Practice in Times of Uncertainty — Zen Students Respond

Times of disruption, anxiety, and confusion challenge us to dig deeply into our practice. We are searching for stability, clarity, and an authentic response to the mass suffering and challenges during this pandemic. Even though it’s hard to maintain discipline and get support from others while social distancing, it’s critical to clarify our intention to respond with purpose and energy. Below are responses from formal Zen students at Zen West ~ Empty Field on their own reaching and how that looks and feels in everyday life. May we, together with all beings, realize the awakened way.

 With Palms Together,


 What is your most important practice during this time of change and uncertainty?

Pam — Gratitude and Wonder 

 In the morning I sit for zazen in a little cubby at the back of my kitchen. It’s at the back of my house, and I am able to look out the windows at green all around. I am actually quite surprised at how many trees I can see. It is so easy to slip into gratitude. The best, though, is being in my backyard, feeling the air and the sun on my skin, watching the birds zoom in for a landing at the bird feeder. Feeling nature’s abundance. At the back corner are some raised beds. One is full of garlic growing. Another is covered to make a hoop greenhouse. A couple weeks ago I planted some peas, old seeds, maybe one or two years old. I wondered how many would actually germinate. Well, earlier this week I peeked in to see tiny green sprouts! I checked in again a couple days later to water and noticed a creature had already nibbled on a few. It was probably slugs in hiding. What was different for me was my attitude.  It was more of “leave some for me” than annoyance. Yes, there will be less for me, maybe they will nibble all, but this morning I thought, “we are all in this together,” even with the slugs.

Seiryu – No Fear

Walks through the life blooming all around me/you/us. 

Zazen in the context of the Heart Sutra. I am in a Liturgy Class up at Dharma Rain Zen Center, and this month we were chanting the Heart Sutra at home, reading Okumura about it, and then writing about it. The no … no … no … put me right into the middle of change and letting go of certainty. But then it also led me to letting go of uncertainty. “With nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita and thus removes all hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear.”  I’m not telling stories to myself about myself so much, so I am able to see and react to what is going on.  

Joel — Zazen

For the time being, sitting meditation is the practice that is important during this time of uncertainty and change. When I sit, I breathe in and I breathe out. I feel the wind, watch the hummingbirds fly around the new not-quite blueberries, listen to my surroundings. I also notice the push inside me toward my small protective self, and sometimes I find myself lost in some protective reaction. Then I simply breathe in and out, return to what is happening around me and beneath me. I feel my legs against the ground and the length of my back, my body breathing in and breathing out. When I leave the sitting practice, my life is strangely different. I listen to things differently. I respond deeper. I take my time with things. I return to the care of the stuff and people of my life. And also, I can carry a little more of this Covid Mountain around with me, and I can feel what I am feeling with it whether fear, curiosity, or marvel. 

Adele – Loving Kindness

My practices during this time include Metta and Tonglen. I say a Metta Prayer as I spoon hot food into containers at the food bank cafe where I work, or when I make sandwiches. I think, “May the person who eats this be well, may they be healthy, may they be at peace.” It’s a little prayer that I hope ripples out into the community — and I think it makes the food taste better.

 Meiju – Daily Touchstone

My most important practice right now is just sitting zazen in the morning. It’s the same thing I did every day before the situation started, and I intend for it to be the same thing I do every morning when and if the situation is resolved. 

It’s helpful for me to have something of a touchstone, a dependable and normal part of life as the center of an opportunity for learning in the midst of this situation. It feels like an opportunity for groundedness despite everything that’s going on.

Komyo – Wholehearted Response

What is most important right now in practice is responding to the moment wholeheartedly. When tired, fully tired, when anxious, fully anxious, when grounded, fully grounded, when uncertain, fully uncertain. Practicing with not clinging or rejecting causes and conditions as they are in the moment creates a freedom from which my response to myself and the world can be spontaneous and embodied.

When I can honor anxiety in myself without pushing it away or wishing it gone or otherwise considering the state deficient, I step into a space where the state of “anxious” simply exists, and from this place I can respond with compassion for myself and others for all the causes and conditions that manifest as anxiety in this moment. When grounded, I can honor the causes and conditions that manifest the state of groundedness without attaching to having “done something right” to achieve groundedness or having successfully pushed something else away effectively enough to achieve a state of groundedness, I can simply acknowledge that causes and conditions are manifesting as groundedness in this moment. Practicing in this way expands my view so I can see into and honor the interplay of intent and thusness.

This compassionate and responsive stance to “things as they are” is to embody the bodhisattva way. To embody the practice of meeting and responding to the causes and conditions as they are without clinging or aversion is to bow to the Being-ness of all things.

