Doubts regarding Soto Zen

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MyNameIsEarl
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Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by MyNameIsEarl » Wed Nov 07, 2018 3:10 pm

Hello, I previously practised in a Theravada tradition for a long time, and started sitting with a Soto Zen group 6 months ago. I recently attended my first sesshin and found it incredibly tough, 'small-self' stuff mainly, but some of the ritual felt harsh and unnecessary as well, and I'm doubting I have chosen the right tradition for me.

I love Zen but wonder if a less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more. I did sit with a Thich Nhat Hanh sangha a long time ago and enjoyed it's gentle nature. I don't know if I'm just looking for an easy way out, unwilling to stay where things are difficult, and if my Western attitude is getting in the way of a beautiful practice.

Also, I'm not interested necessarily in looking wider, as I've spent far too long getting to this point; digging many small wells and not just one (I think Joseph Goldstein said that).

Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated, thank you :anjali:

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Meido
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Meido » Wed Nov 07, 2018 6:41 pm

The thing about sesshin is that the training forms are essentially monastic in origin. So they certainly can seem intimidating or harsh at first to someone who is not accustomed to that environment. But when one understands the function of the forms to help one integrate samadhi with activity (among other things), those feelings fade. One could also see that as a layperson, the intensity of that retreat environment is extremely useful, and even necessary at times.

Another thing to consider regarding practice in general: if something makes us uncomfortable or causes feelings of aversion to arise, it may be useful to precisely choose to do that thing. This is the essential principle of shugyo, i.e. deep psycho-physical training. In other words: if sesshin causes you to squirm, why not use the situation to confront and work with whatever obstructions are arising. This is assuming, of course, that there is not any odd stuff going on.

Regarding Zen in general, the most important thing is to connect with a qualified teacher...and that would be the first person to discuss these things with. Soto Zen in the modern era to some degree, and certainly Soto Zen in the West in general, has (to my mind) unfortunately de-emphasized the role of the teacher, the centrality of sanzen (encounter with the teacher), and so on...so not sure how much opportunity there is for you to do that. There are not many (if any) Soto Zen shike - masters certified to train disciples - in the West. There are, however, a number of qualified, well-practiced priests taking that role. I don't know what it's like at the place you're attending, but it would be worth going to the top person there and talking about your concerns.

I've said this before here, but: no need to doubt (or seek) a tradition. Better to find the teacher with whom one has affinity, regardless of tradition, and then don't look back.
It is relatively easy to accomplish the important matter of insight into one’s true nature, but uncommonly difficult to function freely and clearly [according to this understanding], in motion and in rest, in good and in adverse circumstances. Please make strenuous and vigorous efforts towards this end, otherwise all the teachings of Buddhas and patriarchs become mere empty words. - Torei

The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice

Korinji Rinzai Zen Monastery [臨済宗 • 祖的山光林禅寺] - http://www.korinji.org

Matylda
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Matylda » Thu Nov 08, 2018 9:23 am

MyNameIsEarl wrote:
Wed Nov 07, 2018 3:10 pm
Hello, I previously practised in a Theravada tradition for a long time, and started sitting with a Soto Zen group 6 months ago. I recently attended my first sesshin and found it incredibly tough, 'small-self' stuff mainly, but some of the ritual felt harsh and unnecessary as well, and I'm doubting I have chosen the right tradition for me.

I love Zen but wonder if a less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more. I did sit with a Thich Nhat Hanh sangha a long time ago and enjoyed it's gentle nature. I don't know if I'm just looking for an easy way out, unwilling to stay where things are difficult, and if my Western attitude is getting in the way of a beautiful practice.

Also, I'm not interested necessarily in looking wider, as I've spent far too long getting to this point; digging many small wells and not just one (I think Joseph Goldstein said that).

Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated, thank you :anjali:
if you have doubts, then give it up.. it is as simple as this.
less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more - indeed, it is problem for you.
anyway if you do not know as you wrote, then who is going to know? if you like Goldstein why not to go there? you have many options.. and give up zen it is not for you..

