Sunday, July 22, 2012

What do we mean by the word Zen "practice"?

I was reading some Dharma talks by Korean Zen Master Hae Am when I stumbled upon an interesting perspective on Zen practice. The Master used the word "examination" and "re-examination" several times before I realized that he was using them in place of the word "practice," which has to be the most commonly used word in any Zen Buddhist's lexicon.

But what exactly is practice?

I remember the first time I encountered the word in a Buddhist context, I wondered, "Practice what?" Certainly, spiritual practice is different than practicing for a ballet recital or playing the guitar, but what exactly is it? It definitely is not practice in the sense of warming up.

We often hear Buddhists say something like, "Sitting next to my sick child, sharing her suffering, was my practice." I know I've used the word that way.

But is the word "practice" the best word? Intuitively, we all know what people mean when they say, "Sitting in the hot zendo was my practice," but for me that sounds a bit like enduring rather than practice.

Zen Master Hae Am offers us the words "examination" or "re-examination" as alternatives. They might sound a little too cerebral, scientific, or dispassionate, but there's an open curiosity to the wonder of experience that is implicit in the terms that I really appreciate.

Obviously "examination" doesn't have the same ring as "practice" does. But isn't that what practice really is--paying attention to our lives, not allowing ourselves to be seduced by the habit of dualism, and engaging life so closely, so immediately, that there is no sense of "examiner" and "examined"?

Words are important; the Buddha acknowledged their power so much that he included Right Speech in the Eightfold Path. The more we understand our practice, the better we can frame it, I think the clearer it will manifest in our everyday lives.

So please practice, examine your life, examine your practice, re-examine your life as practice, every moment of every day.

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