• Sit in formal meditation for 20 minutes each day.
• Listen to one dharma talk each week on tricycle.com.
• Study Dogen’s Genjokoan, the text selected for the period.
• Commit to the sixteen bodhisattva precepts.
• Practice with others at tricycle.com or at a local meditation center.
• Begin when you like. Tricycle’s staff will begin February 23.

The phrase “literary tradition” might appear to contradict what Bodhidharma says about not depending on words and letters and pointing directly to the mind. But the content of Zen teachings is based precisely on words such as those of Bodhidharma, which are passed down in a multitude of texts, themselves then commented upon in an even greater number of texts. These works serve each generation of Zen practitioners as the objects of contemplation, the subjects of discussion, and tests of understanding.

Zen literature is often enigmatic, but it is not illogical. Its logic, however, is not the logic of conventional representative speech. These are words and letters that, rather than focus on description or instruction, seek a kind of direct presentation. The words and letters of Zen literature are themselves meant to be the direct pointing itself.

In the opinion of many Zen teachers and scholars today, few if any can equal Master Dogen’s mastery of the intricacies and expression of Zen thought. But this has not always been so. For centuries, Dogen was hardly known outside the Japanese Soto school of Zen, which he had founded and in which he was often looked upon mainly as a figure of reverence, not as an author of works demanding serious study. In the last hundred or so years, however, his work has been rediscovered by religious scholars, philosophers, writers, literary critics, and, yes, even Zen Buddhists. Dogen is now considered by many to be one of the great intellectual figures in Japanese history, someone whose genius extends beyond the sectarian confines to which he was so long consigned: an extraordinarily accomplished spiritual master, a profound religious thinker, a remarkable man of letters—it is hard to think of a single figure in Western tradition, or anywhere else, who compares. Think Meister Eckhardt, Saint Augustine, and Dr. Johnson rolled into one, and you get a sense of the magnitude of the man.

It is not surprising that Master Dogen is well known in Western Zen circles, as he was held in special reverence by two of the seminal figures in establishing Zen on these shores: Shunryu Suzuki and Hakuun Yasutani. Suzuki Roshi was the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, which today has numerous affiliated and associated centers and groups across the country, and even around the world. Yasutani Roshi’s legacy is known to us largely through the many illustrious teachers who studied with him, including Robert Aitken, Eido Tai Shimano, Philip Kapleau, and Taizan Maezumi.

But Master Dogen’s influence on the meditation-oriented Buddhism of the West extends well beyond the Zen community, though in this case his influence is for the most part indirect and often not even visible. Back in the 1970s—the olden days of American dharma—there were far fewer Buddhist centers, far fewer Buddhist publications, and far fewer Buddhists. The scale of things was smaller than today, and the various Buddhist communities of the time seemed to exist in isolation from one another. But there was one thing it seemed most everyone could agree on: Shunryu Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

If you attended a Vipassana retreat at the newly established Theravada Buddhist Insight Meditation Center, in Barre, Massachusetts, the selection you would hear during the afternoon reading would likely as not come from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Meditation retreats at Chögyam Trungpa’s Tibetan Buddhist centers also included afternoon readings, and if the selection was not from Trungpa’s own writings, chances are it would be from Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind abounds with references and quotations from Master Dogen. Indeed, while the presentation is Suzuki’s own, the foundation comes from Dogen. Suzuki’s Zen was Dogen’s Zen, and through Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Dogen’s teaching has been woven deep into the fabric of the whole of meditation-oriented Buddhism in the West. Whether we know it or not, we meditators are all his students.

But there is much more to Dogen than the teachings we find in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and one can appreciate his work from many angles and on many levels. When we study him as part of our Zen training, we need a skilled and experienced guide to steer us through the vines and entanglements of our accustomed way of thinking and see afresh that to which Dogen is pointing, directly. We are indeed fortunate to have such a guide, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, to help us find that subtle, elusive, profound meaning right at the heart of Dogen’s words.

