practice periods

  • Fall 2017 Practice Period: September 20 to December 13
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In our busy, urban world it is difficult to pause, take stock of this life, deepen spiritual practice and move forward. Not being able to enter a monastic setting, we usually lack the silent container that so deeply supports our commitment to clear seeing. One way to cultivate this support is to join together in community, reserve a stretch of time and point our shared effort toward intense practice right in the middle of lay life. Being that we are navigating the intensity of New York City, periods of focused training are an evermore critical part of the path. They provide an opportunity to stop, clarify our intentions, deepen insight, embody our commitments and more fully integrate our practice as life. Returning to silence in this way strengthens mindfulness and opens the heart.
The practice period, or ango, is a Zen tradition that provides this opportunity. We set aside 90 days twice annually for intensified and focused practice. Like the original sangha around the Buddha who gathered together in accord with the seasons, the practice periods at the Brooklyn Zen Center are also in line with the ebb and flow of New York City’s seasons.
Our Spring Practice Period begins mid-March, after the harder days of winter have ended, and finishes up mid-June before summer plans are in full swing. Our Fall Practice Period begins mid-September, once most of us are back in our routines, and ends mid-December with Rohatsu sesshin, our annual retreat held in celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Though we consider formal practice to be an ongoing part of a deepening spiritual life, we also realize the demands of New York City make it important to have times of greater and lesser intensity. Practice periods are an opportunity to put some other aspects of life on the back burner for a bit so we can wholeheartedly devote ourselves to Zen practice in community. Doing so underpins and strengthens all other aspects of our lives.
A practice period is an opportunity for us to increase our commitment to formal practice. We support one another by showing up and we support our own practice by consciously making ourselves accountable to showing up. So we fill out a Practice Period Commitment Form as an expression of commitment to the practice period and to one another. During this time one might choose to add a few periods of zazen to the week or make a commitment to attend all retreats. Directing one’s attention to a particular precept or teaching for this time might prove illuminating. Taking on a new practice role or meeting more regularly in practice discussion with a teacher would be appropriate as well. There are a number of ways to broaden the mirror of practice so that the mind can be seen more clearly. Ultimately this will be up to each of us to consider our practice and see how we might deepen our commitment.
The more we devote ourselves to the schedule offered, the more intimate the practice period becomes and the more each of us will feel the support of others sharing this aspiration. It is important however to be realistic about our responsibilities. When making this commitment please consider your home and work responsibilities and make a sound, balanced intention that can be actualized.
Toward this end you may have to give something up so that you are not simply adding to the busyness. It is appropriate to design a practice schedule that pushes you beyond your current level of commitment; but you will only be able to do this if you are clear about your priorities for this three-month period. If you commit to sitting two nights weekly, then understand you are choosing not to go out to other events those nights. Being clear about this will allow us to rest in the practice period, rather than experience it as additional stress.
It is a joy to feel each other in the meditation hall, a joy to know the community’s support, a joy to talk about the dharma and a joy to witness one another’s blossoming into the many unique manifestations of this profound mystery. In stillness, simplicity and silence, we will lovingly join together in the common cause of seeing our true nature. This is our commitment. This is our way.