Tight Dharma

January 20th, 2022

I just put Asher down for a nap. Our thirteen-month-old grandson is taking a well-deserved break. So am I. When Asher rests, I rest.

A couple weeks ago, the Zen sangha began the annual period of “Heart Kyol Che.” What is “Heart Kyol Che”? I’ll let our abbot, Peter, explain:

“Kyol Che is a traditional Korean Zen retreat. The name means “tight dharma” or “coming together.” In Korea, it is the three-month winter and summer periods when monks and nuns do intensive sitting practice in the mountain temples.


The Heart Kyol Che is an opportunity for students who cannot sit the traditional Kyol Che, or who can sit only part of it, to participate by doing extra practice at home and doing together practice as they are able. This will run concurrently with the traditional Kyol Che. By doing this Heart Kyol Che together, we will strengthen our own practice, and provide support to our fellow students who are able to sit the traditional Kyol Che. We in turn can draw inspiration and energy from their commitment.”

Heart Kyol Che is a struggle for me. I would like to do sitting meditation. I would like to chant sometimes. It just doesn’t happen. I wrote an email to the other member of the Zen group about my concerns. Here it is (slightly redacted):

“I just put Asher down for a nap. I am keeping an ear open in case he rouses himself. Even when he sleeps, I need to be wary.


Anyway, I briefly attended the opening for Heart Kyol Che yesterday morning. It was a similar situation. Asher was asleep, and then he wasn’t. 


I was interested in the comments about committing to doing extra practice. They made me smile. How can I commit to doing anything more than what I am doing now? I got up at 5:00 this morning to get ready for Asher, and I have been watching him ever since he woke up dark and early. (Karin is asleep. She needs it.) When Asher is up again, I will be right back at it: feeding, carrying, and cleaning him. I guess holding a toddler’s hand for a couple hours qualifies as walking meditation. 


The point is that all of the standard practice that we do is currently not possible for me. I haven’t sat on a cushion in well over a year, and I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. My focus is solely on our little blond sumo wrestler. There is nothing else that can take priority over Asher. Nothing. 
We are supposed to gain enlightenment and save all sentient beings. Well, Asher is my path to enlightenment. He keeps me in the moment, and he constantly shows me how I can help. I love him when he smiles. I love him when he plays with his toy trucks. I love him when he shits his diaper.” 

I received several responses to my message. They were generally supportive, or at least understanding. Peter’s message was wise and reassuring:

“For sure, your practice now is Asher practice! I liked what Zen Master Dae Kwang said in his talk about Heart Kyol Che is all about intentions. (I think you may have dropped off to do Asher practice by then.) Anyway, I don’t think anyone is expecting you to do any practice other than Asher practice. That is your practice now.


We sometimes have the mistaken view that “practice” is something special, out of our normal life. This is not the case, quite the opposite. Yes, we have some additional practice forms that people can do, but practice for me is just waking up to each moment and being present to life and how we are living it.


As you know, we do have some different formal practice forms that can help us in achieving this wakeup, which can be as simple as reciting Kwan Seum Bosal on a male (much like rosary practice), or just sitting for a few minutes while Asher sleeps. These little practice tidbits have helped me in the past when our kids were young, and I didn’t have much extra time. But I think the best practice is just being present with Asher, Karin, and your family now.”

Other people from the sangha told me similar things. As Peter mentioned, “practice” is part of everyday life. It has to be. Otherwise, all the meditation and chanting and bowing that are typically aspects of Zen are just sterile exercises.

It is the same with other spiritual traditions. As a Catholic, I engage in a number of rituals (e.g., attending Mass). The sacraments of the Catholic Church are there to bring a person closer to God. Being closer to God means becoming more compassionate and loving. From what I have experienced, the prayers and rituals of the Jewish tradition exist for a similar reason.

Religious exercises need to have a litmus test in the physical world. If my “practice”, whatever it may be, does not help me to better love God and my neighbor, then I am wasting my time.

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