Meditation instruction with an orientation to the practice at the Priory is offered each Thursday at 6:45 PM. The instruction is followed by a 7:30-8:00 PM meditation period.
We ask all people new to our practice to attend this instruction. The meditation instruction is free, as are all the activities at the Priory. If your schedule will not allow you to come on Thursday evening, you are welcome to call the Priory and try to arrange a different time for the instruction.
The purpose of Serene Reflection (Soto Zen) Meditation is to come to know and live from the Unborn, the Buddha Nature within ourselves and all things. All of us have an intuitive knowledge of the Buddha Nature, therefore meditation is not a means to an end but rather a harmonization of oneself with the source of compassion, love and wisdom.
Meditate in a quiet, well-ventilated room. The room should be neither too bright nor too dark. Wear clean clothing that does not restrict the waist or the legs. Find the most stable position for you, sitting on a chair or meditation bench. If you are extremely flexible you can use a meditation cushion, sitting in the cross-legged position either full or half lotus. Sit on the forward third of the cushion and with each meditation period alternate the leg you place on top. Do not persist in using a meditation cushion or sitting on the floor if you find the position painful.
To center yourself, sway the body gently from left to right and backwards and forwards. Allow the two natural curves of the spine to form at the neck and small of the back. The head should be held upright, its weight balanced on the shoulders and the chin slightly tucked in. The tongue is held lightly against the back of the top teeth with the lips and teeth closed. Breath normally.
Rest the right hand in the lap with the left hand in the palm of the right hand (some left-handed people find it useful to do the reverse). The tips of the thumbs touch lightly and form an oval. Keep the eyes open and lowered, allowing the gaze to fall gently on the wall or floor in front of you. Keep the eyes in focus but do not stare. If you wear glasses, leave them on.
Slowly take two or three breaths through the nose, follow the breath up the back on inhalation and down the front of the body on exhalation, thus describing a circle. Then breathe normally for you. Sit steadily with an alert and bright mind, neither suppressing nor indulging thoughts that may arise. Allow thoughts and sensations to arise and pass naturally, but do not engage in deliberate thought. When the mind wanders, just notice and bring yourself back to being still and mindful. You can use the circular breathing pattern described to help you achieve this. Sitting still with no deliberate thought is the important aspect of Serene Reflection meditation.
Meditate regularly, every day if possible, if only for a few minutes. Mornings and evenings or a quiet time in your schedule are best. Do not meditate in the formal positions directly after meals, or when physically exhausted, or in extremes of temperature. It is good to meditate for a specific length of time and stick to it, be it five, ten, or thirty minutes. Do not exceed forty-five minutes at one sitting period without walking meditation or relaxing the body for a least ten minutes. Meditating with a group can be very helpful.
(You are welcome to contact us to check details of your meditation,
both formal meditation and the practice of meditation in daily life.)
by Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy
Meditation is the most profound and least understood aspect of the Eightfold Path. Exactly what meditation is, what it does, and how it does it, are not fully known. But there is no doubt that the practice of meditation is critical to living the life of Buddha. It can be likened to the "locomotive" that powers the "train" of Zen training. With it, all the rest goes forward; without it, nothing moves much, unless perhaps to roll down hill.
Different schools of Buddhism practice meditation of different types, but most of them have two aspects: concentration or one-pointedness of mind, and awareness or insight into things-as-they-are. The form of meditation practiced in our Order is that of the Soto Zen tradition. It is called "serene reflection meditation", which is a translation of the Japanese terms "zazen" and "shikan-taza". In this meditation, the concentration and insight elements are harmoniously balanced, resulting in one unified form of meditation which can be practiced throughout one's life, by beginner and expert alike.