Matylda
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Matylda » Thu Nov 08, 2018 10:04 am

Meido wrote:
Wed Nov 07, 2018 6:41 pm
The thing about sesshin is that the training forms are essentially monastic in origin. So they certainly can seem intimidating or harsh at first to someone who is not accustomed to that environment. But when one understands the function of the forms to help one integrate samadhi with activity (among other things), those feelings fade. One could also see that as a layperson, the intensity of that retreat environment is extremely useful, and even necessary at times.

Another thing to consider regarding practice in general: if something makes us uncomfortable or causes feelings of aversion to arise, it may be useful to precisely choose to do that thing. This is the essential principle of shugyo, i.e. deep psycho-physical training. In other words: if sesshin causes you to squirm, why not use the situation to confront and work with whatever obstructions are arising. This is assuming, of course, that there is not any odd stuff going on.

Regarding Zen in general, the most important thing is to connect with a qualified teacher...and that would be the first person to discuss these things with. Soto Zen in the modern era to some degree, and certainly Soto Zen in the West in general, has (to my mind) unfortunately de-emphasized the role of the teacher, the centrality of sanzen (encounter with the teacher), and so on...so not sure how much opportunity there is for you to do that. There are not many (if any) Soto Zen shike - masters certified to train disciples - in the West. There are, however, a number of qualified, well-practiced priests taking that role. I don't know what it's like at the place you're attending, but it would be worth going to the top person there and talking about your concerns.

I've said this before here, but: no need to doubt (or seek) a tradition. Better to find the teacher with whom one has affinity, regardless of tradition, and then don't look back.
I think the main dish if we talk about zen is clear kensho-satori realization.. does not matter where, soto rinzai, obaku or any othere non-japanese zen tradition. and 100% true, the teacher is crucial.. so let us forget about 99% of so called zen teachers.. if there is only one in the country would be already great.
In the worst case so called 'zen teacher' should be an expert in samadhi...
there could be one or two shike in the West but I would doubt their qualities. Soto school is now full of pretty unqualified priests, who may follow some formalities, but are pretty unripe, still. I took some spare time to listen to some well known soto teachers in the W. well, it had nothing to do with zen, it is kind of coaching kind of psychoanalisis kind of anything what is not zen...

In Japan soto shike are not experts in satori experience, and I met altogether more then 30, some of them talk even clear nonsens about satori, anyway they lack now tools to make check points to determine authenticity of such realization.

but some have good experience in samadhi, and few of them have even great power of samadhi... within one lineage of soto transmission connected to Sawaki Kodo, there is still talk about inka shomei/satori - Sawaki got it from Oka Sotan - and when asked about sanzen/dokusan, certain roshi of that lineage said, yes of course but what for?
he said that when one starts to get samadhi then there is cause to give sanzen... well, he himslef practiced 8/60 min rounds of zazen every day.. and every day gave a lot of clear zazen/shikantaza instructions to very few students. A Few since one could not get any certificate from him which would allow to keep job of a priest in a regular temple.. he was an impressive person and good zen teacher indeed. But very unique for soto school in Japan.

Anyway this branch of soto and Sawaki Kodo never got to the West.. i figured out that it is Uchiyama line which is known and a few of Uchiyama roshi's disciples got to the USA and maybe somewhere else... but Uchiyama roshi was very much against things like kensho satori etc. and even took pain to talk to Shibayama Zenkei of Nanzenji about it. Shibayama answer was interesting, if true, but it would be good point then to sum up situation with rinzai in Japan.. this I give up of course.


Great masters are already dead... and that is all about it.. in the west people look for some easy practie, would never sacrifice their life for enlightenemnt and zen is simply dying or becoming its own caricature... yes of course there are some good and respected priests.. but good reputation has nothing to do with zen, neither bad... zen means enlightenment, satori, kensho, nothing else.

