Melbourne Zen Group

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Melbourne Zen Group
Tradition/Linage Zen, Diamond Sangha
Main School Mahayana
Founded 1985
Contact Infotmation
Address Cnr Roberts and Stewart Streets
Victoria 3057
Country Australia
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Phone (03) 9328 2207

Melbourne Zen Group

The Melbourne Zen Group is a small group of zen practitioners dedicated to providing each other with mutual support in zen practice.


Our group was formed in 1985 by a handful of people who had attended zen retreats with Robert Aitken Roshi, founder of the Diamond Sangha Zen lineage in Hawaii. The Diamond Sangha is a lay community that has roots in both the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen Buddhism. Its practices encompass shikantaza and koan practice.


The group doesn’t have a resident teacher, however in 1999 we formally invited Subhana Barzaghi Roshi (based in Sydney) to act as our primary visiting teacher. In 2002 we invited Susan Murphy Roshi (also based in Sydney) to share this commitment with Subhana. Subhana and Susan lead Melbourne Zen Group retreats and workshops, and provide guidance and support in matters relating to group practice. Subhana and Susan are authorised teachers in the Diamond Sangha lineage.


Inspired by our Zen Buddhist ethics and precepts, we support actions to progress peace, social justice, gender equality and environmental sustainability. Social justice includes an affirmation of social inclusion and diversity. We strive to do no harm, and to deeply appreciate that we are not separate from other sentient beings or the earth.


Our membership is steady at around fifty people. Most of our members have had some kind of hands on involvement in running the group’s activities at different points in time. We have a committee that meets on a monthly basis to attend to the group’s administrative needs. We also have a small group of practitioners who meet on roughly a quarterly basis to reflect on ways in which the group can better work to support both established members and newcomers in zen practice. All significant group decisions are made through a consensus process in forums that are open to all members.

Sesshin & Workhops

Each year the Melbourne Zen Group organises two traditional, silent, seven day residential Zen retreats known as sesshin – one in Autumn, and one in Spring.

Sesshin is a time for concentrated practice in the company of dedicated and supportive fellow practitioners. Each day of sesshin includes extended periods of seated meditation and walking meditation, dokusan, teisho (dharma talks), and work and rest periods. Meals are vegetarian.

The group also organises at least two other teacher-led activities each year, such as workshops, zazenkai with dokusan (individual meeting with the teacher about practice), and non-residential sesshin.

What is Zen?

Defining Zen is not so easy. It is a practice that includes concentration, mindfulness, compassion, ethics, and inquiry into the deepest self. Zen practice is different for every person and is entered into for many reasons. It is rarely what people expect it to be at first.

Zazen (sitting meditation) is central to zen practice, yet Zen is not limited to meditation on a cushion—or stool, or chair. Zen is a practice for every day life.

Breath Awareness, Shikantaza & Koans

The foundation of all Zen practice is mindfulness and concentration of attention, and a dawning awareness of one’s connection to all things. Practice often starts with mindfulness of breathing – paying attention to each natural inhalation and exhalation of breath – and gradually extends into your whole life

It’s usual, particularly at the start of practice, to find your attention repeatedly wandering to things other than the breath. That’s OK. The practice is not to get rid of thoughts, feelings and sensations, but rather to acknowledge them, without judgment (mindful awareness), and to gently bring your attention back to the breath (concentration of attention).

Some people find ‘counting breaths’ practice to be a useful way to bring their attention to the breath. Each cycle of inhalation and exhalation is counted – breathe in, breathe out, count ‘1′ – breathe in, breathe out, count ‘2’ – and so on, up to ten. Then start over. Nothing is forced, nothing is judged. When your attention drifts, acknowledge the distraction, and gently return to the count – ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’ etc.

Steady, repeated practice of mindfulness of breathing provides an anchor for shikantaza (just sitting) practice. Shikantaza is an alive, expansive attention given to the unfolding of the present moment, and can be deepened and enriched by working with a teacher who is experienced in shikantaza.

Koan practice uses words, phrases and stories to focus inquiry into the nature of self. Koan practice is usually undertaken in partnership with a teacher who is experienced in koan practice.

Mindfulness of breathing can be practiced at any time or place – the breath is always with you – however regular zazen (sitting meditation) is the most common way to build and sustain a personal Zen practice over time.

Zazen – Sitting Meditation

Zen practice applies to all aspects of our lives, however the most common way to establish and sustain a personal Zen practice is through commitment to regular zazen. All that’s required for zazen is somewhere to sit, a block of uninterrupted time, and a timer. Each time you sit, know what your practice will be for that sitting period (following the breath, counting breaths, etc.), and resolve to stay with that practice until the sitting period ends.

When we sit together at the Melbourne Zen Group, each round of zazen lasts 25 minutes – this is a good length of time for establishing a regular, personal zazen practice.

