How much is enough...

In zen practice, one hears “just this is enough.” Uh, say what? How much is that? What is “enough?” This is a pragmatic question—for those of us who who live outside the monastery, go to work, have family obligations, have a schedule with some freedom in it. Nuts and bolts. What does it mean to say “zen is primary” in my life?

In oryoki, the bowls (pictured on the right) hold “just enough” nourishment. In residential practice, being in the schedule shapes our sense of enough. Zazen, work, study. Training is to follow the schedule, learn the forms, and study the self.

Outside of residential training, the oryoki and zen ethos of “just enough” can become a pathos of “not enough.”

I’ve heard some say its love of zazen and devotion to zazen. Ergo, the more one sits, the more one is devoted. Ok, that’s perhaps a simplification. Mimic the residential life in lay life, does it work? What are the benchmarks? Is counting attendance useful?

Professor Sugawara in Dharma Eye * (part 3 of a 4 part series on the Fuka zazengi) writes, “The value of zazen isn’t decided by the amount of sitting we do. The value of zazen must be decided already at the point we sit by ‘practice within realization.’” In other words, counting zazen periods defiles the activity of zazen.

Katherine Thanas was asked by an earnest student “how long have you practiced?” Long pause and tired sigh. Think Yoda’s ears drooping in disappointment. Katherine is tidying her notes and stacking books brought to lecture. She looks up, the wry smile that is not quite a smirk, and says, “a little while.” At that point, it had been decades. But her teaching was clear…she would not indulge us or herself in the question of how much, how long. **


My lay practice oryoki Buddha bowl is in the kitchen. No one eats out of it, or touches it, except me. If someone selects it from the drawer, I say, “um, sorry not that one.” Occasionally, I use the bowl for oatmeal or rice. When I lift it, my fingers move on auto-pilot, a three finger hold and spoon just so.

** My memory is that earnest student followed up with “Well, I meant number of years, how many years have you practiced?” Katherine, now with sincerity, “Yes, I understood you wanted to know that.” Then, she obliged with a longer explanation of why she would not say. At the time, I remember thinking her humility was instructive. But I think humility was not the main teaching that night. Rather, it was that fixating on being enough as measured in years or zz periods, is not quite right.

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