The Posture of Meditation
Some Zen lineages place great emphasis on a particular proper posture for meditation. Ours places more emphasis on the mind of meditation, leaving the physical aspects to be tailored to the body and constitution of each individual. This, of course, requires the instruction of an experienced meditation teacher, and you would be well advised to keep in consultation with a priest or lay minister of our Order if you choose to practice serene reflection meditation. They can help you find the best meditation postures for you, answer ongoing questions about both the physical and mental aspects of the practice, and refer you to a master when needed. Booklets devoted to our type of meditation are available at all meditation groups and temples, and books can be suggested.
The Mind of Meditation
The founder of our Order, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, who studied meditation under some of the greatest meditation masters of Japan, translated the classic Zen texts on the mind of meditation as saying that the critical element is, "Do not try to think, and do not try not to think". She likened the mind of meditation to a person sitting under a bridge beneath a busy road. The "traffic" on the road is our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, emotions, etc. To try to mentally stop the traffic is to "try not to think". The same is true of dulling the mind to the point where no traffic is noticed at all. These approaches would seriously unbalance the harmony of meditation: the first one by increasing concentration to the point of excluding awareness, the second by decreasing awareness to the point that only concentration is left. On the other hand, to leave one's sitting place, get up and accept a ride in one of the cars is to "try to think". One's mind is literally "captured" and "carried away" by a particular thought or feeling, so that what was simply a passing thought turns into a ten minute chain of thinking. Here, the concentration has been insufficient, and awareness has lost touch entirely with the basic fact of things-as-they-are: the fact that we are just sitting there. Whenever we find that we are doing something other than just sit there, we gently bring our mind back. This is done over and over again, and is the work of meditation practice.
Another useful observation which Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett made about meditation was the distinction between natural and deliberate thought. Suppose, for instance, that a dog barks while we are meditating. We naturally hear the sound, and perhaps the thought occurs to us that a dog is barking. These are examples of natural thought; they are part of things-as-they-are, part of simple, aware sitting. This is meditation, and nothing needs to be done about it. But suppose that we continue the chain of thought: we next think that the barking disturbs our meditation, that our neighbor should control their dog better, that something really should be done about this lack of consideration·, and the next thing we are aware of is that we "wake up", realizing that we have spent the last five minutes giving our neighbor a lecture. This is deliberate thought and is inconsistent with serene reflection meditation. We need to bring our mind back to the awareness of simply sitting there.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I know if I am doing it right?
A: You don't. In fact, you can't. That is because meditation is one with you, so there can be no separation of a "doer" and an "observer" who knows that it's right. But you can know if you aren't doing it, and that is all you need to know, because then you can bring yourself back to simply sitting.
Q: Nothing seems to be happening during meditation; what is wrong?
A: The problem is more likely to be with your expectations of what should "happen" than with the meditation. Meditation has profound effects over time, but the whole process is much larger than we can know and judge. Try letting go of the expectations and just sit. The same holds true if a lot is "happening". It may help to remember that this is the practice of a lifetime: let it do its work.
Q: How can I stop from constantly wandering off?
A: Don't try to stop yourself from wandering off, because then you will be trying to add something to pure meditation. But each time you are aware of having wandered off, do not waste time in coming back.
Q: I seem to "float" from one thought to another; I don't often get caught by any one thought in particular, but I am sort of "elsewhere", rarely being aware of actually sitting there.
A: This happens. Try putting a bit more energy or concentration into what you are doing: an alive, aware, gently focused mind is best. But don't take this too far, or it becomes "trying" rather than meditating. See the next question.
Q: I find that if I concentrate hard on just being aware of sitting, if I sort of "bore in" to this, then I get caught a lot less often. Is this OK, or am I trying not to think?
A: Sometimes this seems good, as a response to the "floating" mentioned above, for instance. But don't make a general practice of it, as this, too, is adding something to pure meditation. Trust that "just sitting" really is enough.
Q: How can I stop from falling asleep?
A: There can be many causes for this. Perhaps the posture is not quite right or the room is too warm; perhaps you are not putting enough energy into the sitting; maybe some part of you is fighting the meditation; or maybe you are simply too tired and need to go to bed!
(Excerpt from booklet on the Eightfold Path)