Monday, May 17, 2010

Discipline in and out of practice

Remains of the Wall
Remains of the Wall, Berlin, 2010

During the break on yesterday's zazenkai, we did what we usually do—talked trash about other, altogether inferior Buddhist groups and traditions.1 (Nope, our zazenkais aren't—usually—wholly silent, unlike our retreats; there is conversation during the two tea breaks we have over the day.)

Well, sorta. A couple of the people there had experimented with a whole variety of groups and traditions before settling on this one. One of the people there had tried pretty much all of 'em, up to and including some Vipassana retreats that make our sesshins look like the Club Med. Others had practiced with Thich Nath Hanh's outfit, or the FWBO, or the Tibetans. (There are two groups active in Finland, but they can't stand each other, so neither participates in the rather new pan-Buddhist thingies some people here are trying to start. Dorje Shugden, natch.)

One observation that came up in that discussion particularly struck me. These folks said that the atmosphere in our group differs significantly from the others in one particular way. Namely, we have a very disciplined formal practice, bells, incense, ban on adjusting position, and what have you, but we behave, for want of a better word, much more "normally" when not practicing. Those chats over tea range over all kinds of topics, from ice hockey to politics, dharma to travel stories; in fact, they're pretty much the kind of chatter you'd be likely to hear from any group that likes to get together over beer or coffee somewhere. There's a wide range of opinion aired there, too. I pick up a sense of camaraderie, but not a sense of hierarchy or strong social mores that we're expected to stick to. We're a pretty diverse bunch in most ways, really, for Finland anyway.

The folks who had some dealings with those altogether inferior traditions said that the atmosphere in them is quite different in this respect. That, for example, the FWBO folks always smile benignly at you and look you deep in the eyes; the Thich Nath Hanh folks give you a hug when you walk in the door; the Tibetans openly revere their teachers, that sort of thing. Each of the sanghas had a pretty strict mold to which they expected the members to conform. They also said that the practice with them is much less rigid or disciplined; that many of the people there are downright scared of the "military" discipline of our group.

So, compared to our group, they have a stricter code of behavior outside formal practice, and a more relaxed code of conduct in formal practice. One of the instructors surmised that maybe this isn't entirely coincidental: that we draw a clear line around the formal practice, which makes people feel freer outside it. He also added that that's just how he likes it (and added that as far as he's concerned, people should feel entirely free to talk trash about Zen or the Buddha or Dogen or whoever at the zendo over tea, as long as they sit still after the bell rings.)

I wonder if there's something to this: does a stricter formal practice foster less conformism, and vice versa? If so, what are the upsides and downsides?

Personally, I don't think I'd last very long with a group that had strong social pressure to smile benignly at everybody and make sure to look them deep in the eyes, or give hugs all around all the time. That, however, could very well represent a failing of mine. I especially like the feeling that everyone's welcome, and they're welcome to be who they are, without trying to conform to a mold of behavior.

On the other hand: the whole idea of Zen practice is that you don't leave it at the zendo; that you do it everywhere and all the time, ultimately. Does our way of drawing a line around formal practice build an obstacle to that?

1Joke! Joke!


  1. Honestly, I prefer balance. Not too tight, not too lose for both formal practice and everyday life. I just finished up a review of our zen center's executive director, which was focused but not overly formal. Her and I have sat retreats together, been in classes together, and have chewed on dharma together for years. So, maybe that balance comes with time together. However, having practiced with a "strict" teacher before, whose behavior inside and outside the zendo wasn't so wonderful at times, I have found myself disenchanted with boot camp style zen teachers. On the other hand, when things are too loose, or too "mushy" - I'd bail on an always smiling, hugging community as well - then there isn't sufficient "fire" to ignite spiritual shifts in our lives.

    And the thing about too tight, too loose is that if you're actually trying to practice in all of your life, you'll get called on both tightness and looseness before long. That's been my experience anyway, hence the desire for a more balanced approach to it all.

  2. Hard to disagree with that... but that leaves the question of what is "too loose" or "too disciplined?" Where, exactly, is the balance?

  3. well, i think it's frequently changing. sometimes you push more, other times you let go more. the funny thing is i can sense being out of balance, but trying to describe what balance is when it's happening seems almost impossible.