A Zen cage for my monkey mind: my journey into Buddhism (part 2 of 2)


So in my post yesterday I gave a little background into my motivations for taking up this Buddhist path. For me, recollecting this was an important part of my current journey. Ever since breaking ties with SGI, I’ve been fine being an “unaffiliated” Buddhist. However, I’ve been realizing more and more that this type of path is so crooked and covered in brambles that I’m never likely to make it far. I know myself enough to know that “loose-knit” just isn’t going to work for me.

On my last post a commenter asked if committing to a particular school was necessary (I go this question on Twitter as well). I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary. However, rather than finding it limiting or too narrow, I find practicing within a framework more liberating. I have no real access to a real life teacher/dharma center/sitting group which makes focus hard enough as it is. Family matters are my primary concern, along with my 40+ hour/week job. So for me, establishing at least some type of framework will be liberating in the sense that I’ll be a little less scattered and a little more focused in my pursuits.

So I’m leaning toward Zen. That’s something I never thought I’d say actually. In the beginning I thought Theravada was the path for me, being as close as one could get to one of the original schools of Buddhism. That was important because at the time I was only really concerned with what The Buddha™ taught. I thought that Zen was so far off from anything the Buddha taught that it shouldn’t really be called Buddhism. I also thought that since the Mahayana sutras were probably not conceived until well after the Buddha died, that made them invalid on some level.

Well that was then and this is now. I’m finding that Zen is a practice that better suits a lay person with my motivations than others I’ve encountered and looked into. I’ve realized that it doesn’t really matter if the Buddha delivered the Mahayana sutras or not, because they and the schools that use them work; for me the proof is in the pudding. I should also state that my decision to pursue Zen didn’t come about because of an aversion to another school. I don’t care about who is right or wrong. Dharma pissing contests are as important to me as Protestants who squabble over whether baptisms should consist of water splashed on the head or being submerged in a Louisiana swamp. I’m choosing this path because it speaks to me, not because all the other ones don’t.

It seems to me that Zen very much focuses on the nature of mind, but brings it down into the dirty marketplace of life. Particularly I have an interest in the Rinzai school and their greater focus on koans (I also so far enjoy Hakuin more than I do Dogen) though as I said without a teacher/center close by it doesn’t really make any sense for me to narrow things down that much. I also understand some of the limitations I’ll face by “going it alone” for the time being, but I’m fine with that. I have much to study, and a meditation practice to integrate more fully with my daily routine. Maybe once things are settled a bit with the baby and I figure out what I’m doing about school in the winter, I’ll drop by a temple in Seattle a few times next year and find out if that’s something I want to pursue with regularity in the future.

So there it is. For now I’ll be using a Zen cage to trap my monkey mind. That doesn’t mean that I’ve suddenly adopted a set of beliefs and now believe in the greater Zen dogma. For me it’s more like a rusty compass to help me get where I’m going.




Filed under Buddhism

14 responses to “A Zen cage for my monkey mind: my journey into Buddhism (part 2 of 2)

  1. When people ask me what type of Buddhism they should practice, I usually tell them that the Buddhism best suited to them is the Buddhism that they will actually practice. Steady practice matters much more than the type of practice (at least, that’s my opinion and experience).

    So I think it’s good to check out several different traditions and trust your experience. This will lead you to a good dharma home.

    By the way, I live in Seattle and if you need info on some of the centers here, let me know.


    • You make a good point Barry, one that was part of my decision to head in this direction. Thank you for the offer as well. I live up here in Arlington, and was thinking once things were a bit more settled I might be able to head down that way once a month on a Sunday or Saturday.

  2. Barry offers excellent advice. It’s all dharma, scratch beneath the surface a little and you discover that all forms of Buddhism are saying pretty much the same thing. Finding a place that really helps support your daily practice and where you can find mutual encouragement through interaction and practice with others is probably more important than what type of Buddhism you align yourself with, and if you get a good teacher on top of that, it’s like icing on the cake.

    Since I left the SGI I’ve practiced in several different traditions, and on occasion have practiced with two or more groups at the same time. And then, I’ve also centered on one place and one teacher, too. But my situation is vastly different from yours.

    To me, finding a framework (which is important) and committing to one particular school are not necessarily the same thing. I think the former is possible without the latter. I would think that there are others someone up in your area that in the same boat as you. It’d be nice is there was a way for you all to find out about each other and connect.

