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Sex, Smokes, And Rock And Roll: 10 Zen Center Do's And Don'ts

by Kara Herold May 13, 2009
Some helpful advice for those planning to retreat and practice the fine art of Zen.

A few years ago, I enrolled in what is called a practice period at the San Francisco Zen Center.

A practice period is defined as a period of time in which one commits to 6-9 weeks of daily morning and evening meditation and Wednesday night Sangha talks.

While I highly recommend enrolling in a practice period, a beginner should know the basic rules of a Zen Center before their first day.

I did not do my homework, and as a result, I always seemed to be getting reprimanded for something. I was like Maria in The Sound of Music, running late for service after experiencing pleasure.

For any soon-to-be Zen students, I’ve shared my words of advice below. Hopefully you can avoid hearing the monks break out into song upon your tardy arrival.

1. DON’T stay up late.

A practice period student must meditate every morning from 5:40-6:20 and then again in the evening. I was working late nights doing sound for bands where the shows didn’t end until 3 or 4 in the morning.

With no time to shower, I’d stumble out of bed smelling like smoke and alcohol, and have to stay awake for 40 minutes sitting in lotus. In other words, try and go to bed by 9pm.

2. DON’T take the first cup of coffee.

I’d be the first at the coffee pot before meditation, replacing the pot with my mug so that I could get the first possible sips of coffee. “That’s bad Karma,” a monk told me one morning. “The first drops are the strongest and tastiest.”

3. DON’T read the New York Times before meditation.

“How can you have a clear mind if you read the news?” a monk asked me one morning when I was caught reading The New York Times before meditation.

4. DON’T wear strong colors.

The meditation master looked at me disapprovingly when I wore my pink t-shirt with a unicorn on it into the Zendo. I stood out like a newly formed zit among all the black robes.

5. DON’T bring your cell phone into the meditation room

Even if you turn it on vibrate. When the Zendo is dead silent and everbody is meditating, the vibration sounds like the rumble of a large earthquake.

1. DO sign up for a practice period at the last minute.

Apparently, because I was the last person to sign up for the practice period, I got the best room. The San Francisco Zen Center was overbooked, so they had no other choice but to give me Suzuki Roshi’s room, a renowned Buddhist scholar.

The room wasn’t as austere as the other rooms. It had its own bathroom with a bathtub, a kitchen with a refrigerator, and a balcony that looked over a beautiful courtyard.

It was nicer than my apartment.

2. DO hang out on roof of the Zen Center if you need a break or a cigarette.

Everything that is “let go” in the Zen Center thrives on the Zen Center roof (if it has one). Flowers and plants cover the roof’s walls, deck and tables, the excess growth from the Japanese flower arrangements assembled by the monks. Only one or two spartan arrangements make it downstairs, and the rest blooms on the roof in all their unruliness.

Monks that fall prey to their addictions and craving assemble on the roof – smoking monks, sunbathing monks and monks reading Self Matters by Dr. Phil.

3. DO notice your lover’s shoes so you can see if he’s sleeping around.

One big rule at the Zen Center is that you can’t wear shoes in your room – they must be left outside the door. Shoes are always shifting around depending upon who is sleeping with whom at the Zen Center.

In fact, a book was just published about promiscuity and the SF Zen Center called Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center.

4. DO eat the vegetarian food.

It’s delicious. Also, I lost ten pounds without even trying.

5. DO adhere to the meditation schedule.

It is amazing (and humbling) to watch many of the exact same thoughts repeat themselves day after day, without progression or variation. And the point of going to a Zen Center in the first place is to meditate, right?

Have you visited a Zen Center? Share your tips in the comments!

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Need some more Zen? Check out 10 Best Zen Stories For Travelers or 7 Zen Productivity Tips For Travelers.

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