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The Art of Zen V.S The Art of Life

Or, the art of true Zen.

Listened to Jiryu give a Dharma talk on the difference between The art of Zen and true Zen. He defined the art of Zen as our formal practice- the black robe, chanting, bowing, sitting practice- and true Zen as what we do with the rest of our day within our limitations of life- the going to the grocery store, teaching a test prep, sitting in traffic practice. The "make love, drive freeway" before and after enlightenment kind of true Zen.

He said that the surrender is what counts, that within surrender there is liberation. He warned that a lot of the time, we're planning the next life in which we will be here and now, trading one set of limitations for another set of limitations.

This was really tough for me to hear again. As soon as I stepped into a Zen temple, I wanted to become a priest. By that time, I was already an inner city school teacher, and I really didn't trust my intention because I figured I was trying to escape in any way possible. Three years later, I still plan to become a priest. But have I spent the last 3 years planning to be here and now in the next life?

I might have.

I remember when I first sat Zazen, 7 years ago. It was in a class with a professor who showed me the posture and that's all he had to do. I made an effort to sit every day since. I went through college thinking myself an intellectual who sat Zazen. I never thought of bells, robes, shaved heads, or levels or ordination. I did try to escape life through alcohol, writing, and trips to Colombia and Alaska, but I never thought of New Orleans Zen Temple, Antaiji, or Green Gulch, as I sometimes do now.

The question I'm pondering is if the art of Zen has become to big a distraction in my life and that I stare at the finger, missing the moon, day in and day out.

I have been boycotting the temple since I moved out and partly because of my tendency to live dual lives, each one an escape to the other, but that doesn't seem to be the answer either.

I do sit at home and that is without glory. I don't wear my rakusu or robe. I sit in my PJs mostly, and next to my fiance who has never been struck with a Kyosaku and who makes small conversation before we really settle in. And I like that.

At the same time I do long for the echo of the Hannya Shingyo. I do miss my rakusu, that piece of cloth I sewed well into the night.

There's a way to keep both the art of Zen and true zen alive in my life. That way may be a constant seeking of the middle path, but I know that's okay, too.

The instructions are so simple! Do good, avoid evil, save all beings! or Chop wood, carry water!

Simple, but difficult, too. I actually know what it's like to chop wood and carry water. I know so well, I remember exactly what I needed to survive for just a day; one blue child's sled full of wood, two 6 gallon containers from the open aquifer.
I'd haul these things every day while dogs barked, an actual wolf snarled (she was a neighbors, chained to a tree) and ravens laughed as I slipped up hill. And I used to curse, looking out at the dogs and say this is all for you.

Did I know that was a metaphor for practice? That waking up to sit, chanting, keeping my emotional sobriety in tact isn't really for me? I didn't know that, and I didn't know that the Bodhisattva path was going to be so difficult to negotiate. But I am pleased to know that I'm locked in. Once you learn the art of Zen, I don't think you can abandon it. It's become my perspective and I couldn't get rid of it if I wanted to.


  1. Hi, I just ran across your blog, and I appreciate your voice here. Thanks for your honesty and your practice.


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