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Teaching Mala Practice

Since Bernie introduced me to mala practice more than 25 years ago, I’ve been trying to get others to try it. It turned out that selling anyone on doing the practice was way harder than getting someone to take a bead. I couldn’t get Zen students to try it. I couldn’t get others on the ICS team to try it. Now for the first time, I am working with a group of students on a mala practice. Everyone in our little, Tuesday evening Zen group has taken on the challenge of raising a mala to support Emma’s Place, where we have been welcomed to sit. I am learning so much. 

We have evolved a way of working together which parallels the process we developed for teaching meditation. How do we work with a group of beginning students to develop a regular sitting practice? Each week we do two round-robins. First round in zazen training: how many days did you sit this week? How many minutes did you sit? As we go around, we discuss issues that are arising. Second round: How many days, how many minutes are you going to sit in the coming week? 

We’re working on the malas in a similar way. First round check-in: Did you get any beads this week? How many? How many people did you ask? What’s coming up for you as you practice? Second round: What are you going to do in the coming week to move your mala practice forward? Don’t overwhelm yourself. Do you have a list of three prospects? Can you ask one this week? Who will you ask first? If for some reason you can’t ask the first person, go on to the second.

As we do the mala practice together, I am as surprised as anyone, maybe more so, by the lessons which are emerging.

It's Not About the Money

Here’s a trap. Students often think the purpose of the Mala practice is to raise money. In one of our first discussions, one of the group members put the trap into words: “Use whatever it takes, just so long as we sell your beads.” 

Bernie told the story during my first Street Retreat. Michael was there too, and Bernie’s story was about Michael. Michael was busy and successful; and while we were on the Street, Michael’s agent was busy negotiating a major motion picture deal for him. Michael didn’t have time, he claimed, to raise a mala. He would just write a check himself for the full amount. Bernie said, “No.” 

Writing a check is a different practice. Giving is a good practice, but giving, even money, comes more easily to most Zen students than asking for money, begging for money. One way or another, there can be a lot of fear coming up when it comes to asking for money.

This is not White-Knuckle Zen

The point however is not to push past your fear. 

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I never read the book, but I have always loved the title and wished that I had written it.

As we begin the mala practice, group members are sharing their fear of asking for money. “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” one member suggests, and I am reminded of a story my Hawaiian Zen buddy, Brent Shigeoka, told me years ago, about a very famous Zen teacher. Brent knew the guy pretty well and had sat sesshins with him. “It was white knuckle Zen,” Brent said. “He was holding on so tight in order to look like a Zen master.” 

I loved the image. White-knuckle Zen is not Zen. Most of us have mastered white-knuckle Zen at some point in our lives. I can do it anytime I want. All I have to do is climb on a Ferris wheel and strap myself in. And then hold on as tightly as I can for the duration of the ride. I love the wind and I love the view. I can do it, feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

Mala practice is not white-knuckle Zen. Doing or not doing is not so important. The important thing is to feel the fear, to hold the fear.

“But what about the money?”

Ultimately, the money will take care of itself. The fear is the teacher. Learn from the fear.

Don’t fight it.

I think the story that I am telling now is a not-so-eloquent version of Zen and the Art of Archery. You don’t need to release the arrow. The arrow will release itself in its own time. The money will come.

But getting money is not a Zen practice. For me, all Zen practice flows out of Dogen’s injunction to study the self. All of Roshi Bernie’s Upayas are tools for studying the self, although they often looked like something else. The Ox Classes presented self-study as dives into key Buddhist concepts. In the Ox Classes, you may have thought you were studying Buddhism, but you were studying yourself.

Bernie took us on the Street, to Auschwitz and to other Bearing Witness sites to take us out of our comfort zone, to put us in situations where new dimensions of self-discovery were triggered. Even Bernie when he first went out on the Street thought he was going for a taste of homelessness, just a taste. He — and all of us who would eventually join him — knew that we had homes to go back to. The Street was, as Bernie said, the great teacher. The Street held up a mirror in which we could see aspects of ourselves that we likely had never seen before. 

Mala practice presents a different mirror, a new mirror for most of us. We see things that are unfamiliar. We want to look away. The deep point of asking for money is not about getting the money. It is about what we were learning about ourselves.

Doing my first mala, I understood that I was to “sell” my beads to people I knew, friends, relatives, acquaintances. I didn’t have the courage yet for face-to-face asks, so I wrote letters. I went through my address book. I think I wrote to everyone, even my dentists and my accountant. I was surprised by those who gave and by those who didn’t. It was one of the first mala learnings. Sometimes the people who will give are those you least suspect of generosity, but the bigger teaching lay in the rejections I got from people I was sure I could count on. I was rocked by feelings of hurt. It was a great koan. That’s why we do the mala practice. Not for the money. For the koans.

What If People Don’t Want to Support My Zen Practice

Bernie didn’t send us out to raise money for Greyston, although the money we raised would go to support the Greyston programs like childcare. The mala was our ticket to the Street Retreat. We were asking people to support our spiritual practice.

“I’m not comfortable talking to people about my Zen practice. I don’t talk about my Jewish practice either. It’s private.” One of our group members shared this. 

Another group member is ready with the answer. “Don’t tell them about your Zen practice. Just tell them about Emma’s Place and what good work Emma’s Place does.”

Good fund-raising advice, perhaps. But there’s hucksterism there. “Tell the suckers whatever you need to tell them in order to make the sale. Just get the check.”

I doubt that it’s even good fund-raising advice. It’s certainly not the mala practice. 

If your koan is “My religious practice is my private business,” work with it. Bernie’s practice was always to put us in situations in which our discomfort would bring us face-to-face with our demons (although I think that “demons” was more Jishu’s word than his). “I’m not comfortable with people knowing about my Zen practice.” What a wonderful koan. Sit with it.

You Need a Teacher To Do Mala Practice

Here’s the final lesson for today: You do need to work with a teacher to do koan practice. Without a teacher, you inevitably accept easy answers because they feel good. You miss the point. Mala practice is comparable to koan practice. Koan study is work with a teacher. We don’t send students off with koan books to do koan study. Whether in koan study or mala practice, very few students are going to see the lessons which the practice is presenting without a teacher to help hold the mirror. 

Without a teacher, the student may raise the money. The student may even find a new career in fundraising, but it won’t likely move the student toward peace. Most often, left to their own devices, students give up. With or without mala practice, very few people become fundraisers.

I have been wondering all these years why the mala Upaya has never really taken off as a Zen peacemaker training. It was one of the most important teachings in my Zen life, but it never seemed to take off for Bernie or anyone else. I am beginning to find an answer as our group works together on our mala project.

Bernie never really worked with students on their malas the way in which he worked with them on their koans, and perhaps for that reason missed their full potential. We’re finding that mala practice can be done in a group. I think Bernie would have loved that.

I’d love to have you on my new mala. It’s easy. Just log onto . In the message space, please write “Ken’s mala.” If you donate $108, I’ll burn your name on a bead. All the money, by the way, goes to support Emma’s Place. Want to know more? Did you miss the blog where I kicked this project off? Check it out.

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