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“Home-leaving” is a Buddhist term used to describe a decision to take up monastic life. One aspect of this idea is that you give up your family of origin and join a sangha of monks or nuns as your primary home. Or you could say that your spiritual family becomes your new home. In Buddhism, the term has an historical root in the way the Buddha’s early followers practiced. The Buddha and his followers had no fixed abode. They wandered from place to place, season to season. Eventually, the term home-leaving referred to a process of ordination, taking the three refuges – in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – shaving the head, and putting on robes.

I think there’s a shadow side to this idea, that one has to reject his/her family of origin in some essential way in order to practice fully or sincerely. Many years ago, I joined what I later came to understand as a spiritual cult. Part of the process of acculturation into the community was undertaking this process of rejection, of telling my parents that I had joined what was now my new and somehow truer family. This was a challenging process. There was some heartache involved. At the same time, retrospectively I appreciate the power that it had to land me fully in the community. But was and is a complicated business with both wholesome and unwholesome aspects.

Most of us already have some personal experience of this challenge. It’s a joke in our culture that when we spend a holiday with parents and family – Thanksgiving is the classic example – we revert to feelings, reactions, and ways of behaving we thought we’d left behind when we moved out to go off to work, study, marry, or whatever. But there they are again, in full flower, much to our dismay (if we’re even aware of what we’re doing) and probably to the dismay of our partners or kids. “What happened to dad? Why is he acting this way?” We realize we’re still prisoners of our conditioning with less freedom of movement than we imagined.

Because most American Zen students don’t move to monasteries, home-leaving is more relevant as a metaphor. Not thinking of home just in terms of family or location, but in terms of where we  hang out psychologically and emotionally. What are the preferences, ideas, and habits we treat as safe harbor? Where do we set-up emotional housekeeping? Is our habitual “home” is a wholesome place? Is it a real refuge?

It’s not that all emotional habits are bad or that Zen practice is the best or only resource when life throws a curve, but it’s important to know our habitual tendencies consciously and well. How do we feel and how do we react when we’re in a tight spot? What do we do to make tight spots tighter? Do we know? How do we defend ourselves when threatened emotionally? Do we know? These not easy questions because when we’re in tight spots, our capacity for calm and clear self-examination is compressed. We’re too busy feeling and reacting. Too busy getting mad. Too busy getting drunk. Too busy turning on the tv. Too busy eating. Too busy feeling sorry for ourselves. Too busy tuning out. Just fill in the blank.

In this context, home-leaving as a practice concept is about not being stuck with unconscious, habitual patterns of reaction. First we have to recognize the habits and patterns that make up our emotional home, then we try to find some freedom from them, cultivating our capacity to “leave home” as it were. In my experience, these two steps are closely coupled, because when we’re able to really see how we feel and react and study it closely in a sustained and deep way, the process of examination all by itself begins to dissolve the habit.

So home-leaving is really  about cultivating a larger, freer, more fully illuminated space in which to function. Rather than strengthening entrenched, habitual ways of responding, we watch ourselves with a calm and curious pair of eyes: What annoys or confuses us? How does it feel? How do we respond? How appropriate is our response? And this calm curiosity is nourished by zazen. We may not be asking these kinds of questions in an overt way when we sit, but as we return over and over again to our breath, we notice the persistent, repetitive ways we’re distracted, troubled, and confused and we begin to be able to answer these questions about ourselves. As we learn about our habitual home we are less a prisoner there. This is a kind of home-leaving that does not require saffron robes or a shaved head. Just a steady commitment to keep waking up to what we’re thinking , feeling, and doing.

Central Valley Zen Foundation

The Central Valley Zen Foundation (CVZF) is a non-profit religious organization devoted to the teaching and practice of Zen Buddhism. The Foundation is funded by tax deductible donations and currently supportsfour Zen practice groups in California’s Central Valley: Empty Nest Zen Group in North Fork, Valley Heartland Zen Group in Modesto, Zen Center of Fresno, and Modesto Zen Buddhist Recovery Group. CVZF was founded by Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson.