INDICATORS AND DEVELOPMENT OF ZEN CULTIVATION
During the wonderful Zen course you trained us to enter Zen in a seated position and you emphasized quality over quantity, suggesting 5 minutes quality daily practice is sufficient.
Please could you discuss how a Zen practice might develop as a student's attainment develops, from the perspective of physical position, duration or other relevant factors? Please could you highlight any indicators or milestones that can verify progress and provide reassurance that the student is practicing correctly?
Sifu Matt Fenton
One of the hallmarks of our school is that we focus on quality over quantity, which is a manifestation of our cost-effectiveness. For example, we claim, with justification of course, that our students derive more benefit in six months than most other students in three years. At the Zen course in entering Zen in a seated upright position on a chair, we achieved better result in five minutes than many other students in an hour or two in a lotus position.
Understandably, other people not exposed to our practice and therefore unaware of the benefits we get, may think that we are boastful. But actually we are modest. In reality, our chi kung and kungfu students get more benefit in six months that what most other chi kung and kungfu students get irrespective of how long they may practice, be it thirty years or their whole lifetime. Our Zen students get more benefit in five minutes of meditation than what most other Zen students get no matter how long they meditate.
Why is it so? It is because we focus on quality, while others focus on quantity. In chi kung and kungfu, not only we practice the genuine arts, we practice them at a very high level, whereas most other people only practice their outward form and miss their essence.
Our chi kung students can generate an energy flow and our kungfu students can apply their kungfu for combat, which are the basic benefits of these arts. How may other chi kung and kungfu students can do this after thirty years? Our Zen students feel peaceful and mentally fresh after five minutes of meditation. How many other students can have these basic meditation benefits after meditating for two hours?
To be peaceful and mentally fresh is the main objective for our meditation practice in our Zen courses. With these benefits, as well as other benefits we get from other practices in our Zen courses, such as being simple, direct and effective, we will have better results in shorter time irrespective of what we do. This is a main aim of the courses.
If we can realize our objective in five minutes of meditation, it is not only unnecessary but actually unwise to meditate for an hour. Indeed, I believe that many meditation students have become dull and depressed as a result of their meditation practice, instead of being fresh and cheerful which meditation is meant to bring about, is because not only they have practiced wrongly but also they have prolonged their wrong practice.
It is ironical that some meditation students, who are obviously depressed, boast of their meditating for hours, just as some martial artists boast of the scars and injuries they have sustained. They do not realize that these are indications that they have failed in their training.
It is also pertinent for our students to be reminded that while we enjoy and value supra-mundane experiences like expanding beyond our physical body or being in touch with the Supreme, we practice Zen for mundane needs, like being peaceful, happy and energetic so that we can better enrich our lives and the lives of other people here and now in this phenomenal world.
Unlike monks who have renounced the world to cultivate professionally, our aim in Zen training is not to attain Enlightenment or return to God the Holy Spirit. Hence, there is no need to extend our meditation time or to attempt more advanced techniques.
Nevertheless, though we may not have a need, we may have aspirations for the supra-mundane. This, probably, is what your question means to address.
Progress in Zen training, as in chi kung and kungfu, may be classified into three main levels as follows.
- Good health, including overcoming illness as well as attaining vitality and longevity.
- Internal force and mental clarity for peak performance in work and play.
- Spiritual cultivation with benefits ranging from being peaceful and relaxed at the basic level to merging with the Supreme at the supreme level.
There are countless techniques in Zen training. Some examples are reciting a mantra or a sutra, focusing the mind on one object like the dan tian, a Buddha statue, or an imaginary spot, answering an irrational question, serving tea, working in the field, performing a kungfu set and observing the breath.
These countless techniques serve one, two or all the following three purposes:
- Tame the mind.
- Strengthen the mind.
- Expand the mind.
In some cultures, “mind” may be substituted by “heart”, “spirit”, “soul” or “consciousness”.
There are four main postures.
- Lying down.
The usual postures for Zen training are standing and sitting. In our school, we use Standing Zen, which has served our purpose very well. It includes standing upright to remaining at a particular stance, like Horse-Riding and Three-Circle.
