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Thread: Formalities of practice

  1. #1

    Formalities of practice

    Happy weekend everyone,

    A question I've often wrestled with in the past, and continue to do so regarding zen practice, relates to the formalities of zen. I'm wondering if others have wrestled with this, and how they've resolved it.

    I'm not sure how to relate to the formalities of zen - the bowing, the chanting, the ceremony. From my zen past, I realize these elements of zen may have some positive influence on mindfulness or on helping one to get into the mindframe of practice. But, are these formalities - anything beyond just sitting - essential to practice? I've been to a number of traditional zen centers over years past where these forms of zen take up a significant part of the weekly group practice - and seem to my perhaps overly analytic mind to become robotic - and not off-cushion-time, real-life applicable for me. I've also been to one particular center in which all forms of zen were stripped away (no chanting, no incense, no formalities, etc.) with only the sitting remaining. Does this "just sitting" with nothing else take away too much? I'm not intending to critique others' forms of practice, just trying to find what would work best to get me back to the cushion with consistency. I'd enjoy hearing others' takes on this.

    Thanks,
    T.

  2. #2
    Hi Tainin,

    Here is my reply when this comes up from time to time. There has never, by the way, been an old Teacher of Zen who emphasized "Just Sitting" (i.e., nothing else in life but sitting) ... even though our Shikantaza Practice is called "Just Sitting" (i.e., when sitting there is only sitting). There are few modern examples too (Toni Packard is about the only person who comes to mind, and she wasn't only about sitting).

    At Treeleaf, we have a time for being free in Ritual & Tradition and and a time for being free without. I am as apt to be found in the Zendo in a t-shirt as in funky Chinese robes. We do not insist that every ritual must speak to everyone. Some of my other "practical reasons" (one does not always need a "practical reason" however) for honoring Rituals and Traditions are stated here ... It's something I have posted several times, and most folks may have read:


    This practice is not limited to any place or time ... we drop all thought of place and time. It certainly is not Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French or American. But, of course, we live in place and time, so as Buddhism traveled over the centuries from India to China, Japan, Korea and other places, it naturally became very Indian/Chinese/Japanese/Korean etc.

    But what of the cultural trappings?

    Must we bow, ring bells, chant (in Japanese, no less), wear traditional robes, have Buddha Statues, burn incense? ... All that stuff besides Zazen. Are they necessary to our Practice?


    No, not at all!


    We don't need anything other than Zazen, any of those trappings. In fact, they are no big deal, of no importance, when we drop all viewpoints in sitting Zazen.

    On the other hand, we have to do something, to greet each other somehow, read some words, dress some way. Why not do such things? As I often say, for example, we have to do something with our hands when practicing walking Zazen ... why not hold them in Shashu (I mean, better than sticking 'em in your pockets)?

    As well, there are parts of our practice which we do BECAUSE we resist (for example, when visiting a temple for Retreat, I usually put my heart fully into ceremonies and arcane rituals BECAUSE I resist and think some of it silly or old fashioned). Ask yourself where that kind of resistance is to be found (here's a clue, and it is right behind your own eyes).

    What is more, there is method to the madness, and many (not all) customs have centuries of time tested benefits ... embody subtle perspectives ... that support and nurture Zazen Practice at the core. Many parts of our Practice, though "exotic", are worth keeping, even if they strike someone as strange at first. Bowing, statues, rigid decorum in the Zen Hall and, yes, weird talks about Koans and arcane ceremonies all fit in that category. They may seem like unnecessary "Japanese" or "Esoteric" elements at first, until you understand the role they serve. I have given talks on all these things recently, for example ... the humility and wholeness of Bowing.

    Many aspects of tradition can be seen in new ways when the barriers of the mind are knocked down. Thus, for example, the Kesa, the Buddha's Robes ... though just cloth ... can be seen to cover and enfold the whole universe, laughter, cries of pain, old age, becoming and fading away ... life ...

    On the other hand again, it is okay to abandon or reject many practices. However, KNOW very well what you are rejecting before you reject it.

    Absorb what is useful and discard the rest. For example, I think Oryoki [formal meal ritual] is a great practice, and worth keeping.. Same for bowing.

    When tasted as such ... every action and gesture in this life is Sacred and Magical when experienced as such, from changing a baby diaper to cooking dinner to chanting the Heart Sutra. So, why not Chant as well as the rest?

    Some things I keep out of respect for TRADITION [the robes, the ways of doing some ceremonies]. It is important to keep ties to where we come from. Some things also have a special symbolic meaning if you look into them, so worth keeping [for example, a Rakusu]

    But other stuff, no need to keep: For example, I usually avoid to chant in Japanese or Chinese [except once in awhile, out of respect for tradition]. Tatami mats and Paper screens have nothing to do with Zen practice particularly [but I happen to live in an old Japanese building, so ... well, tatami and paper screens!} Some things I think are just dumb (except symbolically), like the Kyosaku stick. Incense is great, until it was recently shown to cause cancer. Many beliefs of Buddhism are rather superstitious things that were picked up here and there. I abandon many of those.
    The outer wrap of Zen Buddhism is changing greatly as it moves West. The greater emphasis on lay practice over monastics, the greater democracy in what was a feudal institution (arising in societies where the teacher's word was law ... oh, those were the days! ), giving the boot to a lot of magico-supersticio hocus-pocus bunkum, the equal place of women ... heck, the use of the internet to bring teachings that were once the preserve of an elite few into everyone's living room.Those are good and great changes to the outer wrapping (you can read about them in books like this one (author interview here: http://atheism.about.com/library/boo...olemanChat.htm). The coreless core, however, remains unchanged.

    Do not throw out the Baby Buddha with the bath water. Many completely "Japanese" practices which seem silly at first are worth keeping. ...

    ... other things, like some of the arcane incense, bell & drum filled rituals, take them or leave them.

    Daido Loori has a lovely book on how to live, and be lived through, rituals in his book mentioned in our "Recommended 'At Home' Liturgy" thread ...

    http://www.treeleaf.org/forums/showt...t-home-liturgy

    So, as Taigu so wisely has said sometimes ... a person who hates rituals should be told to drop the hate and engage in a ritual ... and a person too attached to ritual might be told to stop ritualizing and attaching. I throw myself into some "silly" rituals precisely because I resist and find them "silly" ... all in order to drop the resistance and judgment.

    Gassho (an Asian custom), Jundo (a Dharma name)
    Last edited by Jundo; 12-02-2012 at 02:11 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Tainin View Post
    I've been to a number of traditional zen centers over years past where these forms of zen take up a significant part of the weekly group practice - and seem to my perhaps overly analytic mind to become robotic - and not off-cushion-time, real-life applicable for me.
    Hi Tainin,

    I have similar questions. I do try to get behind the principle of the ritual before attempting to simply practice it. For instance, signing off forum posts with Gassho (or Namaste as is the norm where I live, not exactly the same idea)? I've attended one weekly Zazenkai (last weekend of November) and I did watch the rituals. For instance, I noticed some bowing to each of the four directions. I enjoy the act of bowing as I identify with the need to be humble and I'm guessing that bowing to each direction pushes us to acknowledge that going in either direction is really just the same thing?

    Thank you for bringing this up!

    Gassho,
    Santosh.

  4. #4
    Senior Member ZenHarmony's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tainin View Post
    ...I'm not sure how to relate to the formalities of zen - the bowing, the chanting, the ceremony.
    Just consider them a sincere show of respect to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and then don't consider them any longer.

    Gassho,

    Lisa

  5. #5
    Senior Member Shawn's Avatar
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    Hi Tainin,

    Getting back to the cushion with some consistancy to me is whats most important. Don't let your questions on ceremony or tradition effect your sitting.

    Gassho,

    Shawn

  6. #6
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tainin View Post
    But, are these formalities - anything beyond just sitting - essential to practice?
    Tainin,

    That's a great question! Now stop asking it and go sit!

    Eventually you may come back to the question and that's fine.

    But throw yourself into the ritual, but don't cling to it either.

    Things like this can get us stuck as we look for an intellectual answer.

    Don't wait for one and the answer may be forthcoming.

    In any case, just sit. Trust me...it works. And you just might find yourself sitting more without even trying!

    Gassho,
    Dosho
    Shudo Dosho - Ordained Priest-in-Training
    With your help and guidance from Jundo & Taigu
    I am learning, but please take what I say with a
    grain of salt, especially in matters of the Dharma.

  7. #7
    Senior Member Shawn's Avatar
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    Thank you Dosho, I often have similar questions to what Trainin put fourth, and I identify with where he is at. But a good question at that, one that needed clarification.

    Gassho..

    Shawn

  8. #8
    Senior Member Shawn's Avatar
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    Just to clarify, when I first began learning about zen, I asked questions in order to determine if it was for me, or not.

    Gassho

    Shawn

  9. #9
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by zen_rook View Post
    Just to clarify, when I first began learning about zen, I asked questions in order to determine if it was for me, or not.
    A good point Shawn...I had not considered it from that perspective!

    Deep bows.

    Gassho,
    Dosho
    Shudo Dosho - Ordained Priest-in-Training
    With your help and guidance from Jundo & Taigu
    I am learning, but please take what I say with a
    grain of salt, especially in matters of the Dharma.

  10. #10
    Everything, Soto Zen forms, Rinzai Zen forms, Japanese Zen, Korean Zen Chinese Zen, the broken glass bottle on the side of the road... Everything. Is an expression of this single truth.
    Yet, it is so easy for our minds to miss it. "how can this be it?" "there most be something more." So we give you more. Some chanting, bowing, whatever you think you need, it all there for you. Its all pointing to the same thing.
    And it can be immensely helpful.
    Most forms and rituals have so much details, that it is hard to focus on them if you are lost in thoughts and ideas. Most chanting is done in a language that is not native to you, so if you are lost in thinking you can't follow. It is very hard to be hung up in thinking during bows, especially if one is doing many bows on end. Yet, there comes a time when we can become so familiar with all the forms that we can simply mindlessly go through all of the motions, while being drag to the other end of the universe by our minds. So there is a caution in this...

    I think why some many traditions, not just Buddhist, have so many rituals, is to help us be more aware in our daily lives. We have so many rituals that we do every day. Wake up at a certain time, eat, work, relax, sleep. Then we do it again and again and again.... If we can learn mindfulness and awareness during "Zen" rituals, then we can bring that awareness with us back into our everyday lives, until we see for ourselves, that what we did in the Zendo and outside were never any different to begin with.
    Humbly,
    Seiryu

  11. #11
    Junior Member George's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by zen_rook View Post
    Just to clarify, when I first began learning about zen, I asked questions in order to determine if it was for me, or not.
    I have found it a rather difficult balancing act between questioning and accepting. For a long time I think I took scepticism a bit too far and was completely against all the rituals and symbolism involved in Buddhism until they were proven to be helpful.

    I thought I understood some important words (below) and applied them to my life then I realised (one evening after a chat with a monk about a picture of Avalokiteshvara) that I was missing one very important part - '..what you yourself test...' - I was waiting too much for things to prove themselves before I gave them a chance. I am now trying to give the ritual part a chance, if I find it helpful then fine, if not then fine - I'll probably only stop if it actually interferes with my practice.

    Even if things do not make sense it is sometimes enough to trust the generations that came before us and see that they found the formalities helpful and the only way to disagree is to try the rituals and then make an informed judgement.


    “Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”
    Last edited by George; 12-01-2012 at 09:59 PM. Reason: typo correction

  12. #12
    Yes Bro. And I tend to drop rituals because I like them a lot.

    Gassho

    Taigu
    Taigu, teacher at Treeleaf Sangha, was born in 1964, started Zazen early and received Shukke Tokudo in 1983 at age 18 from Rev. Mokusho Zeisler of the Deshimaru Lineage. Received Dharma Transmission from Chodo Cross in 2002. Now resides in Osaka, Japan.

  13. #13
    Hey Tainin,

    I find when I have too many questions, I just sit. Sitting sometimes shows that the question really has no meat to it ... It was just my mind holding onto it for too long.

    I do however enjoy rituals, but I am a simple guy, so like the simple rituals.

    Gassho
    Michael
    真 眼

    As a trainee priest, please take any commentary by me on matters of the Dharma with a pinch of salt.

  14. #14
    Thank you everyone.
    If I remember right my teacher once told me to 1) do the rituals, completely with all you can give and 2) drop them if you not feel they are essential to practice, but never skip step 1. Personally I'm still in step 1 and I found not much to drop so far. If at all I would drop oryoki .. or at least transform it to something slower
    Gassho
    Myoku

  15. #15
    Thank you, everyone, for your much valued input on my concerns about the "formalities" of zen practice. I greatly appreciate all the ideas and suggestions that everyone has given me to ponder - hopefully more off the cushion than on!