Kensan – Giving the Bodhisattvas Passage

I’m experimenting with viewing bodhisattvas as archetypes. Each embodies awakened spiritual human qualities; qualities that are embedded in my higher self. I can invoke a certain one when facing a particular challenge.  In this way I provide passage for that energy. Bodhisattvas are mythic figures, yet they functions within my personal psyche as well as the collective psyche of the world. I hope to not just study but to find their energies within myself.  

I will look to Shakyanumi as the central figure, surrounded by: Manjushri, Prince of Wisdom; Samantabhadra, Functioning in the World; Avalokiteshvara, Heart of Compassion; Kṣitigarbha (Jizō), Monk as Earth Mother; Maitreya, Future Buddha; and Vimilakirti, Unsurpassed Layman.

I’ve only begun working with this. Already, I feel less alone.   have seven spiritual friends accompanying me. I feel like I’m in the center of a mandala, protected by eons of wisdom.

Futai – How Great the Robe of Liberation

 I stay at home to not spread the virus. I notice how spring is happening all around. And …

How great the robe of liberation

A formless field of benefaction

Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching

We free all living things

I put on my robes and sit. By sitting in this way I am wrapped in Buddha’s teaching; this wordless, giving, boundless, life communion. I think of and feel for all those suffering and the sadness feels satisfying and complete. I welcome Avalokiteshvara  and Jizo into my body and mind. I’m not in a hurry.

I show up to help at the Goldson Food Pantry to get food to those in need. 

I am grateful for the koan of change and uncertainty; the ground below.

Senkei – Welcoming All Experience

Sitting outside in the morning, listening: Rooster’s crow, bird’s sweet call and response, gentle water flowing into the pond, the crying howl of a dog, the whoosh of hummingbird wings, and the insistent drilling from the woodpecker. That one enters my heart and I feel it mirroring pain and hurt, my own and that of the world now. I feel sad a lot these days; it’s good to know it and let it fill me. Not the normal way I practice, but it is what’s here in my body, in the world body. So I am opening and allowing it in. Listening and feeling. … Be kind to myself, be kind to the world, this is my practice for now.

My practice besides regular meditation has been working on art. Although I do make some art normally, it has become a real must-do and a place of refuge for me since the beginning of the Covid virus epidemic. I am writing some of our chants on paper, then I partially paint over the words and include figures like Avalokitesvara, Buddha, and animals. I love this practice and feel it connects me to my zen practice. I really think about the words when I write them, and I feel their meaning when I paint the images. It feels like a devotional practice for me and is something I will be doing for a while. 

Rishin – Zazen Together

My husband Jay and I have been doing a form of “presencing” and checking in as a couple for years, but right now we are more intentional about doing it every day. It is a way to be present to ourselves and each other. We sit down at the start of the week and put a meeting time down for each day of the week. 

What we do when we get together is a simple six-part process that can take as little as 10 minutes, but more often is 15 or 20 minutes. We use a pre-programmed insight timer routine to ring bells at the appropriate time. Part 1 is two to 10 minutes, parts two through six are 1.5 minutes each.

  1. Zazen, paying particular attention to what do I notice in my body, what sensations, emotions, thoughts are present.
  2. Person 1 speaks in the nature of council about what is happening in him/her right now, and/or what was present during the meditation.
  3. Person 2 shares the same way.
  4. Zazen with eyes open, looking at each other, again tuning into our own bodies, what do I sense, feel, think while I am looking at you, how connected or not do I feel.
  5. Person 2 shares as in (2).
  6. Person 1 shares. as in (2).

I also sew masks for healthcare workers distributed through the Corvallis Sewing Brigade. Some of the pinning and ironing of pleats and darts might happen while I listen to a sermon, dharma talk or other podcast, but at least part of each mask is done as if I was sewing my rakasu. I recite a version of metta prayer for the unknown recipients over and over as I sew, putting my energy and prayers into each mask. 

Jukan – Practice while practicing

For me, there are practices and there is Practice. In this time of Covid-19 I have time to expand the practices that I do — Tonglen, Zazen, Kinhin, Gratefulness, even expanded and simple mindfulness. In each moment, I stay present and open and awake to the wonder, the beauty, the fear, the sadness, and the fullness of each moment. These are all-important and necessary things for me to do as reminders of Being-Time.

But my Practice is not something I do; it is instead a place I come from — a place of deep and total Presence to the world as it unfolds to me and in me. I find that when I come from this place, love and acceptance, vulnerability and equanimity, grief and joy flow freely and openly. I can sense the emptiness that fills form and the form that is emptiness. I can react out of a deep place of compassion and love rather than reactive ego. I can know that deep river of compassion that is in each moment.

And so I practice, and I Practice ever being and becoming.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *