Welcome! We’re glad you’re here. Because we call ourselves Open Circle Sangha, and because we call the place where we sit Beginner’s Mind Zendo, you may rightly surmise that we are open to beginners joining us. We are here because we find it effective for us to come together to practice what is described below. We invite you to see if this is the case for you.
Here is what we do:
- We sit. Either on a cushion or on a chair, we sit facing a blank wall. We sit erect, our upper bodies balanced over our sitting bones, our spines lengthened from our sitting bones through the tops of our heads, our shoulders relaxed, our lower abdomens relaxed and freely moving in and out with our naturally uncontrolled, gradually settling breathing. Our hands rest against our lower abdomens, left fingers on top of right fingers, thumbs lightly touching above them, forming an open oval. We face a blank wall with our eyes half open, a diffuse gaze that is aware of the visual field but not looking at anything in particular. You may close your eyes, but this may lead to drowsiness and daydreaming. In sitting meditation, we intend to be fully awake in the present moment. Our intention is to be completely present with our sitting, to be mindful of our bodies in this still and quiet posture. In sitting, we notice our breathing, as it seems to be the most physically active part of our still selves. So we place our concentration on our breathing, in an open and gentle way, aware of the physical sensations of sitting and the flow of air in and out of us. The non-meditating mind is like a hand that grasps thoughts, emotions, and sensations, actively handling them, while the meditating mind is like a calmly relaxing open hand. Thoughts and feelings occur to us, but we don’t grasp them; we let them pass. As far as possible, we let go of our discursive and conceptual habits of mind, we open the hand of thought and simply attended to our embodied presence, in each present moment, a breathing being, sitting on a cushion or chair, facing a blank wall, facing ourselves and all things from a place empty of judgment, empty of grasping, and empty of pushing away. Expecting nothing, we enjoy the present moment, and insights may occasionally arise.
If you try this and feel overwhelmed by a torrent of inner talk, you may find it useful to further focus your attention on your breathing by using some simple words. You may think the words, “breathing in,” as you breathe in, and, “breathing out,” as you breathe out. Or you may find it effective to silently count your out- breaths, from one to ten, and then begin again at one. The usefulness of counting to ten with the out-breaths is that when your attention becomes distracted, you may suddenly become aware that you are silently saying, “thirteen” or another number beyond ten, or you may realize that you have left counting and gone into thinking or daydreaming. Then you simply smile to yourself and return to one.
Whichever approach you take to sitting silently, be gentle with yourself. Whatever happens is thoroughly fine, as the goal is simply to be aware of whatever happens. When Siddhartha Gautama had his enlightenment experience, he became known as the Buddha, the “one who is awake.” Our goal when we sit is simply to be fully awake in the present moment, calmly aware of what unfolds, neither grasping nor pushing away, broadly attentive to what is.
Three bells begin our sitting period. Two bells end it when we are going to do some walking meditation. When we are not going to walk, one bell ends the sitting period.
- We walk. We typically sit for 25 minutes. After this length of time being still, most of us will benefit from standing up and walking a bit. As much as possible, when we are walking with each other, very slowly, we want to do what we do when we’re sitting, as described above, with the significant difference that we are slowly walking instead of sitting. We hold our left hands at our solar plexus in a soft fist with the thumb tucked in, and then we spread our right hands over our left hands. We walk at the pace of the person ahead of us, taking one step with each in-and-out-breath cycle, adjusting our speed with the length of our short strides. After standing from sitting, we begin the walking period with a bow from the waist at the sound of wooden clappers. When the wooden
clappers sound next, after ten minutes, we bow again from the waist and walk briskly along our normal path to our sitting locations. At our cushions, we bow to each other, sit down, and meditate for another 25 minutes.
- We do some chanting and bowing. Sitting and walking seem pretty fundamentally accessible and basic. Chanting and bowing seem somewhat different. At their most basic levels, chanting and bowing are simply additional physical actions, beyond our sitting together, that we do with each other, unified in community. One of the Buddha’s important insights is that all beings are contingent and changing, dependent for their existence on other begins and lacking any fixed essence that is unchanged over time. When we chant, we are not praying to a supernatural overseer. When we bow, we are not worshiping an external divinity. When we chant and when we bow, we are expressing our dependence on all things, our interdependence with all things. We are expressing gratitude to the human being who had these insights and decided to share them with others, 2600 years ago; we are expressing gratitude to all of the people and conditions that enabled these insights to be practiced and developed between then and now; and we are expressing gratitude to the people and conditions that enable us to be engaging in these practices in this present moment.
A common human folly is the belief in, or desire for, absolute individual autonomy, an independent self of permanence and power. Our chanting and bowing together are exercises designed to help us to experience, in our resonating and moving bodies, a realization of our interdependence. Though I am a separate body next to yours, I am also in you and you are in me. Our environment is in us and we are in our environment. Because we understand this, in order to understand this, we chant and bow.
- We read, listen, and talk. In sitting, walking, chanting, and bowing, we attempt to calm our normally dominant conceptual and discursive intelligences, to make accessible what these modes of being cannot well apprehend. But these powerful human capabilities can also serve our practice. We read the writings attributed to the Buddha and to his important students over the past 2600 years. We ruminate, we talk, and we listen to each other.
We practice a school of Buddhism called Sōtō Zen. In the first half of the 13th century, a Japanese Buddhist monk, Dōgen Zenji (also known as Dōgen Kigen or Eihei Dōgen, but commonly just referred to as Dōgen), travelled from Japan to China to try to find authentic Buddhism. After 5 years, he returned to Japan and implemented the more authentic Buddhism that he was seeking in establishing the Sōtō school of Zen. Shunryu Suzuki, a Sōtō Zen priest, came to San Francisco in 1959 to serve a Japanese-American congregation but rapidly attracted non-Japanese- descent students, as young people in San Francisco in the 1960s were very receptive to Zen’s iconoclastic nature and apparent promise of enlightenment. Suzuki Roshi (leader/teacher) founded the first Zen monastery outside of Asia, Tassajara in Big Sur, and the San Francisco Zen Center, which is the largest Sōtō Zen organization outside of Japan. Our Open Circle Sangha, which is affiliated with SFZC, was founded by David Cooper, a long-time English teacher at Helena High, in the 1980s. Layla Smith, a Sōtō Zen priest with Montana roots, comes to Helena from California regularly to guide us. We read the teachings of Dōgen, Suzuki Roshi, and other Buddhist writers, and we talk about what we think they mean, what they mean for us, and how they affect, or may affect, our own Zen practice, our own lives, as we live them in each moment.
- We take our practice out into the world. We try to live according to the guidelines for ethical practice that the Buddha taught, the precepts. We try to practice generosity in all things, from leaving a few dollars in the Dana box to support Open Circle Sangha, to offering a passing spot to an aggressive driver on the road with us. We try to take the insights of our Zen practice into the larger community, acting with mindfulness, with compassion to the innumerable beings on which we depend, even though we may not understand our interdependence with the particular being before us in any moment. We strive to engage each moment with mindful care, believing that this will enable us to live lives that tend toward equanimity, non-harming, compassion, insight, and love.