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I live in a small town in India where there are no Zen or any other Buddhist temples. I don't have the money to travel to Japan or China. All I know about Zen is from google and youtube videos. I want to practice Zen not just know it intellectually.

What routine should I follow? How should I bring the teachings into practice? What are the sutras to chant? How many times should I do Zazen?

Please help me learn the practice.

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Zen is part of Buddhism. Both share an understanding of the Noble Eightfold Path, which starts with Right View:

AN2.126:1.1: “There are two conditions for the arising of right view. What two? The words of another and proper attention. These are the two conditions for the arising of right view.”

Teachers give us "the words of another". Without a teacher nearby, you can study the Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) that inform all of Buddhism, including Zen. The EBTs are "words of another", in other words, they are the words of the Buddha and his immediate disciples. The EBTs also provide practice instructions that apply to zazen:

SN47.40:1.1: “Mendicants, I will teach you mindfulness meditation, the development of mindfulness meditation, and the practice that leads to the development of mindfulness meditation. Listen …

Zazen and Satipaṭṭhāna start with mindfulness of the body. When we sit, we observe our breath, not controlling it, simply observing it. A simple count suffices. I've been doing that for decades, and it still matters.

Zazen is traditionally done while sitting. However, one can meditate sitting, standing, walking or lying down, etc:

AN11.12:5.16: When they’re joyful, rapture springs up. When the mind is full of rapture, the body becomes tranquil. When the body is tranquil, they feel bliss. And when they’re blissful, the mind becomes immersed in samādhi. You should develop this recollection of the deities while walking, standing, sitting, lying down, while working, and while at home with your children.”

As you study and practice, you will want to discuss with others. If a Sangha is not readily available, you can reach out to others online just as you have done. It is not ideal, but it is available. As our practice deepens, spiritual companions invariably cross paths with us. Talk with them. Befriend them.

Zen is known for its koans. Although effective, they are of most value with greater context. Without such context, koans can inaccessibly perplexing. Many Zen texts provide great context, but I personally value the EBTs themselves as the authoritative context. In the light of the EBTs, one can really dig into the koans and understand the wonder of the Zen canon.

Zen and the EBTs have become the heart of my practice. May your own journey bring happiness to yourself and others.

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  • Do people who study Zen typically study EBTs? And/or do their teachers? If not then how (from what other source) would they know or have heard of, share an understanding of, the noble eightfold path? – ChrisW Feb 10 at 16:51
  • It would be odd to only study the Zen Patriarchs and ignore the Buddha's own words, don't you think? – OyaMist Feb 11 at 3:44
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    We use the Majjhima Nikaya all the time in our zendo. We wrap it in a towel and sit on it whenever we forget our zafu! – user17214 Feb 11 at 13:38
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You can't study Zen, or really any form of Buddhism, without a teacher. Let's say you were deaf and interested in playing the piano. Not only do have no context for what proper playing is, how you should practice, etc. you also have no context for what music even sounds like. Having a go at Zen without a teacher puts you in basically the same position. Not only do we not know how to sit, how to use emptiness to blast through our obstacles, etc. we also have no first hand knowledge of what any of that even means!

The best thing you can do is learn how to work with your breath. Forget the chanting, forget bringing anything of what you learned "into practice". Zen starts with sitting. Everything else will naturally evolve from that place. The great thing about working with your breath is that you can learn that from anyone. You can participate in non sectarian sitting groups. You can even crash an ashram if you are feeling up to it. Whatever you do, try to couch your breath work in a group setting. Sitting with other people will help keep you motivated and help inspire your solo practice as well.

Try that. Maybe by approaching things in this way, Zen will begin to lose its novelty and attraction for you. Right now, it sounds like you you have some idea of what Zen practice should look like. This approach will help rid you of some of that. Who knows! Maybe the group you find will really resonate with you in ways you never even conceived of! Zen is about embracing the unexpected. This seems like as good a way as any to begin you wandering steps down an unchartable path.

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