How Can I Get My Friends and Family Into Zen?

One of my most frequently asked questions goes something like this: Zen practice has been really good for me. But my husband / wife / brother / sister / uncle / best friend / worst enemy … etc. is struggling with a lot of problems. How can I introduce her/him to Zen practice?

My honest answer is; if you know how, please tell me.

I think the real answer is that it’s tricky and you will probably fail. At least if you measure success in terms of whether your friend/relative/whatever hears your recommendation, then jumps right into Zen practice, and never quits. If that’s your definition of success, then expect failure. At least that’s been my experience.

Just recently, a cousin of mine took to social media asking for help with some issues she’s been struggling with. A bunch of her friends are commenting that she ought to try meditation. They’re recommending all kinds of apps and YouTube videos. My cousin is well aware of what I do for a living and the books that I write. We’ve talked about this stuff a number of times. And I’ll try reaching out to her… again. But — heavy sigh — nothing has come of it the last twenty times, so I’m not really counting on anything much happening this time. 

My dad did zazen for a couple of months, but gave it up and never went back. Same with my nephew. His dad (my sister’s ex-husband) reads my books, but as far as I know has never meditated. My girlfriend came to a retreat I was leading… once. She’s never been back, nor does she come to the weekly sittings at Angel City Zen Center. One time the singer from Zero Defex (the band I play bass in) showed up at a talk I gave. The guitar player came to another one. Neither of them have attempted zazen. 

In short, if you’re looking for advice on how to get your friends and relatives interested in Zen, I’m not the guy to give it.

Then again, among the people I know who also teach meditation, I can’t think of any whose friends or relatives also practice. I mean, you end up making friends with some of the people who come to practice, but I’m talking about their/our friends outside of that group.

One of the greatest things about Zen is that there is no proselytizing. There’s no tradition of trying to win people over and get them into the practice. There’s no tradition of reaching out to friends, relatives, or the community at large to try to lure them into the zendo. We don’t ride bicycles around town and ring doorbells to tell people the Good News of Zen.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Traditionally, when someone asked to enter a Zen temple, the monks slammed the door in their faces. Only if the person was extremely persistent and refused to leave or be intimidated, were the doors opened.

Even recommending zazen is frowned upon. Whenever Kodo Sawaki, one of my teacher’s teachers, was asked what Zen was good for he said, “Zen is good for nothing!”

Most Zen places these days — especially in the West — are more welcoming. But often we’re not that much more welcoming. As I’ve said elsewhere, entering a Zen center is more like entering a martial arts dojo than it is like entering a church. Most churches are warm, friendly spaces where anyone who shows up is greeted with a smile and invited to join. Martial arts dojos, on the other hand, are generally happy to have anyone who is serious about practice and ready to make a commitment to it join their groups. But if you’re not willing to do some karate or kung-fu, or if you’re not putting in your best effort, you might be politely asked to think about finding another hobby.

Zen places aren’t likely to ask you to leave — unless you’re causing trouble. But they exist as spaces for people who are already genuinely willing and ready to do Zen practice without being invited in. Maybe you can think of it like a library. A library provides materials and space for people who are interested in studying. They don’t tell you what to study. They don’t try to direct your study. They just ask that you don’t get in the way of other people who are there to study. And they have people who work there who can help you with your studying if you ask for help. Zen spaces and Zen teachers are kind of like that.

Your friends and relatives aren’t going to go to the library unless they already feel the need to study. Nor are they likely to join Zen practice unless they already feel like there’s some work they need to do and already feel that Zen practice is the sort of thing that might help them do that. They’ve got to find it on their own.

In a sense, every book I’ve ever published, every video I’ve made, every blog article I’ve written, every lecture I’ve given, and so on, has been an effort to get people who probably otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in Zen to at least have an idea what Zen is. In a sense, this piece you’re reading right now is part of that ongoing work. Maybe my answer to the question of how to get friends and relatives into Zen is precisely this — this article you’re reading right now as well as all of my other work in this field.

A lot of strangers have responded to this stuff, but very few friends have, and none of my relatives have. Maybe that’s how it has to be. Maybe people I’ve known for a long time aren’t going to be impressed enough with me to get into this stuff. Maybe it has to come from some other source. Maybe that’s how it is for everyone.

I think people just have to find the practice for themselves. I’ll never stop dropping hints — both subtle and not subtle at all — to my friends and relatives who I think could benefit from Zen practice. Maybe one day it will work. Until then, I just keep doing what I do.


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May 1-3, 2020 ZEN & YOGA RETREAT at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, CA

September 10-13, 2020 ZEN RETREAT in Hämeenlina, FINLAND

September 16-20, 2020 ZEN RETREAT at Benediktushof Retreat Center, Holskirchen, GERMANY

September 24-27, 2020 VARIOUS EVENTS in FRANCE (schedule to be announced later)

October 1-4, 2020 ZEN RETREAT in Hebden Bridge, ENGLAND



Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent StreetLos Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

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