MyNameIsEarl
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by MyNameIsEarl » Thu Nov 08, 2018 10:08 am

Meido wrote:
Wed Nov 07, 2018 6:41 pm
The thing about sesshin is that the training forms are essentially monastic in origin. So they certainly can seem intimidating or harsh at first to someone who is not accustomed to that environment. But when one understands the function of the forms to help one integrate samadhi with activity (among other things), those feelings fade. One could also see that as a layperson, the intensity of that retreat environment is extremely useful, and even necessary at times.

Another thing to consider regarding practice in general: if something makes us uncomfortable or causes feelings of aversion to arise, it may be useful to precisely choose to do that thing. This is the essential principle of shugyo, i.e. deep psycho-physical training. In other words: if sesshin causes you to squirm, why not use the situation to confront and work with whatever obstructions are arising. This is assuming, of course, that there is not any odd stuff going on.

Regarding Zen in general, the most important thing is to connect with a qualified teacher...and that would be the first person to discuss these things with. Soto Zen in the modern era to some degree, and certainly Soto Zen in the West in general, has (to my mind) unfortunately de-emphasized the role of the teacher, the centrality of sanzen (encounter with the teacher), and so on...so not sure how much opportunity there is for you to do that. There are not many (if any) Soto Zen shike - masters certified to train disciples - in the West. There are, however, a number of qualified, well-practiced priests taking that role. I don't know what it's like at the place you're attending, but it would be worth going to the top person there and talking about your concerns.

I've said this before here, but: no need to doubt (or seek) a tradition. Better to find the teacher with whom one has affinity, regardless of tradition, and then don't look back.
Thank you for your response Meido, very useful.

MyNameIsEarl
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by MyNameIsEarl » Thu Nov 08, 2018 10:18 am

Matylda wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 9:23 am
if you have doubts, then give it up.. it is as simple as this.
less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more - indeed, it is problem for you.
anyway if you do not know as you wrote, then who is going to know? if you like Goldstein why not to go there? you have many options.. and give up zen it is not for you..
Thank you Matylda, that would be an easy thing to do, wouldn't it? Give up/don't give up, no matter :) Maybe that's the point. The decision can only be mine, but I welcome any advice from those more experienced than myself to help come to that decision.

Miroku
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Miroku » Thu Nov 08, 2018 11:05 am

MyNameIsEarl wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 10:18 am
Matylda wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 9:23 am
if you have doubts, then give it up.. it is as simple as this.
less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more - indeed, it is problem for you.
anyway if you do not know as you wrote, then who is going to know? if you like Goldstein why not to go there? you have many options.. and give up zen it is not for you..
Thank you Matylda, that would be an easy thing to do, wouldn't it? Give up/don't give up, no matter :) Maybe that's the point. The decision can only be mine, but I welcome any advice from those more experienced than myself to help come to that decision.
Patience is one of the paramitas. Be patient and search for a teacher as Meido said. I can't say anything new, only don't give up. Watch Zen, great movie about Dogen, he searched for a teacher through whole China and almost gave up, but he found one. I think that it is quite inspiring. :smile:
Child, if you are not hypocritical and out of control, that is conduct.
~ Padampa Sangye

You say such clever things to people, but you do not apply them to yourself.
The faults within you are the ones to be exposed.
~ Padampa Sangye

Matylda
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Matylda » Thu Nov 08, 2018 11:44 am

Miroku wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 11:05 am
MyNameIsEarl wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 10:18 am
Matylda wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 9:23 am
if you have doubts, then give it up.. it is as simple as this.
less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more - indeed, it is problem for you.
anyway if you do not know as you wrote, then who is going to know? if you like Goldstein why not to go there? you have many options.. and give up zen it is not for you..
Thank you Matylda, that would be an easy thing to do, wouldn't it? Give up/don't give up, no matter :) Maybe that's the point. The decision can only be mine, but I welcome any advice from those more experienced than myself to help come to that decision.
Patience is one of the paramitas. Be patient and search for a teacher as Meido said. I can't say anything new, only don't give up. Watch Zen, great movie about Dogen, he searched for a teacher through whole China and almost gave up, but he found one. I think that it is quite inspiring. :smile:
I wonder why so often people do give example of great masters? Who is Dogen today? who has his motivation and determination.. poeple sit in front of their computers and develope dogen's determination, motivation and patience? I think it is much better to be realistic, cool headed, and rational. make things simpler.. if something does not fit, then des no fit.. even if one waits for eons it will not fit. We do not have any more enlightened teachers so why to expact from very common people who do not know what they want, but fortunatly are honest about it, that they will have Dogen or any other master determination and patience? sometimes people have problems to visit a teacher since his center is in the next state.. if it is not behind the corner in the neighborhood it causes problem... :D
well Dogen and others risked their lives for zen, or dharma, and traveled on bear feet thousands of miles... so let them sleep in peace and no need to bring them to our keybordes and let them report at DW.. just to be simple is enough.

definitely i appraciate Meido Roshi advice on the teacher..

Miroku
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Miroku » Thu Nov 08, 2018 12:00 pm

Matylda wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 11:44 am

I wonder why so often people do give example of great masters? Who is Dogen today? who has his motivation and determination.. poeple sit in front of their computers and develope dogen's determination, motivation and patience? I think it is much better to be realistic, cool headed, and rational. make things simpler.. if something does not fit, then des no fit.. even if one waits for eons it will not fit. We do not have any more enlightened teachers so why to expact from very common people who do not know what they want, but fortunatly are honest about it, that they will have Dogen or any other master determination and patience? sometimes people have problems to visit a teacher since his center is in the next state.. if it is not behind the corner in the neighborhood it causes problem... :D
well Dogen and others risked their lives for zen, or dharma, and traveled on bear feet thousands of miles... so let them sleep in peace and no need to bring them to our keybordes and let them report at DW.. just to be simple is enough.

definitely i appraciate Meido Roshi advice on the teacher..
Because the lives of great masters can be of help to develop the courage, patience and determination. It definetly helped me go visit my drikung teacher for the first time. Yes it is far away from what Dogen, Marpa or other masters did ... it was only a fairly cheap 3 hours long bus drive, but since unlike them I am a weakling and am anxious and so it took a lot of my courage to do it. It wouldnt happen without the motivation and inspiration and I would miss out a big time.

I do not expect anyone to have any amount of courage. But we have many great examples (Meidor Roshi and his temple and people going there from Europe are one of those examples) and we can follow them or at least feel inspired, As you said it is hard to find a good teacher. And that is exactly why it is beneficial to remind ourselves of those stories so maybe the ride into a different part of city does not seem as such a big burden. Small and silly when compared, however big and significant on a personal level.

The question of zen fitting the person is on the person not for me to decide. All I know is that interest is the most important quality a student should have. And the person is interested enough to try zen, unlike me for example.
Child, if you are not hypocritical and out of control, that is conduct.
~ Padampa Sangye

You say such clever things to people, but you do not apply them to yourself.
The faults within you are the ones to be exposed.
~ Padampa Sangye

Kim
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Kim » Thu Nov 08, 2018 2:33 pm

Meido wrote:
Wed Nov 07, 2018 6:41 pm
...Regarding Zen in general, the most important thing is to connect with a qualified teacher...
Matylda wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 10:04 am
I think the main dish if we talk about zen is clear kensho-satori realization.. does not matter where, soto rinzai, obaku or any othere non-japanese zen tradition. and 100% true, the teacher is crucial.. so let us forget about 99% of so called zen teachers...
In the worst case so called 'zen teacher' should be an expert in samadhi...
there could be one or two shike in the West but I would doubt their qualities. Soto school is now full of pretty unqualified priests, who may follow some formalities, but are pretty unripe, still. I took some spare time to listen to some well known soto teachers in the W. well, it had nothing to do with zen, it is kind of coaching kind of psychoanalisis kind of anything what is not zen...

