The Term Student program is structured around three one-day retreats and a Vow of Practice. Your Vow of Practice may contain elements of the following:
- Your own daily practice at home and/or work
- Regular involvement at the Zen Center, especially quarterly Fusatsu
- Special events, such as retreats, classes, and ceremonies
A Vow of Practice can be done on your own, independent of the Term Student program. It often includes a theme or statement of purpose. When we wish to intensify our practice, an underlying motivation usually calls us to do this. It can be helpful to recognize and identify this purpose and include it in the vow.
After the statement of purpose, include a description of your basic daily practice. This includes things like your daily zazen, any service you do, verses you incorporate into daily life, reading, and study. We encourage flexibility, with a “bottom line” description, i.e. “I will try to do morning zazen five days a week, but will always do it at least two days a week.” The idea is to make a vow that will cause you to stretch, but is doable over the whole period of time.
Then list the weekly Dharma Rain Zen Center events you plan to attend, such as Wednesday night sitting and class, Sunday morning practice, etc. You can include weekly events like Saturday Dharani Chants (Fudo Ceremony, Special Kanzeon Ceremony, and Victor’s Ceremony) if these are meaningful for you. Fusatsu is also an important element in the Term Student program that helps maintain the deeper connection we establish at the special Term Student events. This ceremony takes place once a quarter near the dates of the solstice or equinox.
Finally list the major events in which you plan to participate. These include the sesshin held each term, such as Rohatsu in the fall or Jukai in late winter, and other special events like practice with a visiting teacher.
Out of all these events, the only ones that are required for the Term Student program are the three retreats. Even here, there is some latitude, especially for those who have done a number of terms. During the opening retreat each term, students summarize their vows during the term dedication ceremony and then place them on the altar. This ceremony is taken from the monastic term dedication ceremony in which monks agree to spend the term in training together. Sharing our vows at this time permits the group to witness each person’s commitment, and we also have the opportunity to share something of what it is that brings us together to practice.
One major purpose of the Term Student program is to create a venue in which a group of lay people can go through a practice period together. Because we are not a monastery, it can be difficult to meet each other in the intimate way that develops when people live in close proximity for an extended period of time.
Much of the first retreat each term is spent connecting with each other. To do this, people new to the program are asked to prepare by taking the time to write out three personal outlines. You would start by looking back over your life and writing a chronological outline of your life events.
Next, you would write a “karmic outline.” This is a list of events or circumstances that have marked you in some way and have contributed in making you who you are. These can be specific things like alcoholic parents, or more general ones, like growing up in the country, or near a lake.
Third, make a “spiritual outline.” This is, perhaps, not very different from the “karmic outline,” but we have found that what people have in mind when they take the time to look back on their lives causes different things to emerge. Think specifically about things that have formed your spiritual point of view.
So please take the time to look back from these different perspectives. What you write can be for your own use only, or you may give it to the teachers if you wish. This exercise is to prepare you to make a five- or ten-minute presentation at the first retreat of the term. We want people to say something about who they are, what has brought them to this practice, and what they bring to the practice and to the group. After each person speaks, the others will ask questions.
Other elements often included in the Term Student program are study of a text chosen for the term, Dharma talks during meditation, informal sanzen at least once during the term with one of the teachers, and mondo practice, an exercise that brings interaction with others into the realm of Dharma. The Dharma is not something that is grasped in the mind, but something that is realized in our lives. Deep and intimate sangha connections are vitally important in helping us bring the Dharma to fruition in a real way. That is what we hope to accomplish in the Term Student program.