Most people practice zazen on a zafu (meditation cushion), but zazen can also be practiced on a meditation stool or on a chair. There are several different positions that are commonly used. Regardless of position, the characteristics of good zazen posture are:

  • knees lower than hips (use as much height as you need to achieve this)
  • weight on sitting bones, hips tilted slightly forward, belly soft
  • neck lengthened, with head level or chin slightly tucked under
  • open chest, shoulders dropped down and back
  • gaze directed downwards at around 45 degrees, eyes partly open, gaze soft
  • if sitting on a chair, make sure your feet are well supported
  • hands rest loosely in lap, held in the zazen mudra
  • right hand rests in lap, palm up
  • left hand rests on right hand, palm up
  • thumbs touch lightly to form an oval

Take a few moments before starting each round of sitting to breathe deeply and settle into your posture. Once the zazen period starts, try to sit as still as possible. This is an important courtesy when sitting with a group, but it is also a point of practice – the urge to move about during zazen is often a reflection of our state of mind.

If you experience pain while sitting in zazen, try to incorporate your awareness of the pain into your practice by breathing into the pain, without judgment. Be sensible however about your body’s limitations—if pain continues after zazen, you may need to adopt a different sitting position. If you really do need to adjust your position during zazen, move gradually and mindfully, particularly if you are sitting with others.

When you first take up a sitting meditation practice, it can be helpful to experiment with different sitting positions, and, if possible, to ask someone with meditation/movement experience to give constructive feedback on how you can improve your posture.

The Melbourne Zen Group offers free orientation sessions at its Brunswick East Dojo for people interested in Zen practice. Our orientations are tailored to the needs of individuals, and can include assistance with finding the zazen position that best suits you.

Dojo Ritual

Shared ritual form is an important aspect our group’s practice. The form we use is a simplified/modified version of dojo ritual used in traditional Japanese Zen, and includes the following elements:

Etiquette to minimise distraction in the dojo

  • When we sit together, we wear plain dark colours
  • We maintain silence in the dojo – if we need to talk while others are sitting, we keep our voices low
  • Our sitting periods are timed by a timekeeper using bells and wooden clappers. We all sit at the same time, and we all do kinhin (walking meditation) together. Our sitting cycle is 25 minutes sitting, 5 minutes kinhin, 25 minutes sitting, 5 minutes kinhin, etc.
  • If we need to enter/exit the dojo, we do so during kinhin
  • Sitting through kinhin is OK – however if we do sit through kinhin, we always wait until the next kinhin round before standing or leaving the dojo
  • When we walk in kinhin together, we follow each other in a clockwise direction, and all walk at the same speed, maintaining a constant distance from the person in front of us

Ritual that confirms the nature of our practice

  • We all meditate with our hands in the zazen mudra
    • place the back of your right hand on your lap
    • place the back of your left hand on your right palm
    • bring both thumbs lightly together to form a circle.
  • The first round of zazen at our weekly sits begins with a short period of chanting. Our chanting includes key Buddhist texts that remind us of aspects of our practice, and of the tradition from which our practice has emerged. Chanting is also a practice all in itself.
  • When chanting, we hold our sūtra books at eye level in ‘book gassho’ – with the thumbs and little fingers on the inside of the book and the other three fingers on the outside.
  • When walking in kinhin, we hold our hands in kinhin mudra
    • right fist against chest
    • left hand resting lightly over right fist

Dojo Leader Roles

In our weekly group meditation meetings, group members take turns in the following dojo leader roles:

During our silent meditation retreats, these roles are expanded to include:

  • Tanto – maintains order in the dojo
  • Jisha – attends the teacher and monitors the dokusan (teacher interview) line
  • Tenzo – lunch cook, co-ordinates other kitchen workers including breakfast and lunch cooks

Things that aren’t prescribed by the form

  • You don’t have to sit on a meditation cushion – stools and chairs are also available
  • The form supports our practice as a group – within that container, your practice is always entirely your own.

Bodhisattva Vows & Precepts=

At the conclusion of each group meditation session, the Melbourne Zen Group chants the Bodhisattva Vows. The Bodhisattva Vows affirm that our practice is not a selfish practice – it is a practice to benefit the web of life that sustains us all.

Bodhisattva Vows

The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them; Greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them; Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them; The Buddha’s way is unsurpassed, I vow to embody it fully.

The Ten Grave Precepts

The Ten Grave Precepts grow out of the Bodhisattva Vows. We do not consider them to be absolute commandments, but rather ways to prompt our self awareness.

I take up the way of not killing. I take up the way of not stealing. I take up the way of not misusing sex. I take up the way of not speaking falsely. I take up the way of not using drink or drugs. I take up the way of not discussing faults of others. I take up the way of not praising myself while abusing others. I take up the way of not sparing the Dharma assets. I take up the way of not indulging in anger. I take up the way of not slandering the Three Treasures

Full Moon Precepts Ceremony

Once a month, usually on the Friday closest to the full moon, the Melbourne Zen Group offers a zazenkai (extended group meditation) that incorporates a ritual contemplation of the Precepts.

Jukai Ceremony

In some Buddhist traditions, monks undergo an initiation ceremony in which they ‘take the precepts’. In Japan, this ceremony is called Jukai. The Melbourne Zen Group is a community of lay practitioners. Our teachers – also lay practitioners – offer a Jukai ceremony in which the individual can outwardly express their commitment to the Buddha way. Preparation for the ceremony involves working with a teacher to formulate personal responses to the precepts and choose a Dharma name, and sewing a rakusu (bib-like garment that represents the robe of the Buddha). The decision to undertake (or not undertake) the Jukai ceremony is an entirely personal matter that confers no status of any kind within the group.


Melbourne Zen Group