Dear Forum members:

In response to Jundo’s recent talks on mindfulness, I’d like to raise the issue of mindfulness in relation to form, particularly the conventional forms of Zen practice.

Here at Alfred University, I teach an honors course in Buddhist meditation. During the first week of the course, I instruct students to use two hands whenever they are drinking from a cup. A week later, they report on what they’ve experienced.

Many students report that by using two hands, they’ve become more aware of what they are drinking. “I realized that I really hate cranberry juice,” one student said. “And I’ve been drinking it all my life.”

That is an example of mindfulness, acquired through training and practice. Yet if someone were to have observed that student drinking mindfully with both hands, her actions might have been mistaken for a kind of ritual or esoteric practice. In other words, mindfulness might have been mistaken for form.

But the opposite can also happen. Form can be mistaken for mindfulness. During my stay at one Zen monastery, I observed a resident monk who had the forms down pat, but outside the zendo he showed very few signs of mindfulness. On the contrary, he seemed unaware of his own states of mind, particularly his compulsive need for control and its harmful effects on other people. In many other instances, I’ve observed a similar disconnection between formal practice and mindful awareness.

In the sittings that I lead in our local sangha, I incorporate some elements of form, including bowing and chanting. But the population of the sangha has been fluid over the years, and the degree of formality has varied, partly in response to the proclivities of those in attendance. It’s sometimes said that the forms support mindfulness, but if so, in what ways do they do that? And when do they become a surrogate for mindfulness, or a hindrance to its development?

I’d be grateful to know how others have addressed this issue.