Mistakes are part of the ritual.
— Robert Aitken
Mistakes are part of the ritual.
— Robert Aitken
I’m really grateful for the opportunity to practice Zen, and especially for the opportunity to be a student of the Sanbo Kyodan school of Soto Zen. Many people might think of Zen Buddhism in only two flavors: Soto (emphasizing silent meditation) and Rinzai (emphasizing the enlightenment experience, with large dollops of intensive koan study and a more physically rigorous practice in general). Soto is typically considered the quieter, gentler Zen (it was derided as “farmer Zen” in medieval Japan due to its popularity), while Rinzai Zen is stereotyped as more dramatic and hardcore, samurai Zen — teachers screaming and hitting students and intense sweating/vein-popping over whatever koan you’re working on at the moment, that sort of thing. But there’s a school within Soto Zen called Sanbo Kyodan, mixing the silent meditation emphasis of Soto with Rinzai’s koan study.
I can’t imagine Zen practice without koans. I love koans – in addition to my current practice koan, I always have a koan collection on my bed table and read one nearly every night just for fun, like a bedtime story. And I really don’t care much for more dramatic approaches to spirituality (although I have to admit, snake handling looks pretty cool). So I’m really thankful I belong to a sangha that practices in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition. I feel like I’m getting the best of both Zen worlds.
I like working with a koan and having it reveal itself to me in some usually utterly mundane but surprising way, and sitting quietly also really suits me. I don’t make up reasons to miss dokusan anymore, although it still makes me a little nervous at times … especially if I’m at a dead end with my current koan. But I’ve often thought of how lucky we are as Zen practitioners to have access to a lay practice that breaks down some of the barriers between Soto and Rinzai, that acknowledges both schools have a lot of good things to offer us.
My running practice has evolved in a similar fashion. There are various “schools” of training, depending on whose book/website you follow: Higdon, Pfitzinger, Daniels, and many others each have their own approaches to get you to the finish line and “realize” a marathon finish. Initially I followed the Hal Higdon school to the letter, never deviating from the gospel of his meticulously charted workout plans. As I gained more experience, I started looking at other coaches to see what they offered, and began adapting my training to fit what “bits” seemed to work best for me from each different program.
Over the years I slowly discovered what seemed truest to my own body and my attitude toward running, and continued modifying my training accordingly. One of the things that most appealed to me about ultra marathoning was the scarcity of training programs and road maps. I was on my own, and free to make my own mistakes and learn from them. The timing couldn’t have been better; I was finally at the right mental and emotional place to feel comfortable with making a few training mistakes. The Zen teacher Robert Aitken once said, “mistakes are part of the ritual.” And so I continued making discoveries and mistakes in equal measure until I’m where I am today, my only training manual (for better or worse) the one I’ve written in my head … and yet, not possible without having first followed the paths of those coaches and teachers who came before.
Recently I posted the quote, “I study Buddhism so that, one day, I won’t have to study it anymore.” Part of the joy of running and of Zen practice is the freedom and confidence gained with experience, the license you give yourself to explore a bit and be comfortable when the journey doesn’t go quite as planned. Certainly wise teachers and coaches, the sutras and proven race training plans are worthy of study and emulation. Eventually we absorb their teaching into ourselves, and they become us. And step by step, without realizing or planning it, we have become our own teachers, encompassing many worlds. It’s what any good teacher would want to happen.
Back in March I posted an initial wear test of the Vibram Five Fingers KSO, the popular “barefoot” shoe. I thought I’d post an update of my experiences since March.
I’m wearing the Vibrams an average of once per week, usually for my regular Sunday cross-country/trails run, and have worked up to running in them for two hours straight on hilly and rough (but definitely non-technical) terrain. I’m still loving their feel and the sensation of freedom when I run in them, especially after my long Saturday runs in standard road shoes (now up to 3.5 hours). It is great to really connect with the surface you’re running on and to feel it change step-by-step. Best of all, no injuries, hot spots, or other problems. The KSO has been trouble-free for me.