    Gassho
    T

  16. #16
    Senior Member Jakudo's Avatar
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    I enjoy learning the forms (as long as they are simple like myself ). To prepare for the precepts in another Zen tradition we did 3000 prostrations beforehand while reciting to ourselves the three refuges, it took me 8 months. I remember when I was told about the prostrations....3000 is such a BIG number....why would we need to do that I thought. I think it was to teach us humility, I certainly felt humble, and grateful.
    Gassho, Shawn Jakudo Hinton
    It all begins when we say, “I”. Everything that follows is illusion.
    "Even to speak the word Buddha is dragging in the mud soaking wet; Even to say the word Zen is a total embarrassment."
    寂道

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by Shawn Hinton View Post
    I enjoy learning the forms (as long as they are simple like myself ). To prepare for the precepts in another Zen tradition we did 3000 prostrations beforehand while reciting to ourselves the three refuges, it took me 8 months. I remember when I was told about the prostrations....3000 is such a BIG number....why would we need to do that I thought. I think it was to teach us humility, I certainly felt humble, and grateful.
    Was that in a Korean line? They are very big with the Prostrations, often recommending 108 each day.

    http://london-zen-centre.weebly.com/...strations.html

    It is a powerful physical Practice.

    Gassho, Jundo
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  18. #18
    When taking the precepts with Samu Sunim we did 500 prostration at the ceremony. It was in a hall with big window that were open . and the wind was blowing the white curtains around. It felt like the energy of the proceedings, very magical. He described a prostration as being like water flowing down to the lowest point. You get a second and third wind. .. that was Chicago in 97.


    Gassho, kojip.
    大山

  19. #19
    Those curtains! Got the feel of that ceremony, Richard.
    Thanks.

    To me the rituals are serious part of the practice. Think of it this way: we, strangers to each other, come together at the zendo to sit. We bring the world and its energies with us. If we dress alike in black and say the Heart Sutra together, or the Sandokai, or just bow three times with the officiant, answering to chimes and gongs, this ancient scheme anchors us to that practice and, msot importantly, to that moment.

    It's the "other language" that has bothered me and for that reason, as Jundo says above, I throw my heart and mind on the strange syllables.

    Other than that, sit!

    Last edited by Ed; 12-05-2012 at 01:01 PM.
    "Know that the practice of zazen is the complete path of buddha-dharma and nothing can be compared to it....it is not the practice of one or two buddhas but all the buddha ancestors practice this way."
    Dogen zenji in Bendowa






  20. #20
    Senior Member YuimaSLC's Avatar
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    The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives in Mt. Shasta CA (Soto Zen) not only translated most of the liturgy into English but then set about creating a "western" Gregorian chant style w/music.
    And later used a very small church organ to accompany the "singing". It's founder, Peggy Jiyu Kennett received her university education in music and thus I suppose this helped the OBC with this adaptation. This liturgy is a little more poetic in style than the Soto Zen Association text, and certainly more "understandable"during recitation than the current use of turning English into syllabic Japanese-style chanting. Has the OBC become westernized to the point that they appear/sound like Anglican Church of England ? And is that necessarily the appropriate adaptation of Buddhism in the West? Jodo Shin Shu has a hymnal that sounds alot like those used in many Christian churches.

    Japanese language is, due to it's simpler syllables, more conducive to chant.

    I've had a few people compare the matter to the argument of whether the Catholic mass is better left in Latin for it's musical beauty, at the expense of not understanding the meaning by most people.

    Chanting sutra in Japanese, with use of more nasal intonation, does create a very subtle vibration in the facial/crania area which in a way has a soothing effect.

  21. #21
    Quote Originally Posted by YuimaSLC View Post
    The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives in Mt. Shasta CA (Soto Zen) not only translated most of the liturgy into English but then set about creating a "western" Gregorian chant style w/music.
    And later used a very small church organ to accompany the "singing". It's founder, Peggy Jiyu Kennett received her university education in music and thus I suppose this helped the OBC with this adaptation. This liturgy is a little more poetic in style than the Soto Zen Association text, and certainly more "understandable"during recitation than the current use of turning English into syllabic Japanese-style chanting. Has the OBC become westernized to the point that they appear/sound like Anglican Church of England ? And is that necessarily the appropriate adaptation of Buddhism in the West? Jodo Shin Shu has a hymnal that sounds alot like those used in many Christian churches.
    Yes. Jiyu Kennett Roshi and her Lineage, the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives (Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in the U.K. and Shasta Abbey in the U.S) might be said to present a rather "Theistic" feel to the nature of "Buddha Nature", "Buddha" and the like.  In many ways, she created rituals and customs that very much seem to incorporate the feeling of the Anglican Church. The style of their liturgy at OBC does resemble the "Book of Common Prayer" or "King James" Bible in its "Thee and Thou" style and feel  ... and you can hear and see a little here if your speakers are on, a lovely Mass with "Gregorian 'Plain' Chants":

    http://www.throssel.org.uk/downloads/preceptschant

    Gassho, J
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  22. #22
    While still experimenting with other practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, I would always get hung up and worried about pronunciations, proper this, appropriate that, ceremonies, mala counting...

