What is Freeform Zen?

After years of sporadic pondering just what the hell it is I practice, an arbitrary label appeared from the void: Freeform Zen.

Zen was my doorway into Buddhism. After two years of formal practice, I cut loose and drifted through the various schools and branches. I wanted my practice to develop the same way Buddhism did as it traveled the world.

So I went through the various paradigms, holding their views and practicing their practices up into Secular Buddhism and non-dogmatic mindfulness.

Now, here we are, in open waters. After touring the various Buddhalands (metaphorically), here are some good-natured critiques I have of Buddhism:

  1. It’s being murdered by dogma.“This is the only way,” thinking has always set my  hair on edge and it’s as common in Buddhism as it is in any kind of organized, well, anything. Since Buddhism is/can be a religion, we can toss in a lot of rituals, robes, and fancy Asian names too.
  2. Its methods contradict the meaning of the teachings.One of the main teachings is that all things are impermanent. Not only impermanent, but dynamic, liminal, constantly changing. This isn’t often reflected in the views and methods that the various schools promote which are often considered immutable. A person is supposed to adopt a particular method and set of views and then practice those for the rest of their lives. But each method and view was created with upaya (skillful means) in mind. Each was crafted for specific people at specific times. Change is so rapid that one specific method or view seldom works during a single sit, let alone a lifetime.
  3. The guru complex.I really dig humanistic psychology and dialectical behavioral therapy. These paradigms place the counselor on even ground with the client. Instead of guiding the client with a heavy hand, the counselor is open to the client’s interests and needs at that moment. I’d love it if this kind client-centered relationship was present in Buddhism as well: student-centered Dharma.
  4. Zen is not a thing.Regardless of where I’ve wandered, there were/are moments when I realize that I’m still a student of Zen. I don’t consider Zen to be any particular thing, however. It’s a clear, open, indiscriminate state of mind. Over the centuries, the term was just hijacked by specific Orders to represent particular teachings, methods etc.

Now that all that’s out of the way, we can talk about what Freeform Zen is. It’s Zen Buddhism without the aforementioned issues. No set teachings, no set methods, and no gurus. It views, methods and student-teacher relationship changes with the student.

A close friend and Dharma brother of mine commented the freeform makes him think of jazz, dancing, or writing. I kinda dig that association. To me, Buddhism is more of an art than a philosophy or religion.

The overall meditation is Freeform Zazen, or just freeform meditation. The basic principle is that you learn several different meditation techniques and then, when you sit, use any/all/none of them as the situation calls for without forcing it.

One minute you might be performing Samatha while focusing on the breath; the next you mind be sitting Shikantaza or chanting a mantra. There’s absolutely no set structure and the only guidelines are:

  • Start each session by wishing that all beings be enlightened and at ease
  • Dedicate the sit to uncovering the experiential realization of original enlightenment/Buddha-nature/Dharma-nature/emptiness/Suchness or whatever, they’re all synonyms.
  • Persevere

Of those, perseverance is the most important. I like sitting in the shower, and sometimes I feel the urge to adjust the water temperature even though I don’t have to adjust it. So, I just keep sitting instead. I don’t often use a timer, so I tend to just end the sit whenever it feels right, but I never end it with my first impulse to do so. I keep sitting until that impulse has passed and end the sit when I no longer desire ending it.

Mindful perseverance helps us tackle conditioning and cultivate tolerance and patience in day-to-day life. Learning to persevere practically satisfies the entire Eightfold Path in itself.

Anyway, that’s the gist of it. I wouldn’t give what I do a name at all, but labels are useful when it comes to sharing things with people. And if I can’t share my practice with others, then my practice seems dead and listless.

Most of the breakthroughs I’ve had in Buddhism came about when I was serving others in some way. The insights and what not made by myself and for myself have had a minuscule impact on my life.

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