Scholars sometimes classify Zen as a “single-practice” school of Buddhism. Single-practice schools are primarily a Japanese phenomenon—Pure Land schools center around saying and recalling Namu Amida Butsu, an invocation of Amitabha Buddha, “The Buddha of Infinite Light and Life”; Nichiren practice focuses on the chanting of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, invoking the name of the Lotus Sutra. Zen, meanwhile, is framed as being all about zazen, or meditation. It’s the meditation school.
It isn’t accurate, of course, to reduce any tradition to just one thing, however convenient that may be. Each school has its own teachings, its own ceremonies, its own ways of relating to others in the community. Zen Buddhists don’t just meditate—they understand practice through how they chant, how they walk, how they eat; there’s also the relationship to a teacher, study of the teachings, ceremonies to mark important people and moments. No tradition, deeply understood, is simple.
But simplicity, at times, can be exactly what we need. Sometimes, trying to hold the whole tradition, in all its complexity, just feels like too much; we might feel like we’re sacrificing depth for breadth. At other times, especially if you’ve been practicing for a while, the practice might start to feel a little amorphous—you’re doing the various things you’ve been taught, but the practice has lost its edge, the feeling that something is happening.
When that’s the case, it can be useful to pause and consider what it would mean to do a single-practice practice. What, for you, is at the center? What’s the practice that excites you, challenges you, makes you want to align with it? What is portable, so you can do this practice anytime?
Buddhism offers up lots of great options. Consider, for example, the 5 remembrances: that we all change, we all get sick, we all grow old, we all die, and that the only things that are truly ours are our actions. My dad passed away last year, and for weeks after he did, I saw the world through the lens of the remembrance that we all will die. Every person I passed on the street or saw in the supermarket, everyone I spoke with on Zoom, everyone in traffic—when I saw them, I was struck by the fact that they, too, would eventually die. At first this was unconscious, my mind processing my dad’s death, but later I embraced it, chose it. Try it—I promise, it will change the way you relate to the next person you meet. The gentleness it invites is one we always have access to—we just need a reminder.
If you’re looking for a more physical approach, try doing everything with two hands: opening a door, picking up a cup, even shaking hands. At the start, it feels forced and weird; we’re used to multitasking, and when we’re not doing that, to doing things in the simplest way possible. Picking up a coffee cup with two hands is so unnecessary, so extra. But it brings our attention, physically and mentally, to what we’re doing and where we are. It takes simple, unconscious activities and turns them into ways of slowing down and paying attention. In other words, it turns whatever you’re doing into a practice.
You might ask yourself, moment to moment, “What is this?” Or you might just stand up a little straighter. You might recall Namu Amida Butsu while you sit on the bus, or you might take refuge—I take refuge in Buddha, I take refuge in dharma, I take refuge in sangha—with each step as you walk.
This is how we rediscover the feeling of practice, by digging deep into just one thing. We see how it changes our feelings, our attitudes, our actions, our speech, and through that process, we recognize the limitless depth of practice more broadly. Try it. Put down the tradition you’re holding, and pick up just one thing, one thing you can fit in your pocket and carry around, the one thing you know you can’t afford to put down. Feel the weight of it. Right now, it might be enough.