Requirements for the Zen Practice:
1. Emptying the cup – having an open mind with a zeal for curiosity.
A famous Zen story is that of emptying the cup.
One day a University Professor visit a Zen master at his home and had tea with him. As
they were talking, the Zen master was pouring tea into the University Professor’s cup.
Even though the cup was full, the Zen master continued to pour it until it overflowed and
spills out on to the table.
The University Professor noticed that and said: “Stop, why are you overflowing my cup?
There is enough tea in there already.”
The Zen master replied: “Just like the cup, your mind is completely filled with preconceived
notions and past concepts you have learned. When that happens, you cannot
fill it with anything new further.”
Before embarking to learn and practice Zen, one must keep an open mind, test the
practice, try the practice to see if it works for them before dismissing it.
The practice of Zen is about emptying the cup and treating all experience as a completely
new one. Only through that way, we can observe and study Zen in its fullest extent.
2. Understanding of the basic tenets of the Buddha’s teachings. Strive for not
just an intellectual understand but also one of experiential understanding in
seeing it in one’s own life.
Although the teachings of Zen is about practice and outside of the scriptures, but in
reality, the practice and teachings of Zen is always based on the essence of the Buddha’s
teachings. Before you arrive at the awakening realization in Zen, which is the fruit of
Zen practice. It is advisable that you learn the fundamental aspects of the Buddha’s
teachings and use it as a map to guide you in your interaction with the teacher, in your
practice with others and in your own life. The teachings of the Buddha is a guide map,
it is not the essence of the truth, to fully realize those teachings is to practice it.
However, don’t be too attached to the words and concepts of the teachings, discern it for
yourself and see if it helps you in your daily life. Try whatever works, keep that and
leave the rest. The Buddha taught many ways for different types of people to arrive at
the understanding of the truth. Like giving different medicine for different illness of the
mind, one type of medication will not suffice to apply to all. So if it doesn’t apply to
you, don’t discard it as being wrong, see it as a medicine that you don’t need, because
you don’t have the same condition. Someone else will find it useful in their practice.
Always strive for the experimental understanding, not just for the conceptual intellectual
understanding of what is taught. This can only happen if you apply it as your daily
practice and life.
3. Making a vow to end your own sufferings and to help all beings end theirs.
The Buddha’s teachings are about the cause of suffering and how to end sufferings. It is
not about gaining knowledge, not about becoming a more spiritual person or becoming
this or that. Many people make the mistake of taking on to their ego identity the role that
they learn or play in a community. Because they sit and meditate, practice a little or
learn a little from books or Dharma talk, they take the stance of being “holier than thou”.
They expect their external circumstances to change in some ways, people to like them
more, their spouse, children or family to treat them differently.
Others expect that they will gain profound insight and get frustrated that they don’t.
While some would expect to experience blissful or transcendental states of mediations or
out of body experience, others would be a little crazier and want to have ESP, special
powers from their meditative practice. The more devoted ones want somehow that the
Buddha will protect them from harm or external happenings which do not go their way.
This is not the goal of a Buddhist practice. Not the goal of a Zen practice. If you are
expecting all these, don’t practice Buddhism or Zen. This practice is not for you.
The most profound practice of Zen is to totally empty your cup and relieve yourself of all
expectations of your practice. Just keep an open mind and allow everything to be
naturally. Experience life as a child, be curious and observe. Preconceived expectations
of results of practice will definitely cause you to be disappointed and never reaching the
fruits of your practice, which is the end of sufferings. They are nothing but mere
4. Willingness to be truly alive and discover the Dharma within one’s life
through one’s own experience. Practice appreciation of all things you
experience, the people you meet, the gifts of life around you.
The Buddha’s Dharma exists in many different forms. We usually have habitual patterns
which repeat itself over and over again in our own life without our conscious knowledge.
It is through the meditative practice that we truly see into these patterns of the mind.
Nothing in our life is happens by accident. Everything is there to teach us a profound
spiritual lesson. Observe your own life, learn from it, view it from the light of the
Buddha’s teachings to test and see if it is true. Be totally honest about it.
I had one person who came up to me to ask question, he was frustrated about his lack of
progress in practicing spirituality. He continues to have depressions, anxieties, and
sufferings in his life. I told him to meditate. When the illness is acute, apply more
medicine. Meditate for 1 or 2 hours a day. Observe the emotions, let it flow through
your body; investigate to see where it came from.
However, he was afraid of doing so. He resisted regular meditation. He resisted
looking into his patterns because it brings up painful feelings. So repressing it is a lot
easier, it is habitual. I gave him medication for his sufferings; he refused to take them,
being very discouraged that he didn’t get over his acute mental states. If a person is ill,
refuses to take medication then complains about pain and their illness, it doesn’t help.
