- I’m interested in Zen, but I don’t know what to do first. Where do I start?
- What should I wear when I go to Uto-an?
- Do I need to bring anything?
- What should I expect if I visit Uto-an on a Sunday morning?
- I’m a Christian (Jew/Muslim/Hindu/atheist) Is it OK to do zazen?
- I notice that the Anchorage Zen Community practices “Soto Zen Buddhism — how is that different from other traditions? Does it matter?
- Does it cost anything to participate in AZC activities?
I’m interested in Zen, but I don’t know what to do first. Where do I start?
Some people are introduced to this practice through books, or through hearing a talk, or through a class, or by some exposure to meditation. You are welcome to come borrow books from our library, attend a Sunday talk, or join our spring or fall Dharma Study Group. But if you have no experience of meditation, we recommend that you attend a Zazen Instruction (Sundays, 8:30 AM) to receive some basic zazen instruction and meet with experienced practitioners in the community. If you have questions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.
There is no strict dress code, but please dress as you would to enter any sacred space. Clothing which shows a lot of skin (shorts, t-shirts, and so on), as well as clothing with lots of text, loud patterns, or bright colors can be distracting for other practitioners. At most Zen centers, you’ll find people wearing, modest, subdued clothing. Of course, wear clothes that are comfortable and allow you to bend your legs easily.
We have plenty of materials for sitting, so at least the first time, there’s no need to bring anything else. You’ll see that some people bring a small blanket to wrap around their legs, and people who prefer to sit with a bench often bring their own. If you have questions about adjustments you can make, or tools you can use, to improve you posture in zazen, please ask.
When you enter, some people will probably already be sitting, facing the wall. Please take your shoes off quietly, arrange them neatly in the closet, and choose a place to sit – anyplace is OK. After 25 minutes of zazen, you’ll hear two bells – this is the signal to slowly rise and do kinhin (walking meditation). Kinhin is performed extremely slowly, so slowly that you may move just a few feet in ten minutes. Three more bells will signal the return to zazen.
After the second period of zazen, you’ll hear one bell, and people around you will begin to chant a robe verse three times. The words of this verse are the first we speak in the day, and they establish our intention to work for the good of all.
The ceremony that follows involves a little bowing at the beginning and end. If you come from another spiritual tradition, please do not be alarmed – though we bow in the direction of the Buddha, we do not view him as a god or supernatural being. We bow as one would to a great teacher; we bow to empty ourselves of our preconceptions and limitations. We chant three sutras in the morning: the first is a recognition of the first teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha; the second is in remembrance of all the teachers in the 2500 years since who have maintained this practice for us today; and the third is for all beings, particularly for those in distress and those who have recently passed away. If you have questions after the ceremony, please feel free to ask.
A short public talk usually follows the ceremony – topics vary from week to week. Following the talk, those with announcements for the community share them, and we go home. Those who have time stay for tea and snacks. On the last Sunday of each month, we hold a community potluck in place of the dharma talk. All are welcome.
Only you can decide what is and isn’t appropriate for you, but there are people of all faiths and belief systems who engage in Buddhist practice. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion in the conventional sense of the term, so from a Buddhist perspective, there is no problem at all. All are welcome.
At its core, Buddhism is Buddhism – sectarian differences are real, but they are often overemphasized. The Zen school places particular emphasis on experiential understanding of realization – over its philosophical or metaphysical implications. Within Zen, the Soto lineage is best recognized by its focus on shikantaza, or “just sitting” (formless, inclusive meditation) and on the principle that “practice and realization are not two.” As in many other schools, these teachings are expressed very simply: trying to perform whatever action is before us one hundred percent, for the sake of all.
Activities at AZC are made possible by the generosity of those who practice with us; however, there is no actual cost of participation. The AZC is a non-profit organization which relies on donations to cover costs. In some cases (sesshin, study groups), you’ll see there is a “suggested donation”–participants are encouraged to contribute what is reasonable for them, whether it is more or less than that suggested number. Some people also choose to become regular supporters by pledging a certain amount per month. And some make other contributions to the community, not just in the donation box, but also in the form of energy, time, committee work, help with fundraising, and so on. Your contribution, whatever it is, makes this practice available to others. If you are interested in pledging monthly or in other ways of contributing, please see our giving page.