I've been reading Zen books since my college days, forty-four years. I go hot and cold with Zen. Never have heated up enough to study it formally. Never have cooled off enough to lose interest in it entirely.
When an author throws too much Buddhism into the mix of Zen + Buddhism, I get turned off. I like my Zen to be as non-religious as possible.
I took the title of this page from Charlotte Joko Beck’s wonderful book Nothing Special. Writing from a Zen perspective, she suggests that letting go of spiritual fantasies is a prerequisite to effective Buddhist practice.
"Nothing is really solved until we understand that there is no solution. We’re falling, and there’s no answer to that. We can’t control it. We’re spending our life trying to stop the falling; yet it never stops. There is no solution, no wonderful person who can make it stop. No success, no dream, no anything can make it stop. Our body is just going down."
Joko Beck taught in the Sanbo Kyodan (Harada-Yasutani) lineage of Zen. I’ve been sharply critical of Sanbo Kyodan elsewhere, for its fetishizing and mythologizing kensho, for its claim that enlightenment consists of discovering your True Self, and for a lot of half-witted talk about God.
At the same time, there is much in Sanbo Kyodan I admire and agree with: its emphasis on non-monastic practice, on everyday life as the path, and on extensive formless meditation; and for dropping many aspects of traditional Japanese Buddhism that no longer function.
l'm about a third of the way through Beck's book. Here's some quotes I've come across so far where she describes what Zen practice is all about. These thoughts apply to any sort of spiritual practice, in my opinion.
(Spoiler alert: it's just living life.)
When we discover Zen practice, we may hold out a hope that it is going to solve our problems and make our life perfect. But Zen practice simply returns us to life as it is. Being our lives more and more is what Zen practice is about.
Our lives are simply what they are, and Zen helps us to recognize that fact. The thought "If I do this practice patiently enough, everything will be different" is simply another belief system, another version of the promise that is never kept.
...There's a practice of maintaining awareness; in that sense, Zen practice exists. But so long as we're alive, there's the question of awareness. We can't avoid it. In that sense, there's no way to avoid practice, or even to do it. It's just being alive.
Though there are certain formal activities that assist us in waking up (which we can call Zen practice if we want), real "Zen practice" is just being here right now and not adding anything to this.
...In a sense, Zen is a religious practice. Religion really means to rejoin that which seems to be separate. Zen practice helps us to do that. But it's not a religion in the sense that there's something outside of ourselves that's going to take care of us.
...In the end there is no practice except what we're doing each second.
...Practice is not about having experiences, not about having giant realizations, not about getting somewhere or becoming something. We are perfect as we are. By "perfect" I mean simply that this is it. Practice is simply maintaining awareness -- of our activities and also of our thoughts that separate us from our activities.
As we hammer nails or sit, we simply hammer nails or sit. Since our senses are open, we hear and feel other things as well: sounds, smells, and so on. When thoughts arise, we notice them, and return to our direct experience.
Awareness is our true self; it's what we are. So we don't have to try to develop awareness; we simply need to notice how we block awareness, with our thoughts, our fantasies, our opinions, and our judgments. We're either in awareness, which is our natural state, or we're doing something else.
The mark of mature students is that most of the time, they don't do something else. They're just here, living their life. Nothing special.
...Good practice is simply doing what we're doing and noticing when we drift off.
...Focusing on something called "Zen practice" is not necessary. If from morning to night we just took care of one thing after another, thoroughly and completely and without accompanying thoughts, such as "I'm a good person for doing this" or "Isn't it wonderful that I can take care of everything?," then that would be sufficient.