I’m a big believer in mixing up shoe types and terrain in practice as much as possible to help ensure my feet and legs get a more complete workout and avoid injuries, so the Vibrams (or any other specific shoe brand or model) will never be my “main” shoe. But I’m still very excited by the KSO and really look forward to running in them on Sundays. I haven’t really been tempted to try them on pavement yet, especially Dallas pavement in July. But I may give them a spin on asphalt/concrete this fall or winter.
They also hold up excellently in the washing machine and show no signs of fraying or coming apart.
That sand’s not gonna rake itself, Hiroshi.
— Jack (Adam Brody), Thank You For Smoking
About three hours from now, there’s gonna be some serious zazen coming down in Big D. Join us if you can at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church at 7:30 for an hour and a half of absolutely nothing. It’s part of my sangha’s North Central Dallas outreach and I’ll be your gently smiling host/timekeeper & bell ringer/extra cushion fetcher.
This happens every Thursday night. Come on down and let’s get still!
A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success. You cannot achieve enlightenment by locking yourself in your room. Transformation is possible only when you are in touch … You need to choose friends in the practice who are stable, on whom you can rely.
That’s Thich Nhat Hanh on the importance of the sangha, or community of co-practitioners, to our individual Zen practice. Certainly we can sit on our own, and I always say I prefer running on my own. But am I really on my own when I run? My father’s presence is always with me, even if he no longer is — his guiding words and example as a track coach brought out the importance of proper form to my running at a very early age. My wife is with me, giving me the time, space, and understanding necessary to train and race demanding distances. My family and friends are with me, encouraging me from near and far. The wisdom of the sport’s elite, those who have travelled the roads and trails faster and longer than anyone else, are with me through their books, websites and presence during races, educating and inspiring by their matchless examples. Other runners of all abilities are with me as I train and race, giving me new insights into hydration, nutrition, pacing, and other fine points of the runner’s art. Every step I take is accompanied by literally hundreds of people from every phase of my life. It is my running sangha, and I am grateful for it.
My Zen sangha once again showed me the depth of their power and compassion this past weekend as we sat together during a sesshin, or intensive Zen meditation retreat. It was a group of veteran sesshin attendees, and by the middle of the second sit on Friday I could sense the sesshin had already settled and everyone was already going deep into their practice. Our teacher inspired us with her love, deep wisdom, and grace in every gesture. A fellow practitioner provided most of the food himself, including desserts, and it was wonderful. As with my running sangha, I felt embraced by my Zen sangha all weekend, and it allowed me to go deeper within myself.
As we shared experiences and our gratitude with the rest of the group at the end of the sesshin, I was surprised to hear a sangha member who had sat next to me all weekend thank me for “being a rock” and helping her during the sesshin. From my perspective, I had just sat on my cushion and tried to keep still, but apparently she had drawn strength from just that simple act.
In no instance are we truly acting alone, and coming to that realization is both a cause for joy and a call to action. Deep bows to my running and Zen sanghas!
Happy birthday to an early American buddha, Henry Thoreau … I read a few pages of your journal every day, my friend. (And thanks to Tricycle for reminding me of this very special day.)
And for the wild dreams of wild men and women starting their personal pilgrimages today at our continent’s lowest point, striving for the final peak at the end of 135 miles, I think of these words from Thoreau’s essay “Walking”:
The wildest dreams of wild men, even, are not the less true, though they may not recommend themselves to the sense which is most common among Englishmen and Americans today. It is not every truth that recommends itself to the common sense. Nature has a place for the wild clematis as well as for the cabbage.
Cabbage or clematis, there’s a place in this Eden for us all — and it’s up to each of us to discover it, in every step we take. Happy birthday to Walden’s most famous resident — and across the continent from that immortal pond, happy Badwater trails.