Many people have asked me about the methods of solitary practice. Most of them have experienced Zen from perspective of group practice, with teachers who promote group practice as the only viable way to practice Zen. Although this is a commonly perpetuated misconception, Zen practice is fundamentally a solitary practice. One needs only to recall that the founder of Zen- Bodhidharma (ca. 440 to 528) practiced alone for nine years in his cave (Mount Song near the Sholin Monastery) to understand Zen as a solitary practice.
Zen did not develop into an organized group practice until the time of Daoxin (who has since been granted the honorific title of Fourth Zen Patriarch). Daoxin was the first Zen master to develop an intentional Zen practice community (ca. 630) which would eventually lead to Zen being accepted and adopted by mainstream Chinese Buddhism and ultimately to Zen being accepted as an orthodox form of Buddhism. For the hundred or more years between Bodhidharma and the founding of Daoxin’s intentional community, Zen remained the practice of scattered individuals and small groups of wandering ascetics.
Since that time, the predominant development of Zen sects and monasteries has led to Zen practice being correlated with organized group practice. However, the custom of independent and solitary Zen practice has continued as an unbroken tradition to this very day. Due to the popularity of Zen, it is likely that unaffiliated and/or individual practitioners equal or exceed the number organized group practitioners. In addition to this, group practitioners are encouraged to maintain a “home” practice as well, making solitary home meditation practice the preeminent form of Zen practiced. With the possible exception of a purely monastic practice (where individuals nearly always practices together) group practice should primarily be viewed as a form of training to be applied to our solitary practice. Just as we go to school to learn methods and develop skills that we will apply to our careers, the methods and skills we develop in group practice are fundamentally training for us to take with us and apply to our daily lives.
It is beyond the zendo and away from our teachers and sangha that we must learn to apply what we have learned “in school.” To think that your Zen practice is only what you do in the zendo, or on retreat, is to think that what your learned in school is only useful while you are in school. If we equate our group Zen training and practice (as we should) with our education, we can clearly see that our real Zen practice is what we practice as individuals (and mostly alone) for the balance of our waking hours. Therefore, we should look at the basic structure of group practice as a primer and formulate our personal solitary practice from what we glean from our group experiences.
We can adopt as much or as little as we feel we need from our group experiences and we should allow our individual practices to evolve as we mature in our practice. What we practice in the beginning may not suit us as our life conditions change, so we should not become attached to any specific form of practice. What is important is that we develop a routine that we can maintain without getting overstressed, bored or burned out. We do not want our practice to suffer from complacency, anxiety or apathy. Therefore, we should make sure that what we develop as our personal routine should become a habit that we will maintain like brushing our teeth; making it in a way, a form of “mental” hygiene.
If possible, I would recommend that everyone make a point to experience some group practice before they begin developing their own private regime. Make a point to attend practice with a group as much as you can. The more experience you have with a group, the easier it will be for you to develop your own routine. I know that this may be difficult for some of us living in remote areas, or away from any Zen centers or monasteries, but an effort to do so will be infinitely rewarding. If it is too difficult to maintain a group practice for any length of time, try attending at least one sesshin (Zen retreat) or zazenkai (one day Zen retreat) in order to learn the fundamentals of practice. If this is not possible, try to find a teacher or others with experience who would be willing to share their knowledge and experiences with you. Be wary however of anyone (even a Zen teacher) who claims that what they are sharing is the “only true way”.
We are fortunate to live in this modern society where global communications are prevalent and distance learning is increasing in viability. Between books, audio recording, videos and the internet; we can find instructions and guidance from a variety of sources that can help us develop good form. Now, there will be those who will claim that you must have a teacher to learn Zen, and while it is true that having a teacher usually makes it easier (just like in school) this is not mandatory. This will help you develop your form and give you “live” technical and moral support. Likewise, if you do not maintain a regular group practice, I recommend returning to group practice or attending sesshins as frequently as you can afford (in time and money) to keep your form fresh and keep you from losing interest.
How often to practice
In Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says that weekly practice is enough for someone who wants maintain a Zen practice. Although I agree that this may be true for some, I have found more frequent practice to be more rewarding. I myself have maintained (for the most part) a six day a week practice for over thirty years. I make no regrets if I should miss a day or two here or there, but I find that if I go to long without practice I can feel the difference. I have always allowed myself one day (traditionally Sunday) to skip practice and frequently forego practice when I travel or otherwise find myself in circumstances where practice would be awkward. I generally recommend a similar schedule to my students and friends, and compare Zen practice with a physical exercise routine.
How Long to Practice
Early on, my meditation sessions were forty-five minutes long. Allowing few minutes to set up, lighting the incense and putting things away this made my daily work-day session run one full hour. However, when I began conducting daily group sessions, I shortened the time to thirty minutes to allow more time for the other related activities. I have found that thirty minute meditation sessions are easy to maintain, given a working family householders’ schedule. How long you meditate should be governed by your schedule and ability and should reflect your long term capabilities to maintain. If you can afford an hour every day without taxing your daily routine and an hour works for you, then do it for an hour, if you can only go half an hour, then go half an hour, what is most important is that you develop a routine that you can maintain for the long haul. Zen practice should be a lifelong commitment.
Where to Practice
Zen practice does not require any special place; one can meditate almost anytime and almost anywhere. However, most people find that maintaining a regular place of practice helps them stay focused and maintain a regular schedule. For most of my life, I did not have room to designate a particular location for practice only. So instead, I kept my cushion and related equipment in a closet and set them up in the same corner of the house every time, returning the equipment to the closet at the end of my practice session. This set up and return was as part of my practice routine and was conducted with the same mindfulness as I would do in an official Zendo. Your place of practice should be a place you always have access to and can practice uninterrupted, otherwise there are no special requirements. Some people I know store their cushion under their beds and just pull them out to sit on them next to their beds, others have rooms complete with altars specifically dedicated to their practice.
What to Practice
Individual practice can vary as much as individuals vary from each other. Your practice could be as simple as a twenty minutes of zazen with nothing else, or be an exact replication of some group practice session you have experienced. Some people reenact every step and recite the complete liturgy they have learned from their group practice, while others simply assume the posture and meditate for the prescribed length of time without fanfare. My personal daily practice consists of conducting an incense lighting ceremony, bowing three times and sitting for thirty minutes. When my timer rings, I bow gassho, return my various accoutrements as I found them and then unceremoniously return to my routine life as a householder.
When to Practice
As with any routine, you should try to keep your practice session on the same daily schedule. This can be mornings or evenings, or even during your lunch hour at work, but it should be the same time in your daily routine so that it becomes automatically what you do at that time. Like brushing your teeth, doing it at the same time every day will help you keep from forgetting to do it, or allow it to become displaced by other things that may seem more urgent. Personally, I am an early riser, so my practice routine has always been early in the morning. After getting up, getting dressed and having my morning tea, I conduct my morning practice exactly the same everyday; this way I have nothing to remember- it is always the same. When I am through with my practice, I get ready for work. This routine is just as automatic as any other it takes nothing out of my day.
What to Practice With
As previously mentioned, the equipment or accoutrements for Zen practice can range tremendously, from virtually nothing to a full zendo complete with altar. In truth, nothing is required more than a place to sit. Any furniture, accruements or attire is purely optional and should be according to what you have or can afford. A proper meditation cushion or bench is certainly helpful, but then again, nothing specific is required. When I kept my equipment in the closet, it consisted of a cushion (zafu), a candle, an incense burning bowl and a small box that held everything but the cushion (candle, matches, incense & incense bowl). An automatic timer is also a good item to have, but you can use the burning time of an incense stick to time your sessions.
As you develop your solitary practice remember to allow it to evolve with your experience and life changes. As your life changes you may find more time and can increase your practice. Or conversely, you may find that the time that you originally set aside was derived from beginners over exuberance and that your life’s situation has changed and you must reduce the scope and/or nature of your practice. Do not be discouraged by this, it is better to modify your practice than to give it up. Also, it is important to remember that if you do ever stop practicing, that resuming practice is simply a matter of setting aside some time to begin again.
Nothing else is ever needed.