In Japan soto shike are not experts in satori experience, and I met altogether more then 30, some of them talk even clear nonsens about satori, anyway they lack now tools to make check points to determine authenticity of such realization.
...
Great masters are already dead... and that is all about it.. in the west people look for some easy practie, would never sacrifice their life for enlightenemnt and zen is simply dying or becoming its own caricature... yes of course there are some good and respected priests.. but good reputation has nothing to do with zen, neither bad... zen means enlightenment, satori, kensho, nothing else.
These two views don't fit well together. If someone wants to practice soto with a "qualified teacher", and 99% of teachers don't know what they are doing, how is that going to work? Without a teacher who can point out the nature of mind, the student will just get hung up on form and ritual. This can't meet the demand of the student.I am doubtful if zen tradition can bounce back.

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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by DGA » Thu Nov 08, 2018 2:34 pm

MyNameIsEarl wrote:
Wed Nov 07, 2018 3:10 pm
Hello, I previously practised in a Theravada tradition for a long time, and started sitting with a Soto Zen group 6 months ago. I recently attended my first sesshin and found it incredibly tough, 'small-self' stuff mainly, but some of the ritual felt harsh and unnecessary as well, and I'm doubting I have chosen the right tradition for me.

I love Zen but wonder if a less traditionally Japanese sect would suit me more. I did sit with a Thich Nhat Hanh sangha a long time ago and enjoyed it's gentle nature. I don't know if I'm just looking for an easy way out, unwilling to stay where things are difficult, and if my Western attitude is getting in the way of a beautiful practice.

Also, I'm not interested necessarily in looking wider, as I've spent far too long getting to this point; digging many small wells and not just one (I think Joseph Goldstein said that).

Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated, thank you :anjali:
Sesshin is challenging. I salute you for completing one, and for attempting to learn from that experience. It's not unusual ask "what on earth was THAT about?" after going through an intense experience.

Here are some thoughts that touch on your questions beyond the excellent responses you've already had.

We need to consider culture. Buddha Dharma generally and Zen specifically has been transmitted by and through cultural forms and expectations that differ significantly from what contemporary English-speakers may take for granted. We need to respect these differences, because if we persist long enough to learn what those forms and expectations do in a practical sense, how they work, then we can learn a lot and progress in practice and have fewer problems along the way. One example concerns teaching and expectations around teaching and learning.

A colleague of mine teaches auto mechanics at a local community college. At the start of every semester, she explains to her students why safety matters, why specific policies regarding safety are in place, and why particular procedures have to be followed. Then she insists every student wear appropriate clothes, tie back their hair, and wear gloves and glasses for safety. Notice all those whys that came before the hows?

A Japanese teaching situation works very differently. The student will be told first how to attend to safety matters, and will observe that everyone is wearing gloves and glasses and has their hair tied back. Everyone will simply do it, and trust that the "why" will become obvious or will be explained later. The teacher is trusted and the practice is trusted--this is a tacit expectation.

If you expect answers to "why" this or that is done in sesshin, you will be confused and disappointed. Or you might take an arrogant approach and assume that the natives, with their gloves and glasses, are blindly following tradition and cultural trappings that are appropriate to an ancient time and irrelevant to modern man (a conceit that isn't exactly absent from contemporary insight meditation discourses). As Meido sensei pointed out, what appears to be a strange custom typically has a practical value that may not be obvious at first.

I encourage you to persist in practice.