    When I came upon the various Zen schools and what they do it was like jumping into a cold pool.

    A refreshing shock. Although at first it was a bit like having that nervous feeling before jumping on that ledge of the pool. Where's my offering prayer? Mandala mantra? Dharma protector implements?

    Now it's liberating feeling that those things aren't must have tools for me anymore.

    By no means knocking any other tradition, Tibet has a rich history, vibrant culture, and their way on the path taught me immense lessons.

    But just like in sitting, first the mind is scattered, grasping, confused, panicked, worried about being a certain way to placate a deity.

    Then we just are.

    I have a strong affinity with being a practicing Buddhist and I consider Zen to be the essence of the Dharma. Therefore I still take refuge before sitting and dedicate my merit after. I do this as a firm belief that the 3 jewels are my boat to transverse the sea of suffering and I return my merits from whence they came in order to honor and recognize the sitting I just did, with of course a firm resolve to extend my zazen to the rest of existence.

    This is just what I do.

    TL;DR

    I identify with your sentiments and I feel like many westerners go through similar feelings because just sitting is an alien idea to our collective mindset.

    But even though I worried, I still sat. That worked for me. Now I just sit.

  23. #23
    Quote Originally Posted by empty_fullness View Post
    [COLOR=#111111][FONT=Times]While still experimenting with other practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, I would always get hung up and worried about pronunciations, proper this, appropriate that, ceremonies, mala counting...

    When I came upon the various Zen schools and what they do it was like jumping into a cold pool.

    A refreshing shock. Although at first it was a bit like having that nervous feeling before jumping on that ledge of the pool. Where's my offering prayer? Mandala mantra? Dharma protector implements?

    Now it's liberating feeling that those things aren't must have tools for me anymore.
    Hi,

    We also make an effort in the Japanese Zen Traditions to be very sincere, precise and "perfect" in undertaking each ceremony. At the same time (this is the Shikantaza heart), we know that it will never be "perfect", something will always go "wrong", and yet even the worst screw up of some ritual (Oryoki eating is a prime example) is always "perfectly imperfect" and "perfectly just what it is" (which is not to be confused with "perfect just as it is"). We live through all such perspectives at once ... not neglecting the goal of doing something well, yet simultaneously dropping all goal and need to attain (a kind of healthy schizophrenia! ) We can always get better AND there is no place to "get" but ever right here. We should for "perfection" and "good", all while simultaneously dropping all dichotomies of "perfect vs. imperfect" "good and bad" (we are not nihilists).

    Such is our Practice, and a "Zen Klutz" like me who always drops the incense or drops his chopsticks is very much at home!

    Oh, and speaking of "proper", we do ask folks to use a human first name (or Dharma Name if they received one and wish) and a picture of a photographable face. Would you have a look down at #4 here ...

    http://www.treeleaf.org/forums/showt...Sangha-Members

    Thank you, and Welcome Again!

    Gassho, J
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  24. #24
    In connection with the above, I just posted this on our Rohatsu Retreat thread.

    By the way, if anyone would like to see what Oryoki is "supposed" to look like, please watch this beautiful video of a Retreat at Zen Mountain monastery. They are very ritual conscious there, and pay special attention to form. Very much more a ballet than my "two left feet" version during our Retreat. Of course, all is beautiful in its way. ...

    Perhaps if folks are interested, we could have an "online class" here to make a more serious training in Oryoki. It is an old and traditional, but powerful Practice.

    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  25. #25
    Senior Member Nindo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    Was that in a Korean line? They are very big with the Prostrations, often recommending 108 each day.

    http://london-zen-centre.weebly.com/...strations.html

    It is a powerful physical Practice.

    Gassho, Jundo
    I've always wondered whether I could do this ... I should try! But seriously, how do you keep count?

  26. #26
    Quote Originally Posted by Nindo View Post
    I've always wondered whether I could do this ... I should try! But seriously, how do you keep count?
    Using a mala to keep count.
    I have seen Korean mala beads with a thousands beads just for bows....
    Humbly,
    Seiryu

  27. #27
    Senior Member pinoybuddhist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nindo View Post
    I've always wondered whether I could do this ... I should try! But seriously, how do you keep count?
    Who counts? Just do it until somebody passes out.
    Just kidding, I've never even been to a korean sangha.

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