Q1: Is this for me?
A: Zen is not hard but it will be a unique experience for those not familiar with Buddhism or meditative practices. The best way to understand Zen is to experience it for yourself.
Q2: What should I wear when I visit?
A: Anything that is comfortable. We would encourage you to try sitting on mats and cushions, so loose fitting slacks, jeans or sweatpants would be ideal. If sitting cross-legged is difficult, then you’re welcome to sit in a chair.
Q3: What does it cost?
A: The cost is free, but donations are welcome.
Q4: And what if I want to become a member?
A: As one of the Three Jewels of Zen practice, the sangha is a community of practitioners who support one another both through practice and monthly dues.
Membership at the Ten Directions Zen Community means being a part of the Greater Chicagoland sangha and a part of our international sangha in the Kwan Um School of Zen. Membership also entitles one to reduced rates for retreats and other Zen Center events, as well as subscriptions to our newsletters and Primary Point, the journal of the Kwan Um School.
Dues help support your Center, the School and the transmission of Zen teaching.
And both the TDZC and KUSZ are registered non-profit organizations.
Q5: What’s the difference between Buddhism and Zen?
A: Buddhism originated with its namesake in northern India, expanded to China, where it fused with the Tao to form what we now know as Zen.
Both Buddhism and the Tao have interconnectedness with the world as central themes. Zen takes its name from the Chinese word “ch’an” meaning meditation. Zen as we practice it today was largely shaped in Tang Dynasty China and spread from there to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. In the 20th century, Zen teachers traveled from Asia all around the world.
Though often presented in the context of Buddhism, Zen teaches clear mind and appropriate action in each moment and does not dwell on questions of philosophy or metaphysics. As a practice, Zen meditation ushers us into complete realization of this moment: What is this?
Q6: Do I have to be a Buddhist or become a Buddhist to practice Zen meditation?
A: No. While some people develop an interest in Buddhism or become Buddhist while practicing Zen, others do not. There is no religious requirement, Buddhist or otherwise, to practice Zen.
Q7: I already have strong religious beliefs. Will Zen conflict with my faith?
A: Many people tell us Zen meditation complements their religious beliefs. Others tell us they have discovered parallel teachings between Zen and their religious tradition.
From our point of view, Zen meditation does not conflict with other religious practices and other religious traditions do not interfere with Zen meditation.
Q8: How can I start to practice meditation?
A: The most important factor in starting a Zen meditation practice is a clear, strong resolve to do it.
We invite beginners to come to seek instruction and to attend sessions of several other groups as well. Personal instruction ensures your form is correct and allows time for questions and answers. Visiting several groups will give you a sense of which styles of teaching and practice most resonate with you.
When you’re ready to try meditating at home it’s helpful to choose a place where you can be private and a time when you are unlikely to be disturbed. A folded blanket, towel, or sofa pillow can usually provide sufficient padding to make sitting comfortable. If there is nothing handy, a chair is also suitable. Don’t worry about making a mistake and don’t worry if you’ve forgotten a few details. The important thing is to try.
Finally, we encourage everyone to practice regularly and steadily, even if only five minutes a day, rather than in spontaneous, enthusiastic spurts. Regular Zen practice can be a tremendous source of energy, wisdom, and compassion with which to meet the inevitable challenges that life brings our way.
Q9: I’m uncomfortable after a few minutes of sitting. What can I do?
A: The traditional meditation postures held while seated on a cushion are extremely stable, providing solid physical support for meditation practice. We strongly encourage those who can to stretch and exercise and become comfortable in them.
That being said, we also recognize that illness or injury may make holding these traditional postures very difficult, if not impossible, for some people. In this case, sitting in a chair is a reasonable alternative. We recommend a simple, arm-less wooden or folding chair, but any chair will do.
It’s always helpful to talk about the physical aspects of practice with our teacher or a senior student from time to time.
Q10: There is no meditation group near me, can I practice alone?
A: Whether in a group or alone, we always encourage people to meditate. We urge everyone, especially beginners, to find and join a group and to attend group events once in a while, even if that means driving or traveling. A teacher and group practice provide an invaluable source of support, steadiness, and inspiration.
Q11: I have a busy job and a family so I don’t have time to practice. What can I do?
A: Like so many questions about practice, there is no one way to integrate meditation into daily life.
Some people decide to make practice a priority and carve out a regular time to bow or chant or sit, even if it is only ten minutes a day, and even if it means rising early or staying up late if necessary. Other people make time for group practice once a week or a retreat several times a year.
But regardless of career or family obligations, everyone can practice “daily life” Zen, fully engaging in the moment of cooking a meal or brushing our teeth. Zen practice may begin on the cushion and mat, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t stay there. Every situation and relationship in our life—whether at work or at home—is an opportunity to respond with a clear mind and open heart. What are we doing right now?
Q12: I know I’m not supposed to think when I meditate, but I just can’t seem to stop my mind from wandering. What’s wrong?
A: Zen practice is not a matter of stopping, holding, keeping, fixing, or suppressing the chatter, moodiness or any other aspect of our mind.
Everyone who sits Zen meditation, from the newest beginner to the oldest Zen Master, experiences the way our attention naturally drifts – one moment we’re present, one moment we’re thinking about our job, one moment we’re aware of the pain in our knee.
The key to Zen practice is returning our attention to the present moment as soon as we realize we have drifted away. Working against the tendency to feed one thought with another, we return calmly and without judgment to the present moment and, like pressing the “clear” function key on a calculator, begin again.
Q13: What is a koan?
(Questions 13 and 14 have been adapted from the Kansas Zen Center website)
A: Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan) have their origin in records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. In kong-an practice, the teacher asks questions and the student answers them. The purpose of kong-an practice is to help us cut through our thinking. It is an essential part of our practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.” That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions attached to the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems. Some kong-ans go back over 1500 years, others are created by the teacher right there in the interview room.
Some schools recommend using the kong-an as a focus of meditation. This is not our style. The kong-an will often come up naturally in practice; and even more often it won’t. Don’t worry about this. If you practice sincerely, the interview room will take care of itself.
Q14: Is there chanting?
A: Yes. Our chanting practice comes from the Korean tradition, and most of our chants are in the Korean pronunciation of Chinese (known as Sino-Korean). Translations can be found for the major chants in the back of the chanting book. One chant is the Heart Sutra, which is arguably the central sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. We chant it both in Sino-Korean, and in an English translation.