Matylda
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Matylda » Fri Nov 09, 2018 12:15 am

Kim wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 2:33 pm

These two views don't fit well together. If someone wants to practice soto with a "qualified teacher", and 99% of teachers don't know what they are doing, how is that going to work? Without a teacher who can point out the nature of mind, the student will just get hung up on form and ritual. This can't meet the demand of the student.I am doubtful if zen tradition can bounce back.
these two views may look like contradiction.. but they are not in fact. As for bouncing back.. zen can do it, why not. Practice, experience and realization were pretty watered down, not only soto... though soto became worst example I guess.
in fact one teacher and one student if both genuine together with some favorable conditions may explode into something astonishing. It happened with Hakuin for example.. te soto lina of tozan ryokai within few generations was caompletely deserted, and there was one generation missing. so it actually was passed down by a chinese rinzai master, to next generation which again continued soto line, and then came Rujing, Dogen and many others..

those are historical facts. look the line of Bokusan, and Sawaki, specially Sawaki was so famous in Japan, and not much is left from it. in the future there will be able people, but for sure not from DW :D they will not spend their time in front of mac or pc..

so advice to look for a teacher is always good and correct.

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Anders
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by Anders » Fri Nov 09, 2018 7:22 am

I doubt there are many who do sesshin because they like it.

You do sesshin because there is something more important in your life to resolve that outweighs the difficulties and questions of personal preference.

I much prefer the Chinese style of retreat myself. But it's the Japanese one I end up doing these days.
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

MyNameIsEarl
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by MyNameIsEarl » Fri Nov 09, 2018 1:19 pm

Miroku wrote:
Thu Nov 08, 2018 11:05 am
Patience is one of the paramitas. Be patient and search for a teacher as Meido said. I can't say anything new, only don't give up. Watch Zen, great movie about Dogen, he searched for a teacher through whole China and almost gave up, but he found one. I think that it is quite inspiring. :smile:
Thank you Miroku. I've seen the film you mention and agree, I found it very inspiring :anjali:

MyNameIsEarl
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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by MyNameIsEarl » Fri Nov 09, 2018 1:27 pm

A colleague of mine teaches auto mechanics at a local community college. At the start of every semester, she explains to her students why safety matters, why specific policies regarding safety are in place, and why particular procedures have to be followed. Then she insists every student wear appropriate clothes, tie back their hair, and wear gloves and glasses for safety. Notice all those whys that came before the hows?

A Japanese teaching situation works very differently. The student will be told first how to attend to safety matters, and will observe that everyone is wearing gloves and glasses and has their hair tied back. Everyone will simply do it, and trust that the "why" will become obvious or will be explained later. The teacher is trusted and the practice is trusted--this is a tacit expectation.

If you expect answers to "why" this or that is done in sesshin, you will be confused and disappointed. Or you might take an arrogant approach and assume that the natives, with their gloves and glasses, are blindly following tradition and cultural trappings that are appropriate to an ancient time and irrelevant to modern man (a conceit that isn't exactly absent from contemporary insight meditation discourses). As Meido sensei pointed out, what appears to be a strange custom typically has a practical value that may not be obvious at first.
Thank you for your response and analogy DGA, that was very helpful. This Japanese approach to teaching is new to me, but I think I like it! :smile:
You do sesshin because there is something more important in your life to resolve that outweighs the difficulties and questions of personal preference.
I agree Anders, that's a nice way to put it.

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Re: Doubts regarding Soto Zen

Post by seeker242 » Fri Nov 09, 2018 2:00 pm

MyNameIsEarl wrote:
Wed Nov 07, 2018 3:10 pm
I don't know if I'm just looking for an easy way out, unwilling to stay where things are difficult, and if my Western attitude is getting in the way of a beautiful practice.
It could easily be that. :bow: Doing things that make you uncomfortable can be very good practice. It counteracts the typical habit of holding onto pleasant things and avoiding unpleasant things, which is nearly the definition of "being stuck" in samsara. Continuing to avoid unpleasant things is really just more of the same. Watching some unpleasant thing transform and become not-unpleasant, or even transform into pleasant, can be a valuable observation. It can provide insight into the nature of unpleasantness itself. But, if you just leave when unpleasantness appears, you won't ever get the opportunity to see that transformation happen.
One should not kill any living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite any other to kill. Do never injure any being, whether strong or weak, in this entire universe!

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