A More Direct Route
In response to a question about group practice vs individual practice on May 22, 1988
Most people start out by practicing by themselves. They read books, they do some things, they try doing it themselves, and that’s okay, but in lots of ways it’s like reinventing the wheel. It’s a very difficult feat. You might, with years of trying it, be able to do what the Buddha did. But chances are, you won’t. You’ll spend a very long time and experience many very interesting things but you won’t get all of the real important benefits of practicing.
It’s like saying you want to go to Chicago. If you knew someone who had been there and knew the way, and could show you how to get there, you’d get there pretty directly. If you try and find it on your own, you might find it? or you might take a very long route or you might never find it! You might go by way of Los Angeles or Mexico City and it might be very interesting but you might never get to Chicago. We still have to go to Chicago. No one can do that for us. But if we can talk to someone who has a lot of experience of how to get there, we might find a much more direct route and a much less difficult way.
There are places for both of those things (practicing alone? and practicing with a group); we can’t all live in Zen centers. I have lived in a Zen Center for the last fourteen years, but that’s very unusual. Most people won’t do that. But we can come and practice with people. We can come and hear talks, sit retreats and go places where people are practicing in groups. Some people are very disciplined and feel they don’t need other people to practice with but it’s much easier to practice with others. If you live in a Zen center, you get up 4:45 in the morning. It’s like brushing your teeth. You don’t sit there everyday saying, “Should I get up? I don’t feel like getting up.” There are times when you might do that but since everyone is getting up at 4:45, there’s a lot less thinking and checking going on.
Say you are very disciplined and it isn’t a problem for you to practice on your own, that it isn’t a problem to get up in the morning and sit. Even if you can do that, there are a couple of things that can happen: one of them is that you can get a very strong ego from that, “I’m very strong! I’m very disciplined!” ?That’s not what practicing is about. It’s about getting rid of the ego, not making it stronger. Another? thing that could happen when someone is disciplined enough to practice by themselves, say? for ten and twenty years, is that they learn it can calm their minds and that it helps them a lot. It helps them to relax. There are a lot of things they may learn. But they may never, ever know how to use the clarity gained by it. Because they are by themselves all the time and not in situations with other people where they have to use it.
I’ve seen people who have years and years of practice and it may have helped them a lot but they can’t convey it to anybody, whatever it is that they have learned. They have nothing to pass on to anybody. They just keep practicing by themselves, and that’s okay, but the point of doing this is not just to feel better ourselves. It’s not just a self-improvement thing that’s going on to make us feel better. If practicing is of any use, use in this world and on this planet, it’s knowing how to use it and that is not guaranteed from just sitting.
If I was going to put a sign up for the meditation room, I would put it on this side of the room (in the dharma room.) I wouldn’t put it outside the hallway for people coming in. I would put it right here: this is where you practice and that (points to the hallway) is where you try to do it! This is only practice for that. Lots of times it is the other way around, and that’s okay too, but that’s not the most valuable piece of it. If practice doesn’t help us with our relationship with our family, with our work, if we are not generating some kind of clarity and compassion that shows up in all those things, then we’re not meditating correctly. I live in this community of people that practices together. We get up every morning and do that; then we walk out the door and the business starts and we get to see instantaneously whether we’ve been wasting our time day-dreaming or sleeping or if we’ve been practicing sincerely. You get instant feed-back and that’s necessary somehow. You don’t have to live in a Zen center to do that, but that’s what practicing with other people can do.