I went to a simple zen mediation center and I’m curious about its surroundings.
I understand that simplicity in setting is a often a good thing for beginners, but is there a certain role for the following things?:
plants (were very eastern in nature)
candles and inscense?
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Altars are for inspiration and a reminder of the goal of Buddhism.
Pictures represent our lineage, especially the root teacher Shakyamuni. His attainment is what we all aspire to.
Plants can be simply for decoration or are used as offerings. Flowers typically represent generosity (the giving of something beautiful), but they can also represent impermanence (a flower is fragile and will eventually wilt and die).
Candles represent illumination and wisdom.
Incense typically represents moral discipline. It is often said that the morally upright person is ‘perfumed’ with virtue.
Of course, none of this is necessary for Zazen. All you need is a quiet place where you will be undisturbed.
Al you really need is a quiet place to sit. Try not to take any form of drugs (prescription, recreational, or over the counter). It is not possible to meditate when using them.
Most Zen centers give careful thought to the meditation hall and other rooms/buildings. Some things that you might see in a Zen hall include:
Altar. Everything on the altar has a specific meaning. The four elements (air, fire, water, earth) are represented by incense (air), candles (fire), water bowl (water), and rice offering and/or plants (earth). There is also a statue of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, to remind us of our true nature. Plants or flowers also celebrate the Buddha nature inside each of us.
Many Zen halls also have a bell or gong, to call sentient beings to practice, along with various instruments for leading the chanting.
Zen halls may not have many images on the walls, but sometimes you’ll see images of ancestor teachers in the center’s lineage, and inspirational calligraphy or images of bodhisattvas.
The more simple the setting, the more easily we can see our mind function — its tendencies and habits, its fears and desires.
If you’d like to create a place to practice at home, all you really need is something to sit on and a peaceful spot where you can sit facing a wall. There are lots of companies ready to sell you altar equipment, but a home altar can also express your own nature. My altar contains some lotus pods that I found in a pond, some little clay Buddhas that my daughter made when she was 6 years old, some incense, a rock, and a worn-out old wooden Buddha statue that I found in a flea market in Korea.
I should also point out that you don’t need a quiet place to practice Zen. I’ve practiced at urban Zen centers where traffic noise, sirens, and alarms fill the space. I’ve practiced in Asian temples where the loud speaker announcing the day’s events sounded off every hour. No problem. If Zen required only peace and quiet, it wouldn’t be very useful in our daily life.
I agree with P’ang with one small exception. As a beginner it may be most useful to practice in a very quiet place without external distraction. After some period of time one should be able to sit in silence in the noisest of places.
Candles, incense and other things can become impediments to good practice or crutches for future practice if a beginner without proper instruction comes to rely on their use.
The offerings placed before the Buddha may create a lot of confusion for Westerners. The food offerings, candles, water offerings, incense, etc. we place in front of images in Buddhism are not for the image to physically partake. That would be foolish to think that an image would require such items. They are not offerings in the traditional sense but, rather, they symbolically represent inner and physical offerings we are supposed to offer others in this world. Each offering is viewed as the best and purest we can imagine which is what we would offer to an honored guest in our home.
There is a beautiful writing entitled ‘Bodhidharma’s Discourse on Pure Meditation’ written in the sixth century CE in which Bodhidharma reveals the real essence of each of the offerings / symbols on a Buddhist “altar” or “shrine.”
For example, “As to ‘burning incense’, again, it is not worldly physical incense; rather it is the transcendent Incense of the True Teaching which perfumes one’s foul-smelling evil deeds, thoroughly fumigating them until they vanish” (from ‘Bodhidharma’s Discourse on Pure Meditation’ as written in “Buddhist Writings on Meditation and Daily Practice: The Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition” published by Shasta Abbey Press Â©1998 p. 369).
Similarly, each of the other physical offerings placed in front of a rupa of the Buddha are explained as to its real meaning. You may want to obtain a copy of this text.
May all be at peace.
Zazen is a simple practice of sitting still and concentrating on the breath and posture, allowing the mind to return to its quiet nature-that’s it, nothing else.
All the animates described in the answers above help to create a pleasant environment, but are not directly involved in the actual practice of zazen, and are not necessary.
Anywhere that you can sit quietly is all you need. Please don’t get concerned with the extras, all those extras are nice, but are definitely not needed to practice.
If you think that all the animates are of any real importance, you forgetting the true purpose of zazen.
I hope that you consider what I am saying here.
i’m sure they were for inspiration and reflexion, but not likely for zazen. as i understand it, while sitting zazen you are supposed to focus on an undecorated wall, or something that will help you to calm your thoughts.. candles, etc are more of a disctraction i would think (at least for a beginner)
but don’t take it from me … i’m no zen buddhist.. i don’t even play one on tv.
Simply a quiet place, in order to meditate without problem. Silence is the best way to meditate.