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Ask a Master: What is the Most Important Daily Practice for a Zen Monk?



Daily Practice is the Core”

Earlier this week, a student asked me “What is the most important
thing in the daily formal Zen practice for a Zen monk?”

I answered, laughing: “To keep cultivating one!”.


Many people are driven on the romantic image of Zen, imagining the spiritual practice of Zen as something for costumed monks living in far away monasteries. They believe only those people apart from the world and its noise could of course practice truly enough to solve the question of life and death….or so they think.

The truth is formal practice is a balance between liturgy and meditation practices rooted in sitting and walking. But it, even for monks in a monastery, is balanced between many household tasks to keep the monastery running.

“A day without work is a day without food.”

This is a known Zen saying which all Zen monasteries put it into practice.

Fundamentally, Western Zen practitioners and in particular the members of our Zen Order should get used to the fact that our Zen Way is the householder Zen way. We are householders who have taken vows as priests and contemplative monks (yunsui contemplative priests).

Our main practice doesn’t take place behind walls, but in the midst of this moving and challenging world of householders. Our dear Ming Zhen Shakya often said,


it is the most arduous path of practice, especially
for a Westerner.


We have to work to accept that our formal practice is an essnetial part of the householder life. Meditation practice and the liturgy varies, but meditation and liturgy are the common ground of every practitioner on the Zen Way. But it is not the whole enchilada.

The formal practice is best a few hours per day right where you are. What the Zen priest and yunsui monk need to understand, is that one’s whole life is the monastery. It is there, in the midst of living, one takes action. We are encouraged to act upon it!

Ming Zhen Shakya used to say “Zen is Action!” and action is not limited to some holy place or situation. It is everything you do.

Of course, from time to time a more intensive retreat may be needed. We may dedicate ourselves to it and do the personal vow to totally
engage our Body and Mind in a retreat (ChanQi, Sesshin). This comes out of a personal vow, and not out of a need for a social club or social meeting. In our tradition going to a retreat is both very serious and intimate.

Furthermore, having an external eye on our practice is always a good thing. Meeting from time to time with a senior Zen priest or
master is a good habit to cultivate even for the most solitary practitioners. Most Zen practitioners need and benefit from the external eye of another who is a little further on the path. It is a wonderful help, especially when one is close to having an ego-trip or over thinking, over idealizing, or close to the becoming nihilistic.

Zen is a path for dedicated and serious practitioners.

One has to understand that Great Confidence in the path, its techniques, its masters is only but a necessary preliminary.  Zen is the direct path of the Chinese Mahayana school of Buddhism. And those essential preliminaries won’t be of any help if you try to walk the arduous path of practicing Zen as a lay adept (or priest, no fundamental difference here with layman) without a Great Faith in your very own Buddha

And Faith doesn’t exempt one from great doubt. Our Linji/Rinzai school includes everything  in our Zen practice, nothing is left out. Our practice is not limited to form of any specific posture or pretty costume. As the saying goes, “Great Doubt, Great Enlightenment. Small doubt, small enlightenment. No Doubt, no enlightenment”. So please doubt, ponderthings, take the existential paradox of Zen seriously and practice it to the limits of your ego.

But remember that our practice is very simple and on that common ground everyone manifests his own karmic seeds.

As a layman, a priest, a monk or a beginner on the Zen way is to be sincere practitioners….to practice fully and with utmost sincerity at the heart of our life, the heart of our homes, our communities. We share the common ground of liturgy and meditation the small liturgy and Zen meditation and use our daily life as an opportunity to let go of ourselves and manifest and be manifested by all things in every place and time.

May every being humbly realize his true nature!


NOTE: If you’d like to comment or ask a question to Master Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya you may contact him by email:

Humming Bird

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