The practice of Zen is about facing your fears, facing your feelings, your emotions, and
thoughts patterns no matter how dark, good or bad. We have to be honest that this is
what is happening in our life. This honesty is not to judge ourselves to but to help us to
heal. Repression and avoidance will not suffice. We must dive into life and accept all
the good and bad experiences as is and repress nothing. We must bring this clarity of
mind gained from our meditative practice as the light to shine on all the happenings in
our life. Observe it, not judge it, and allow the realization and understanding of them to
naturally come to us. The answer is there, we’re just too busy being lost in our habitual
patterns of mind to hear it. This is being truly alive.
5. Willingness to have a regular daily practice.
Regular practice is the key to realizing the Buddha’s teachings. Without regular
practice, there can be no direct experience of his teachings. All the Buddha’s teachings
then are only mere concepts to be discussed and debated, being of little use in your life.
How many people have learned so much intellectual understanding of the Buddha’s
teachings, went to Buddhist University, become famous lecturers and teachers and
experiences nothing of the experience of realization of truth that the Buddha talked about.
Without having regular meditative practice, the teachings are merely words, not the truth.
6. Willingness to journey inside and discover one’s own reality within.
The human mind and habitual patterns is complex. However, the goal of a Buddhist
practice is not about psychologically examining every aspects and part of mental
functioning. It is to understand inner conscious reality and realizing that which is the
ultimate truth inside ourselves that we meditate, this discovery can only happen when we
stop the incessant analysis of every little bit of our thoughts. Continual analysis is more
thinking. When you journey inside, you will face the good, the bad, the scary parts, the
parts you don’t want to see. Let it be and allow it to pass, acknowledge it but not judge
it or analyze it. Let the dust settle and discover what happens when it does.
This act of being willing to face our reality within requires courage and determination at
first, however, with the clarity of mind, the insights you gain from your practice will
propel you to naturally practice with little efforts at a certain point in your practice.
7. Being totally honest about the process and progress of one’s practice.
Many people make the mistake of claiming that they are spiritually developed when
indeed they are not. What a futile attempt. What for? It doesn’t help you. It might
help your ego a lot but it doesn’t help you.
When we’re honest about our practice, we keep going at it, we never settle for anything
less than the total eradication of suffering. This is how the Buddha discovers his
profound truth. He didn’t settle for less.
If you’re not meditating regularly, acknowledge that you don’t. Doesn’t help to feel
guilty about it, just do something about that. Guilt is completely useless. It doesn’t help
us change our habitual mind patterns. Being honest about the process of our practice
means not holding on to judgments to beat ourselves over the head with it. It is about
changing that pattern and doing something different.
8. Finding oneself a suitable guiding teacher, to guide one on the path of
I cannot stress how important it is to have a guiding teacher. I’m going to be blunt in
explaining the relationship between spiritual teachers and their students. Some people
may not like to hear it, but this is the reality of the relationship. Without teachers who
taught us how to read and write, very few people would be able to do so. Buddhism is
the same, especially Zen Buddhism. It is about direct experience and practice. Zen
teachers are usually someone who had practice for many years. A teacher is not one who
is perfect according to our mind’s expectations. Students cannot expect them to know
everything, but at least know more than the students themselves in terms of direct
experience into the Buddhist practice.
Students need to observe, watch and see if a teacher is one that is suitable for them to
accept their personal guidance, you can receive teachings for an assortment of different
teachers, but the guiding teacher is the one who intimately guide you and ultimately help
you get to where you want. This very important act usually comes from the heart, not
from the head. Trust is very important in this respect. Be mindful about this
relationship, that students are not projecting unfulfilled needs on to their teacher. As well
a guiding teacher should have the maturity to understand and not have his or her own
mental needs projected on to their students. Be mindful of mental projections of unmet
needs in the student teacher relationships.
A good teacher would never have expectations or force a student to do things they are not
willing to choose themselves. Guidance is different from directing.
In this modern age, a guiding teacher can be accessible through many means of
communication. Geography is no longer a restriction. So choose your guiding teacher
wisely and always be mindful of the dynamic of this relationship.
Steps of Zen Practice:
1. Sitting meditation – concentration practice through the counting of the breath.
2. Sitting meditation – once concentration is achieved through counting, let go of
counting and just follow the breath
3. Sitting meditation and relaxation techniques – Zazen practice – no meditation
4. Sitting meditation – Koan Study
5. Sitting and walking meditation – Zazen in everyday life.
6. Sitting, walking, laying down, working meditation – Moment to moment
Tools for the Zen Practice:
1. Comfortable clothings
2. A comfortable cushion and mat to sit on.
3. Set time aside everyday 15 to 30 minutes for sitting meditation.
4. One on one meeting with the teacher to assist and guide with understanding and
experience during meditation.