People come to Austin Zen Center from myriad backgrounds and circumstances to enter practice. In Buddhism there are said to be eighty-four thousand Dharma Gates.
First-time visitors to AZC have most typically been reading about Buddhism, some have been meditating, and some have practiced at other centers. The best way to begin at AZC, no matter what your background, is to come to the Saturday Morning Program, especially the Beginners' Instruction.
What We Offer at the Austin Zen Center
The Buddha defined three aspects of practice:
- The Ethical Life: A life that includes following the Ten Precepts (cultivating a reverence for all life, generosity, care and love in intimate relationships, honesty, proper care of body and mind, avoidance of fault-finding, humility, giving freely of self, good will, and respect for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Along with the Precepts are the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
- Cultivating the Mind of Compassion: Cultivating sympathy, empathy, and a gentle affection towards our own suffering and that of other beings.
- Cultivating Insight or Wisdom: Through study of the self and the teachings discovering through our own intuitive wisdom, the true nature of reality and the personal resolve that emerges from that discovery.
Zazen (literally "seated meditation"), is particularly emphasized in Zen practice as a means of cultivating the mind. Zazen is actually more general than sitting on a cushion, since it includes being present in each moment throughout the day. Zazen is seen as the foundation for insight and compassionate conduct. Austin Zen Center offers coaching and many hours of zazen opportunities each week; and schedules many sesshins, intensive zazen retreats lasting from one to seven days, throughout the year. Ongoing training in zazen is offered by practice leaders.
In any spiritual discipline, regularity of practice is essential. When we have a schedule we take away having to be led around by preference, mood, or rationalizing. We just do it. And every time we just do it our practice deepens and our inner confidence grows. At AZC we offer a daily schedule and keep to it come rain or shine, hot or cold. We will help you develop your own schedule (or practice agreement) that harmonizes with how you live your life. And we will support you in it in any way we can.
As a school of Buddhism, Zen is fundamentally experiential, with less focus on philosophical or analytical understanding. Nevertheless it has always contained a scholarly component and is characterized by an extensive literary tradition. Austin Zen Center offers classes as well as a rich lecture series (see calendar) with many local and visiting speakers. AZC also supports an extensive library.
Ritual and Ceremony
In view of Zen's reputation for spontaneity and iconoclasm, many are surprised that form and ritual are so pervasive. Nevertheless it is an important ingredient of Zen mindfulness training, stepping out of self-centered drives and bringing zazen mind into bodily actions. We have services every weekday morning and evening after zazen (see daily schedule).
Training usually begins with establishing a regular schedule of zazen and attending lectures and classes. Training can be fine tuned through working with a teacher who can advise on meditation, practice in daily life, and Dharma. Teachers are important in discovering places in which practice gets mired in personal delusion. Those who maintain a practice commitment worked out with a teacher are said to be "in training," which ideally is lifelong.
Becoming or not becoming "Buddhist"
Buddhism does not set itself apart from other religions, nor attach importance to "converting." It is practice-oriented and not really about accepting fixed beliefs. Some who follow the teachings of Buddhism choose to identify themselves as Buddhist. Others who identify with another religion find the Buddhist emphasis on contemplative practice a powerful supplement. What may look like worship in Buddhism is actually a dramatic show of gratitude and respect for those who preceded us and for that which is most wholesome in ourselves.
Our Zen Practice
Our practice tradition in this country has evolved out of 2,500 years of monastic practice. This rich heritage is being continually adapted to meet the everyday life and work of women and men just like you.
Dana or Giving
The Buddha taught that Dana (generosity) is the first gate on the path to liberation. Giving is considered karmically wholesome and one of the attributes of a spiritually mature person. It entails giving more than is required, customary, or expected relative to one's resources and circumstances. The Zen practitioners who come to AZC give of their money, time and talents both as a spiritual practice and to support the work and life of the Zen Center. They discover that giver, receiver and gift are not separate but are living aspect of the one Dharma.
According to the Buddha, "Being a friend with admirable people... is the whole of the holy life." At Austin Zen Center you rub elbows with exceptional people, people who are generous, caring, and fun-loving who take their practice seriously and share it easily.