I’m new… What do I need to know?
First Things First: The Five Things We Do in Soto Zen
In our tradition, we use five practices or forms. When you visit Prairie Mountain Zen Center, either in person or via Zoom, here is what we will be doing:
• Meditation. Meditation is the heart of the Soto tradition (see below). We sit in a relaxed yet wakeful posture, with our eyes open, and we place our attention on the breath. Some of us meditate while seated on the floor, on a cushion known as a zafu. Some kneel on a meditation bench or sit in a chair. We also do walking meditation (described below). If you are new to meditation and would like personalized instruction, please contact Jodo Cliff Clusin.
• Bowing. We bow to the altar when entering the zendo (meditation space) and at various times during the meditation practice, chants and other activities. At PMZC, we also bow to the outside world when leaving the zendo.
Bowing can be a difficult form for Americans, since we are trained to think of it as an act of subservience to someone or something. But this is not the case. Bowing is merely a gesture of respect, either to another person or to the practice itself. When bowing to another person, both bow together in a gesture of mutual respect.
Prostration (where feet, knees, hands and head touch the ground) is a more extreme form of bowing done in some ceremonies. Find out more here.
If you are not comfortable with bowing or prostration, feel free to skip one or both.
• Chanting. We chant in English and occasionally in phonetic Japanese. Chant cards are available in the zendo, or shared onscreen during Zoom meetings. Examples of the chants we use can be found here.
• Sutra study (education & discussion). A sutra is a canonical text, often (but not always) a record of the oral teachings of the historic Buddha. We also study various commentaries, analysis and even poetry relating to points of Zen Buddhist practice. Examples of the texts we use can be found here.
• Dialog with the teacher, including dharma talks, formal one-to-one interviews (dokusan) and informal meetings and discussions. To arrange a meeting, contact Jodo Cliff Clusin.
In addition to the teacher, we often have talks from invited guest teachers or senior group members. Examples of recorded talks can be found here.
We’ve gathered the answers to questions you might have below. If your question isn’t listed, feel free to email.
With so many meditation apps available, why should I practice with other people?
While recognizing the value of individual practice, we believe that sitting with others who are also dedicated to waking up enhances the experience significantly. Through the community of Buddhist practitioners, or sangha, we can learn and grow in ways that are not possible on one’s own. Even the most disciplined practitioners benefit from the presence and perspectives of others. As explained below, our practice of zazen differs from the types of meditation offered by most apps.
For more on this topic, see the following resources:
The Importance of Sangha (Part I)
The Importance of Sangha (Part II)
How does Zazen differ from mindfulness meditation?
There are many types of meditation. Zazen involves aspects of mindfulness, or paying attention. However, zazen is aimed at encouraging practitioners to realize their inherent nature as awakened beings. In addition, the Zen tradition surrounding zazen includes rituals and chants that are not typically involved in mindfulness practice.
What should I expect in remote practice?
You’ll find Zoom links to practice with us here. When you click on the link, you’ll see the images of those already online. Make sure to mute yourself, but keep your sound on so you can hear the bells that let us know what to do. Three bells begin a 20-minute period of zazen. Two bells indicate the transition to kinhin, or walking meditation (more on this below). During this time, you may use the restroom if you need to do so. We then meditate again for 20 minutes. One bell signals the end of meditation. Next, we take a 10-minute break. After the opening chants, we hear a dharma talk of about 40 minutes. The talk concludes with discussion, and closing chants end the practice. Some people stay for informal conversation after this.
What if I can't stop thinking?
Don't worry. Everyone, including experienced meditators, experiences periods of uncontrolled random thinking. It is often called “monkey mind.” However, when you notice that you are lost in thought, this is a positive sign. Noticing that you are thinking is the beginning of mindfulness. Just tell yourself, "Wow, I just experienced mindfulness." Without giving yourself a hard time or feeling discouraged, just very gently, change the object of your attention from your thoughts back to your breath. As you practice over time, the periods of monkey mind random thinking will get shorter and the periods of mindful attention to breath will get longer. Try it and see for yourself!
What's the walking meditation?
We do slow, walking meditation known as kinhin between the two periods of zazen. One bell indicates the start of kinhin. We begin by standing, with our hands held in the posture known as shasu. To do this, form your left hand into a soft fist with the left thumb tucked in. Wrap the fingers of the right hand around the left hand, with the thumb resting in the space created by the tucked left thumb. The knuckles of the left hand rest against the torso, at the bottom of the rib cage.
Holding hands in shasu, we walk clockwise around the zendo, slowly and smoothly. The end of kinhin is indicated with a single bell. We stop, bow once, and return to our seats. We remain standing at our seats until all have reached their places. We then bow with the group, turn and bow to our seats, and begin zazen again.
What is "Soto" Zen?
Prairie Mountain Zen Center is within the Soto Zen lineage of Buddhism. This lineage dates to the ninth century in China, where it was developed by two monks named Tozan and Sozan, whose combined names give us “Soto.” The Soto school emphasizes “everyday” Zen practice, which is accessible to everyone, not solely to monks. You will find more information here.
In the thirteenth century, Zen master Eihei Dogen brought the Soto lineage from China to his home country of Japan. The lineage was subsequently passed down in Japan. Soto Zen made its way to the United States primarily through two respected teachers: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and Dainin Katagiri Roshi, who established the Minnesota Zen Center. ("Roshi" means elder teacher or master.) Prairie Mountain Zen Center is in the lineage of Dainin Katagiri Roshi.