Practice Period

In Dogen Zenji’s Eihei Koroku this is recorded: “Dogen held up his whisk, and with it drew a circle in the air. He said, ‘Practice period goes beyond this.’ ”

For thirty years Berkeley Zen Center has offered a six-week practice period. These have been led by our founding teacher, Sojun Weitsman Roshi. As vice abbot of Berkeley Zen Center, I am honored that Sojun Roshi has invited me to lead this year’s practice period.

In the Zen tradition, the word used for practice period is ango, which means “peaceful abiding.” In China and Japan this would be a three-month residential intensive, with its own root in the early Buddhist “rains retreat,” when wandering monks and nuns would gather in their home temples during monsoon season.

Our practice period, in the springtime when the circle of life turns in joyous renewal, is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the practice of living an enlightened life, to renew our beginner’s mind. Dogen Zenji speaks of “practice realization,” meaning that our Zen practice does not so much aim toward a goal of awakening, but rather that practice expresses the enlightenment that is always within and available to us. Practice period includes sitting, walking, chanting, cooking, serving, eating, working, resting—all of this is enlightened activity, woven into whole cloth by zazen.

BZC is not a monastery, so our members have jobs, families, and responsibilities outside the gate. Our practice is as much at home and in the world as in the zendo. This is our ongoing Dharma experiment—dedicated lay practice, sitting with everything. During practice period, we have recommended requirements, but as Sojun Roshi has written, “within these requirements each person can create his or her own schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. Some will be able to do only the minimum, while others who have the opportunity will be able to extend or stretch themselves much more.”

We may wish to do it all, but each of us must be realistic about our capacity. The important thing for each of us—during practice period and throughout the year—is to clarify and set our practice intention, and do our best to keep to that intention. You don’t have to break your bones to do practice period. But don’t be slack with yourself either. With Right Effort our practice edge comes into view. What is the Middle Way? Whatever commitment and schedule one comes up with, we are all practicing together intimately.

Not everyone in the sangha will be able to clear the time and energy to participate in practice period. That is completely understandable, and everyone, of course, is welcome to come to the zendo when they can. All of us are supporting and being supported by the practice period—peaceful abiding. These six weeks can then extend throughout the year. As Dogen says, “Practice period goes beyond this.”