seem unnatural and awkward. The observance of silence is a natural outgrowth of the quiet, fresh mind that arises in Zen meditation (zazen). The differences in your mental state, whether on or off the cushion (zafu), become less pronounced over time.
For practical reasons, we rely on bells and other non-verbal signals, which may seem strange at first, but they help us retain verbal silence and quiet the mind once you’re attuned to them.
Along with zazen, our tradition includes other practices, including bowing and chanting. Just follow along, and you’ll get the hang of it. It is not as weird as it seems. The Buddha was human. We practice deepest respect for what he taught us, but we don’t worship him. The chants remind us of our Soto heritage and contain important hints for practice. You may just hear the words. You may gain insight from them. They may annoy you one day and enlighten you the next. Be open to all of the above. Our founder Matsuoka-roshi often said, “The meaning of the chant is in the chanting.” May you find that meaning for yourself.
6. What do I do after attending for the first time?
First, we invite you to come back next week and beyond. By sitting in the silence of zazen together, we encourage each other as we train our minds to remain aware without conditions or judgment. With regular practice, we can call this still presence to our aid whenever we need it. Zazen is training for life in a busy world.
Second, we encourage you to begin a daily practice at home. And the number one tip as you begin this journey?…
Take things at a comfortable pace when you start practicing at home. Beginning Zen is much like starting a new physical training regimen. New practitioners may go through an exciting stage at first, and may aspire to meditation that exceeds their current limits.
Pushing yourself too far could cause you physical or mental discomfort, and this could be discouraging. Work your way into Zen in small increments, and be patient. How long you can meditate in one sitting isn’t nearly as important as consistency. Even 5 minutes a day will be a great start!
7. How do I know what basic gear I need, and where can I get it?
Whatever posture and cushion or bench you choose to start with, it probably won’t be the same one you’ll use five years from now. Feel free to change and experiment as your body moves closer to a more natural and perfect Zen posture. Trying out different benches and cushions at our weekly practice might help you choose.
To attain the “comfortable way,” visit these sites to find cushions and other gear:
They vary in price, but there are cushions, benches, and mats to fit every body and budget. Consider it an investment in your own well-being.
8. What will help my practice at home?
Along with the gear, here are some basic points to remember when you are sitting in Zen meditation at home:
Where you sit at home should be like our meditation hall (zendo): quiet, not too hot or cold; the light level should be moderate.
Timing: Try Insight Timer for iPhone, iPad, or Android. It’s versatile because you can customize it to fit your practice needs and preferences.
Keep the area tidy and free of distractions. Follow the level of protocol you find helpful, such as chanting or burning incense. Of course practices like these are not as important as zazen itself.
Sit up straight, in a balanced posture, as centered as possible. Face a wall or other neutral surface. The Zen posture is called “the comfortable way,” yet it is not relaxed or slumping, but upright. Many Americans are not used to good posture because our chairs are not conducive to it. It may take your muscles a while to acclimate to upright sitting. Be patient, and don’t strain.
If your legs or back hurt to the point that you are unable to meditate, try a new posture and/or cushion arrangement. Most often, discomfort in sitting can be relieved by boosting the back of the cushion an inch or two using a folded or rolled towel. When all else fails, you can sit in a chair, but remember to stay upright.
Breathe deeply 3-4 times at first, and then allow the breath to slow down to its natural pace. Don’t force it, but observe it. You may find it helpful to count the breath as you begin practice – each in-breath from 1 to 10, then starting over. If you lose count, start back at 1. Allow the counting to drop away if it becomes too much of a distraction. The breath will eventually take care of itself, like a gate blowing in the wind – first one way, and then the other.
Along with the posture and breath, notice the thoughts, sensations and emotions that arise, but do not give any specific thing too much importance. In zazen we sit upright, not leaning into or turning away from whatever arises. Also, don’t attempt to suppress thoughts and feelings or chastise yourself for having them – that only makes them stronger. Simply let them arise and pass, just like the breath.
9. Where can I find more information about Zen?
You can find and study Zen teachings at the Silent Thunder Order (STO) website, as well as the Atlanta Soto Zen Center site. The San Francisco Zen Center has an excellent series of Podcasts – just click on a title that appeals to you for whatever reason.
Recommended books for beginning Zen practice include
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
- Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck
- Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Practice by Kosho Uchiyama
- Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
- Moku-Rai and The Kyosaku by Soyu Matsuoka
Just remember that books and teachings are no substitute for real practice. The difference between intellectual understanding and experiential knowing in Zen is like the difference between reading a book on baseball versus actually playing the game.
10. Do I have to be a Buddhist?
No. Anyone of any faith background (or none) can enjoy the fruits of zazen. Many people find that Zen practice enhances their existing faith journey. Others may use it simply as a stress-reliever. Still others may adopt Zen as their main spiritual practice. Your Zen journey will not resemble anyone else’s.
If you do have an interest in becoming a Zen Buddhist or “taking refuge” as we call it, that path is open to you. See your Practice Leader for details about this option.
