Starting Zen Practice in Prison

by Kobutsu Malone

"You are the light itself. Do not rely on others."

Every morning these words are chanted in Buddhist monasteries throughout the world. What is the meaning of this?

Zen Buddhism is a tradition that dates back twenty five hundred years to the teaching of Siddhartha Gautauma the Shakyamuni Buddha, or simply, the Buddha. The Buddha was a human being; he was born a prince into a ruling family in the area of the world that is now Nepal/Northeast India. He was brought up in a palace and possessed incredible wealth, his every need was attended to, he never wanted for anything. He was surrounded by the cultured elite of his time and was exposed to the most beautiful courtesans in the kingdom. In spite of this life style, he was deeply concerned over the ephemeral and painful nature of life. He abandoned his palaces, renounced his throne, and gave up his wealth and fortune to embark on the quest for realization.

Leaving his worldly interests behind, he sought out yoga teachers to learn their practices. His practice with the yogis led to the experience of various "altered" states of consciousness and high "spiritual" levels, but he could not find the "ultimate" realization. He went on to join a band of ascetics, who practiced mortification of the body as a path to spiritual awakening. He spent years performing acts of bodily denial and rigorous ascetic practice. One day, on the verge of starvation and complete exhaustion, he decided that the road of self-torture was not the answer to his quest. He was emaciated and weak, near total collapse, when a young girl passed by and offered him a nourishing drink. He accepted her offering, drank and felt revitalized. He realized that there must be a better way to actualize ultimate truth.

He abandoned the path of physical asceticism and nurtured his body back to health. He began to thoroughly examine himself by looking inward. He simply sat down in a cross legged posture and observed himself with a fierce determination. He recognized that breath was a constant process that could be continuously observed. As thoughts came up in the mind, he continually returned to watching the breath. One morning, after spending the entire night in this practice, he looked up at the dawn and noticed the morning star, the planet Venus on the horizon. At that instant he realized enlightenment. He fully awakened to his true nature.

Zen is the experience of the realization of the Buddha. To really practice Zen is to uncover our inherent Buddha nature and come to this identical enlightenment experience. Zen is waking up, realizing that our very essence is Buddha nature, the awakened state of mind.

The Buddha's realization is not worshipped by Zen Buddhists as something that only one person could achieve. Realization is the heart of Zen practice and it can be actualized by all beings in their lifetimes, in their circumstances and through their own effort.

Realization is an act of awakening beyond scriptural teachings, intellectual understanding and speculation; it is found within. As a religious tradition, Zen Buddhism is distinctive from other traditions in that there is no external God or deities to be worshipped or prayed to. From the Zen perspective there is no reality outside of what exists here and now, no truth beyond that found within one's nature.

The foundation of Zen Buddhism, the indispensable quintessence of Zen, is the practice of Zazen. The word Zazen is made up of two characters; Za meaning "to sit cross legged", and Zen, which means "contemplative dynamic stillness". The practice of Zazen has been described as "the direct pointing to the mind".

Zazen practice enables us to perceive thought processes from a tranquil and lucid position. At first we begin to recognize our neurotic and speedy train of continuous verbal though forms. As our practice grows in depth, intensity and single pointed concentration, we begin to notice our thoughts slowing down in speed. Further practice enables us to perceive a "gap" or "space" that occurs between apparently random thoughts. When a certain level of maturity in practice has developed, more of this "space" becomes evident. It is this "space" that leads to the revelation of tranquillity of mind called Samadhi. Diligence, effort, and dedication to practice over time bring one to experience Samadhi, a lucid, non-dualistic state of intense yet effortless concentration. When our Samadhi practice is strong it is possible to penetrate directly to the core of our being, Buddha Nature. This is the culmination of the first phase of Zen training, insight.

Having experienced insight, we are faced with the task of manifesting enlightenment in the world. The vehicle for this phase of practice is called the Bodhisattva principle. A Bodhisattva is one who: "walks on the path of the awakened state of mind."

The Bodhisattva is an intrinsically warm and compassionate being who has grasped the "interconnectedness" of all life. The Bodhisattva may not consider himself or herself a Buddhist at all. A Bodhisattva's practice takes on the path of spiritual purification. At this point practice embodies the ten precepts that foster profound responsibility for relationship with others and a commitment to a life of self- discipline.

The Ten Precepts Are:

I am reverential and mindful with all life; I am not violent, I do not kill.
I respect the property of others; I do not steal.
I am conscious and loving in my relationships; I do not lust.
I honor honesty and truth; I do not deceive.
I exercise proper care of my body/mind; I am not gluttonous, I don't abuse drugs.
I recognize that silence is precious; I do not gossip or engage in frivolous talk.
I am humble; I do not praise myself or judge others.
I am satisfied with myself; I do not covet or indulge in envy or jealousy.
I keep my mind calm and at peace; I do not indulge in anger.
I esteem the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha: I do not defame them.

Incarceration, while it denies our physical freedom, provides a certain amount of freedom of time if you are determined to develop spiritually during confinement. This is where Zazen practice comes in. Zen works. It produces profound, unbelievably deep changes in the fundamental functioning of the mind. The first step is the willingness to direct our energies toward becoming sane in an insane environment. The method is through sitting Zazen. Here are some basic instructions:

  1. Set aside a period of time every day for practice. Go for the quietist time available. Admittedly, this is difficult in population, particularly in tiered blocks, but it can be done.

  2. Using a rolled up blanket for a cushion and perhaps a second blanket for a mat, find a place to sit on the floor, preferably facing a blank wall. There are several postures that can be used for sitting. The cross-legged full lotus position is the most stable but not everyone is able to assume this position. There are other positions that can be used including half or quarter lotus. Kneeling works, but padding under your knees and ankles may be required. The important thing is that whatever position you adopt, your knees are in contact with the floor, your butt with the "cushion", and your back is erect. Place your hands in your lap with your right hand palm up and the back of your left hand resting in your palm. Join your thumbs together, lightly touching, tip to tip. An oval opening is formed between your thumbs and palm.

  3. Having gained a stable "seat", you're ready to begin. At first you should limit your sitting to about ten or fifteen minutes in a stretch. Begin by taking a deep breath, inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose. Do three of them. Keeping the back erect, allow your breathing to assume its natural rhythm. For each exhalation mentally count, one. . breathe in, exhale, and two . .breathe in, exhale, and three . . .etc. up to ten. After ten, pick up at one and begin again.

  4. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions will arise during sitting. At first we tend to get caught up in them, but after a while we realize we have forgotten our practice and return to the counting again at one. This is OK, it happens. Doing nothing is the approach to be taken. By nothing is meant neither dwelling on, or avoiding distractions. We simply recognize that they appear on their own accord and that we continually return to our breath counting practice if distracted.

  5. Nowhere is it said that this is easy; on the contrary, it's a bitch. Zen is not an escape by a long shot. You can't meditate your way out of the joint; you can, however, learn how to become free from being controlled by thoughts, feelings and emotions. This is not an easy way; it is an effective way!