Sitting Zen includes sitting upright on a seat to sitting in a semi-lotus or full-lotus position. If all other factors were equal, sitting upright on a seat is the simplest of all Zen techniques and sitting in a full-lotus is the most profound.
Most Zen practitioners use the lotus position, but whether they practice genuine Zen is another issue, to such an extent that many people erroneously believe that Zen training must be in the lotus position.
The lying down posture is for those too old or weak to use other postures. On the other hand, it is also a posture we recommend to those who have difficulty sleeping. If they can enter into a state of Zen even at the very beginning stage, which means they are physically and mentally relaxed, going to sleep becomes easy.
The moving posture includes Walking Zen and performing chi kung and kungfu. Many chi kung and kungfu practitioners outside our school do not realize that when they perform their chi kung exercises or kungfu sets, they can also practice Zen. Because they are not aware of this fact, they do not do so, and thus derive no Zen benefits.
Why do we practice Zen? The countless benefits of Zen training can be summed up in a neat sentence as follows. The countless benefits can be classified into two main categories, the mundane and the supra-mundane, and Zen training enables us to attain the best in both categories. In other words, no matter what you do, I repeat, no matter what you do, your Zen training will enable you to attain the best result!
For example, if you were sick, you would recover faster than had you not practiced Zen. If you have a problem, your Zen training will enable you to solve it well. When you work in your office or spend time with your family or friends, you will have better result due to your Zen practice. If you want to meet God or be connected with the Cosmos, Zen training will give you the best result.
This brief analysis of attainment levels, purposes, postures and benefits in Zen training provide a good background to understand how you can progress, why you do so and what you can expect. It also makes you cost-effective, enabling you, for example, to choose the most suitable technique to achieve intended results in relatively short time.
In the Zen course you mentioned, our objective was to be peaceful and mentally fresh. These were basic benefits. So I chose the most elementary method, just be conscious of your breathing, without regulating it, while sitting upright on a chair for just five minutes. Had you used a difficult posture like a lotus position, a sophisticated technique like investigating into what Cosmic Reality is, and meditate for an hour, you might end up being more confused and stressful than being peaceful and fresh.
This is a big mistake many Zen practitioners make. They use a most profound posture, the lotus position, mediate for hours and hope to attain no-mind, which is Enlightenment or at least a satori, without first attaining the basic pre-requisites for meditation, i.e, being physically and mentally relaxed. Hence, no matter for how long they may practice, they will get little or no result.
Attaining peacefulness and mental freshness is the beginning, attaining Enlightenment is the ultimate, and there are countless developmental levels and benefits in between. But, as mentioned earlier, all these countless developmental stages can be classified into three broad levels, namely good health, peak performance, and spiritual cultivation.
These levels are guidelines, they are not rigid divisions. Hence, while you focus on good health, you will also have benefits in peak performance and spiritual cultivation, like your vitality enables you to do well in your hobbies and feel peaceful and confident. While you focus on spiritual cultivation, like strengthening your spirit, you will also have benefits in good health and peak performance, like you are emotionally balanced and you enjoy your work.
Being peaceful and mentally fresh is at the basic level, which brings good health, vitality and longevity. The next developmental level is developing internal force and mental clarity for peak performance. A choice posture is Standing Zen. Just be, and let cosmic energy soak into you and strengthen you in all aspects – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. A recommended time of practice is about 10 to 15 minutes.
The highest level is spiritual cultivation to attain Enlightenment, which is also called by other terms like attaining the Tao and returning to God the Holy Spirit. We are not ready for this yet, hence the answer here is purely academic. A choice posture is the full lotus position and the recommended time of practice is 15 minutes or more. Basically the technique is to focus the mind at the dan tian and let the mind expand to no-mind, which is All Mind.
Asking what indicators or milestones verify progress or achievement is an academic question. The Zen answer is that you will know from direct experience. When you have achieved good health, you know that you have achieved good health. When you perform well in your work and play, you know you have performed well in your work and play. When you have attained spiritual fulfilment like feeling tremendously free and happy, or expanding into the Cosmos, you know you have attained such spiritual fulfilment.
The above is reproduced from the thread 10 Questions to the Grandmaster about Zen in the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum