In Japan, there’s one right way to do any given thing. You don’t make it up as you go along. You wait for the light to change before you cross the street, even if there’s no traffic. You take your assigned seat even if the train car’s empty. When serving a customer, you say “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” even if you haven’t. The wrapping of a gift is at least as important as the gift itself.
In America, you improvise. You try a new way. You challenge and test how it’s been done. There’s no one right way to do anything. And if the gift wrapping doesn’t get done, no big deal. It’s the thought that counts.
These are a broad generalizations and there are plenty of exceptions, but it’s an illuminating perspective. For me personally, the most important implication is that we need to find ways to feel and be as natural as we can – to be ourselves – when we’re practicing. Many of us have been practicing Zen for decades, working with the Japanese forms we were taught. At this point, we can begin to trust our instincts, our understanding, and our bodies to shape the forms to our own physical and cultural idioms. This shaping shows up in different ways.
Some sanghas have reduced or eliminated chanting in Japanese and chant only in English. The feeling is that understanding the meaning of what’s being chanted adds to the power and value of the chanting. Some sanghas have modified traditional wording to bring chants into alignment with evolving values. For example, in the sangha where I practice, we’ve changed or eliminated elements in some chants that essentially say our way is the only true way. Some zendos have replaced traditional incense with offerings of dried flowers or water to accommodate practitioners allergic to the smoke. Some priests do not shave their heads, in part because of work or relationship situations. Some sanghas have ceremonies that give all members the opportunity to serve the altar – not just priests – and some have replaced or accompanied traditional Buddha statues on the altar with stones or driftwood. These are only a few examples.
I’m not suggesting we move quickly or radically away from the traditions we’ve inherited. Hewing to traditional forms is one expression of gratitude and respect for our Zen progenitors, and taking up whatever we do with reverence and discipline is a wholesome practice. But we should also remember that at some point each form was simply made up by someone. A bow in and of itself is no more holy than a handshake or a salute; it’s just what we’ve been taught. So after we’ve learned and understood and practiced the traditional forms, we should allow ourselves to experiment with change when and where it fits our distinctive American culture and circumstances.