In Zen we do not proselytize. As it states on the door to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center: “All who enter are welcomed. Those who leave are not pursued.”
11. How would I “become a Buddhist” if I wanted to?
It’s important to remember that Buddhism is not about beliefs – it’s about practice. American Buddhists often practice Buddhism alongside their original faith, and they find that the two are completely compatible. Many atheists or agnostics like Zen because it does not require supernatural beliefs. Regular meditation, having a teacher and a group to visit regularly, studying Buddhist texts, contributing time and resources to your sangha (group), and striving to apply The Precepts in all daily interactions and activities – these practices constitute Buddhism. No specific beliefs are required.
In Zen, there are many different types of participation that might fit your interests. Some people attend weekly zazen, engage in all the practices mentioned above, and go to sesshins (intensive meditation retreats) regularly but never formally declare themselves Buddhists.
However, after attending weekly zazen, establishing a daily meditation practice at home, and maybe attending a short sesshin or two, many people feel a special affinity with Zen and wish to deepen their commitment. In our Zen sangha, we have a practice path that people follow when they wish to make this commitment.
The first step is a ceremony called jukai (initiation) in which the student declares him/herself a Zen Buddhist by taking refuge and vowing the first five of the Ten Grave Precepts. The initiate receives a vestment called a wagesa, a thin stole worn around the neck that represents the hem of the Buddha’s robe, and a Japanese Dharma name, the meaning of which he/she will strive to realize in practice.
After deepening one’s practice through continued daily meditation and participation in more intensive retreat practice, a student may wish to further deepen his/her commitment to Zen and to start working formally one-on-one with a Zen teacher. This step is by invitation of the teacher after he or she has observed the student’s practice and has established a rapport with that student. The student first prepares for a ceremony called Zaike Tokudo (lay ordination) by sewing a bib-like vestment called a rakusu, a scaled-down version of the Buddha’s full robe.
When the rakusu is complete, the student gives it back to the teacher, who will create a certificate of ordination in calligraphy on the white silk backing of the vestment. The teacher then presents the student with the completed rakusu at the Zaike Tokudo ceremony. In this ceremony, which closely resembles a monk’s ordination, the student vows all of the Precepts just as a monk would. After the ceremony, the student will likely go on to play a greater role in the life of the sangha through duties such as teaching, preparing meals, greeting newcomers, initiating new programs, organizing sittings or other events, and helping others.
Beyond lay ordination, the path of practice might lead to monk or priest ordination, but this occurs usually after a long discernment process. It is possible to stay in a working monastery as a guest student to see if this is a suitable life for you. One such place is Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California.
12. Do Buddhists believe in God?
Some do, and some do not. Buddhism is often misunderstood to be atheistic, but “nontheistic” is a better term for it. That is to say, Zen has no position on God one way or another and no strict views on the afterlife, neither affirming or denying the existence of the divine. As mentioned above, Zen is about practice, not belief. Therefore, many Zen practitioners are also Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim, and zazen – a wordless form of meditation that has analogs in all major world religions – enhances their existing faith journeys.
Meanwhile, some practitioners adopt Zen as their main spiritual affiliation, and again, belief in the divine may be expressed differently from person to person. Some Buddhists are atheists or agnostics. However, many Buddhists talk of a “Buddha nature” that permeates all sentient beings – and indeed, everything that exists – as a kind of animating force that is not separate from the universe itself. In this view, we are said to participate in the universe’s unfolding every moment whether we realize it or not. Buddhism is about coming to that realization by experiencing it first-hand through meditation. Compassion and the ability to follow The Precepts stem from the insight that we are not a separate, individual self, but rather we are each drops of water in a great ocean.
13. How can I be a member of MZC?
Support the community by practicing with us regularly, volunteering your time, and offering an ongoing contribution.
If you would also like “take refuge” (become a Zen Buddhist), see your Practice Leader for details.
With your energy and participation, we could expand our offerings to include:
- More zazen sessions per week
- Quarterly or monthly zazenkai (day-long or half-day retreats)
- Workshops / visits by our guiding teacher, Taiun Elliston, Roshi
- Carpools to longer retreats at the Zen Centers in Nashville and Atlanta
…and much more! A worthy aspiration is to found a dedicated space available to different Buddhist groups in midtown Memphis. There are similar centers in Little Rock and Nashville. Your contributions of time, energy, and money could help make this dream a reality.
14. Couldn’t I just sit at home and not bother with group practice?
You could, but have you ever tried to maintain a martial arts, yoga, or exercise routine without the motivation and encouragement of a group or at least a buddy? It’s easy to fizzle out without the accountability and fellowship of regular group practice. Plus it’s more fun to do zazen with others. We not only sit and chant together – we also eat, socialize, and even travel to retreats together. “Sangha” means community.
15. So you just stare at the wall, let your thoughts pass without judging them, and this is the basis of an entire worldview that has been around since 500 BCE?
Yes, and many people even get up ridiculously early to fit it into their daily schedules. Don’t you want to find out what the big deal is?