The key elements of practice at the Chicago Zen Center are that stock of training tools come down from the time of the Buddha and refined over centuries of training in monasteries and practice centers. We engage in them because they have been shown time and again to be effective in uprooting the cause of our sorrow: the pervasive and relentless attachment to self. The spirit of aspiration we bring to them is guided and directed skillfully to the realization of the liberating promise of the Dharma.
The practice life of the Center is rather simple and straightforward. We do not offer classes, host guest speakers, arrange excursions, engage in activism, or otherwise embellish the core practice. What we do offer is a unique setting to get down to the business of dedicated spiritual work for those who are eager to do it with appropriate support and guidance along the way.
Zen gets its name as the "meditation only" school of Buddhism, and zazen, or seated meditation, is our primary practice. Zazen differs from other forms of meditation in that it calls for energy, determination, and courage as it opens us up both to the depth of our delusions and to the prospect of genuine insight. As Philip Kapleau put it, "The uniqueness of zazen lies in this: that the mind is freed from bondage to all thought-forms, visions, objects, and imaginings, however sacred or elevating, and brought to a state of absolute emptiness, from which it alone may one day perceive its own true nature." In this, the other components of Buddhist practice—moral uprightness and an aspiration to wisdom—come squarely to bear on the quality of one's zazen.
While practicing zazen we maintain stillness through all the aches and pains, the emotional ups and downs, and the oscillations between enthusiasm and boredom that arise along the way. Only by so doing can we begin to see that we are not defined by what we experience or how we happen to feel. While one can certainly practice zazen at home, doing zazen with others in the zendo helps keep us on task without the usual distractions of everyday life and offers us an opportunity to bolster one another though the highs and lows of practice.
Because it is all too easy to get caught up in our own ideas about practice or to get mired in distracting mind states, dokusan is offered during every scheduled sitting. Dokusan is a private, one-on-one meeting with a teacher to take up matters related to practice. For the beginner, dokusan helps one establish practice by receiving pointers on one's zazen and addressing any issues, concerns, or mind states that arise in conjunction with it. For those with an established practice, dokusan helps focus the aspirational mind, and, depending on the student, koan work may be taken up as a way to hone and deepen one's zazen and to cut through the lingering bonds of attachment, aversion, and ignorance.
Teisho is a living presentation of the Buddhadharma delivered by a teacher. Its primary purpose is not to impart information, provide instruction, or even edify, but simply to give voice to the Dharma today. While material may be drawn from recent articles or scholarship, the koan collections, the sutras, or everyday life, in the end, what is offered is the teacher's grasp of the truth for the possible benefit of those hearing it. Teisho is offered regularly on Sundays and every day during sesshin. Occasionally, a dharma talk, generally given by a senior student of the Center, is offered instead.
Zen doesn’t purport to dispense the truth; the truth is the birthright of each of us, embodied in our living experience. The teacher can do little more than use whatever means are at hand to direct the student’s attention to this self-revealing reality.
As generation after generation of teachers found creative ways to nudge students toward a realization of the inner truth, records of these improvised teachings were passed forward in the form of “koans”. These brief texts are widely used in Zen training as a prod to move the student beyond conceptualization, toward a direct experience of the same living truth that those ancient masters were thrusting before their students. For those who are ready and willing to undertake an uncompromising inquiry into the very source of our being, koan work is an unparalleled vehicle.
Our temple is heir to a long tradition of rigorous koan training, carefully preserved in all of its vitality. Once a student has developed a degree of stable, focused attention, koan work may be taken up as a way to harness that attention in a dynamic way.