We hope you will join us, and join each other, in this Zen practice period. Everything is in its place. Now it is a matter of realizing it together.

Read more on Tricycle’s 90-day Zen meditation challenge

The Big Sit Introduction
Introduction to Zen
Setting Up Your Home Altar
The Value of A Vow
How to Sit
The Bodhisattva Precepts

Join the challenge now!

One of the cornerstones of traditional Zen training is the three-month practice period, which in Soto Zen is called ango, or “peaceful dwelling.” The idea of ango goes back to the earliest days of the monastic community in India, when monks and nuns would cease wandering and settle in one place for the rainy season. A Zen practice period, in a monastic setting, is a time of rigorous training, often under harsh physical conditions, with long hours for zazen (sitting meditation), short hours for sleep, formal meals taken in the zendo (meditation hall), and a structured schedule for the rest of the day comprising periods for work, liturgy, study, rest, and personal needs. In North America, this sort of strict and traditional training period is offered at such places as California’s Mount Baldy Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, but not very many others. Most Zen groups have adapted the form of the three-month practice period to the needs and demands of life in their communities.

In residential city centers, practice periods tend to be far more flexible. When I was at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, students’ expectations varied, as did their commitments. More accommodations were made, of course, for those with families or outside jobs than for those who were full-time trainees or on staff, especially those who were ordained. The schedule was much less demanding than at Tassajara, for example, but we placed a lot of emphasis on participation in sesshin (a Zen meditation retreat). At the end of each month, a weeklong sesshin was conducted, and fulltime ango participants were expected to attend the entire sesshin, while part-time participants might join at the midpoint if they could not sit the full week as well.

big sit meditation challenge
©Will & Deni McIntyre/Corbis

At nonresidential communities, the practice period form is often maintained, but here still greater flexibility is required. Often it is an individual matter: each person makes a commitment that is suited to his or her life. This might mean sitting every morning or participating in an all-day sitting each month. It might mean attending the weekly dharma talk and sitting one sesshin. It’s flexible, because life outside a structured community has to be.

Zen communities in the West are working with the form of the three-month practice period in a variety of ways. Sometimes the style is a rigorously monastic structure in which activities and expectations are clearly defined; sometimes the style is geared to the demands of the life of a layperson and one must rely on one’s inner resources to stay on course. But what ties these approaches to ango together is the commitment to focus for three months on deepening one’s practice.

In the Spring 2007 issue of Tricycle, we invited readers to participate in a monthlong meditation program we called “Commit to Sit”—so successful it inspired a book of meditation practices being published in March. The program was based on the practice of Vipassana (insight) meditation under the guidance of Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. Since then, we have wanted to offer readers another practice experience, this time in the Zen tradition, but like any sequel, this new chapter posed certain challenges. Chief among these was finding a format that would be true to the distinctive character of Zen practice. In time, the idea of an ango—itself one of the basic structures of Zen training—presented itself.

The ango we invite you to join is modeled on those offered at many nonresidential practice centers. Our 90-day Challenge is just that—challenging. But our intention is not to overwhelm you; it’s to guide you through a period of dedicated practice. Do your best each day and let your zazen soak into your life. If this practice period must be “about” something, let it be about consistency. Bodhidharma, the legendary First Great Chan (Chinese Zen) Ancestor, is said to have described Zen in this famous four-line stanza:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not depending on words and letters;
Directly pointing to the mind,
Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.

This “direct pointing” is a characteristic that colors all aspects of the tradition. It has to do with the way meditation is taught. Compared with other Buddhist meditation traditions, Zen sitting instructions are bare-bones guidance: One is told what to do, told how it is done, and then told to go and do it.

But if Zen is spare in instruction, it is extremely rich in its own body of teachings, which may be regarded as a distinct literary tradition within Buddhism. This is why we’ve chosen to study a text—the Genjokoan (Actualizing the Fundamental Point), a short, poetic masterpiece by the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen—as a key component of the Tricycle ango.