    I don’t think I was aware that you were in Washington state. You’re just 30 miles from my dad, if you fly like a crow.

    • Thanks David. I think I’ll be pursuing this path for now, but I’m completely open to flirting around with some other places as well. I’m intrigued by many of of the teachings and schools out there (though some not so much) and don’t plan on limiting myself solely to Zen.
      And if I ever move closer to Seattle, I’ll have more options as far as communities go. I’ve been looking around for some local ones, but so far haven’t really come up with anything.

  3. i really enjoyed hearing about your process here – I think I am going through something similar. Would love to hear how you travel!!

    By the way, the images you use are gorgeous.

  4. I think Barry makes a very good point here. I went through several “schools” of Buddhism…but found that Zen was the Buddhism I would actually practice. I went to a Tibetan center for a while, but found I preferred the greater simplicity and focus on zazen in Zen practice…plus I was having some resistance to the very literal interpretations there about the six realms and such things after having grown up with a Christian background (i.e. “What do you mean, hell realms?”). Of course, this is a Buddhist teaching (though never hear it talked about during Zen talks where I go), and I appreciate it on a metaphorical level, but prefer not to speculate on what actually happens after death — just to focus on the here and now.

    I’d say check out several teachers/Zen centers — if you live in Seattle, you have many options available…I’m a little more isolated these days — if I don’t want to travel and want to practice with a group on a regular basis. Fortunately, I’ve found one:) Trust your intuition.

    I, also, appreciate the different schools of Buddhism and read in all of them…but I think I’ve found a good “home” in Zen.

    Your family is beautiful. Congratulations on your daughter. I have to stretch to remember when they were that small, as I’m dealing with adolescent and teenage girls now. Yikes!

    • Good points here. I actually live quite a bit north of Seattle, so I’m also isolated and no real local options that I’ve found yet. I feel the same way about some of the imagery used in the Mahayana sutras (metaphor is nice but the imagery is distracting) especially when talking about golden treasure towers appearing out of nowhere!

  5. No advice to add after reading these comments. Visiting different places, some sangha or teacher might go “click,” might not, just keep sitting, keep breathing, and looking. It’s a wonderful, open mind. Sometimes these preferences for this or that school or “style” or “teacher-person” take the place of everything else, but you’ve got a more independent attitude.

    • Yeah, it’s not so much that I’m in love with Zen, but find that it is something I can practice and suits my lifestyle/learning approach more at this time in my life. Thanks.

  6. “Well that was then and this is now. I’m finding that Zen is a practice that better suits a lay person with my motivations than others I’ve encountered and looked into. I’ve realized that it doesn’t really matter if the Buddha delivered the Mahayana sutras or not, because they and the schools that use them work; for me the proof is in the pudding. ”

    Bingo. Me too Dharma brother.


  7. anonymous

    It is really an important part of Buddhist practice to have spiritual friends in the beginning. As your practice goes on it is not so important because you usually have penetrated your own illusions and delusions. We are born alone, and we die alone. That is a hard saying but it is goes to the heart of Buddhist practice. No one can do the work for you, so meditation and stilling your mind is the way to go. Talk to friends about your processes even if they are not Buddhists. You might be surprised at how empathetic other humans are when given the chance. Also comment on other blogs about your experiences, or join a forum. You really do not want hide in an institution of Buddhism. They dumb down the process of awakening and usually are more concerned with the religious nature of what they do. If you are totally sincere in your desire to cut through to your original face, you will no matter what sect of Buddhism you use. Simplify your life too. Trying to keep too many plates spinning will surely be distracting.

  8. G

    Interesting posts on your Buddhist journey, Alan.
    Living in Thailand near some well known forest monasteries, I primarily use the forms of that tradition. As to teachings, Zen is so powerful – D.T. Suzuki and Zen Master Bankei are my biggest influences – that I combine it with the teachings of the forest monks, especially Ajahn Chah and his senior western monk Ajahn Sumedho. Interestingly, Japanese Zen and Thai Theravada forms of Buddhism work well together – I just don’t talk about Dharma in Zen language with most Thai Buddhists that I meet, as they usually find it ‘heretical’ in their way of thinking.

    Be well with your family and in the Dharma,

    • Thank you G. There is something about the philosophical side of the Therevadan path that really calls to me, and I’m sure at some point in the future my practice will veer off in that direction. There is a Thai Forrest monastary that is about an hour away from me, Atammayatarama that I may check out one day.