Zen Rituals and Forms
Zen practice arises out of a monastic tradition that marked the activities of the day with ritual and ceremony.
We use adaptations of these rituals to help us develop mindful awareness.
There’s a long, long tradition in each of the rituals. In the rituals, time becomes thicker. Time changes…because the whole of the past becomes present in the timeless moment….If the feeling of ritual is silence and timelessness, then repetition and tradition evoke them….People, who have been dedicated to the same sort of values and spirit that the ritual expresses, have made the same gestures that we are now making in our own time.Zoketsu Norman Fischer
What do rituals have to do with Zen?
The rituals and ceremonies of Zen practice may be understood in a number of ways.
First, ritual helps us to deepen our religious spirit and to extend its vigor to our lives. Second, ritual is an opening for the experience of forgetting the self as the words or the action become one with you, and there is nothing else.
Gassho would be the simplest illustration of the first point.
This is the act of placing your hands palm to palm, so that the tips of your forefingers are an inch from your nose. We bow with our hands at gassho as we enter or leave the dojo, and before zazen we bow in this way twice at our seats, once to our sisters and brothers beside us, and once to sisters and brothers on the opposite side of the dojo.
Gassho is a sign of joining together in respect.
In South Asia and Southeast Asia, gassho is the conventional greeting between friends. In our practice, it is the sign that we join respectfully with our sisters and brothers, with the great figures of our lineage, and with our training itself.
Also, sometimes we bow to the floor and raise our hands a few inches. We are lifting the Buddha’s feet over our heads. It is a sign of throwing everything away, or as one of my students described it, the act of pouring everything out from the top of the head.
All our self-concern, all our preoccupations are thrown away completely. There is just that bow.
Thus in the ritual of the dojo, in the same atmosphere of devotion that is the environment of zazen, the signals of bells and clappers, the order of eating a meal, the sutras and the bows, all encourage the experience of falling away. Without any preoccupation with meaning, you may, as have some students that I know, find the sutras reciting themselves. Just reciting, the self is truly forgotten, and your perspective on the world is turned around 180 degrees.
Roshi Robert Aitken, adapted from Taking the Path of Zen
Zen rituals: What's in a bow?
There is actually a verse that is recited when you make a prostration, which I always recite when I make prostrations. The translation from Japanese is:
“Bower and what is bowed to are empty by nature. The bodies of oneself and other are not two.”
When you are making a prostration, the idea is you are bowing to yourself.
When I first started doing Zen, like a lot of Jewish boys, I thought, Why would you make prostrations? That seems completely un-kosher. So I went to my teacher. He brought me up to the front of the altar and showed me the image on the altar. The image was in gassho, bowing to me.
So he said, “You bow to Buddha, and the Buddha bows to you. You are bowing to yourself.” And, in fact, that is exactly the orthodox understanding in Buddhism, that in venerating the Buddha, you are venerating your own real nature. The bodies of oneself and another are not two. They are empty. In emptiness, there is no separation. I vow with all beings to obtain liberation, to surpass the unsurpassable mind, and return to boundless truth.
So that’s the idea of making prostrations. You are recognizing the oneness of yourself with the Buddha, and in making a prostration, you are throwing away your worldly needs and desires and problems. You are saying, I am now returning to boundless truth. I vow with all beings to obtain liberation, to return to boundless truth. So it’s actually very profound to make prostrations.
Chanting that verse reminds me that what I really love about ritual is that most of the time – the vast majority of the time – it’s rote, routine. In other words, how many times when you recite a verse do you actually call forth the feeling that the verse expresses? Usually not that many. Because any ritual is repetition, and you do the ritual all the time. We do that chant every week.
A Buddhist service is done every day, if you are living in a temple or a monastery. And you get used to it! You don’t think anything of it. You just go through the motions. That’s what people are always complaining about. Oh, the rituals – you’re just going through the motions.
But I love that about ritual, that most of the time you’re going through the motions, but every now and then, often quite spontaneously and unintentionally, it hits you what it really is. It’s rare, but the rarity of it, in a way, makes it more powerful. The fact that the experience is coming out of many years of rote repetition only makes it that much stronger. So that’s another aspect of ritual that is really kind of wonderful.
Zen rituals: what you need to know
Zen Open Circle events are often very informal – we value the spontaneity of laughter, the wisdom of friends in conversation and the wonderful conviviality of shared meals.
We also value silence, stillness and shared ritual.
On our sitting days and at our retreats we use many traditional Zen forms to remind us of our connection to those who have come before us on the path. It also makes practice together simple and uncomplicated.
When you first come to a siting day or retreat you might not think it is simple. When to sit, when to stand, when to bow….what a twist!
But being able to rely on these simple rhythms to co-ordinate our community practice will quickly seem natural and welcome.
And no one cares if you bow at a different time or in a different direction. There is no wrong way to practice.
So what to expect….
Bells: each period of sitting meditation begins and ends with the chime of bells. The elongated echo of the bell is an invitation to soften into the vastness of stillness and silence. When the meditation period is over the bell sounds again. Slowly stand and turn to your left to begin Kinhin.
Kinhin: or waking meditation, is a slow walking period between sessions of siting meditation. It enables us to free our knees and to maintain a rhythmic attention to breath and body. Focus on the breath, feel the soft fall of feet on the ground. In kinhin the “Jiki” (the practice leader who rings the bell) sets the pace. As they walk with slow measured steps each person walks at a pace which maintains the distance between themselves and the person in front of them – usually one or two “cushion” widths depending on whether there was someone sitting right next to you or not. We hold our hands enclosed in one another, close to our stomach, with the left thumb clenched by the right fist. As the period of kinhin nears an end you will hear the clapping of wooden blocks by the Jiki. This means that the next time you come to your place in the sitting circle, stop and stand in front of your cushion. When the Jiki claps the blocks again everyone bows once to the centre – to each other – and once to their cushion – to themselves and to their practice – before sitting down.
Chants: every tradition has key texts that are repeated as a reminder of the depths of the way. Buddhist traditions like Zen have “Sutras” – usually words of the Buddha – that are chanted in simple rhythmic style. Chants are often accompanied by bells or percussion that mark these rhythms, awakening our body and spirit. The meaning of these chanted Sutras is important and becomes a focus for reflection but chanting is also a physical and communal activity where we feel the power of the tradition echoing in our body. That is why sometimes they are chanted in Japanese as a reminder of Zen’s origins.
Zen Rituals and Forms: Resources from the WWW
Although a reader might get the impression from Zen literature that Zen denigrates ritual, in fact ritual is very important for the practice of Everyday Zen. It is a way of expressing and evoking through bodily action and gesture, what we feel about our lives but often can’t explain. Ritual is something we do, not so much something we talk about, but the lectures below give an overall sense of the how and why of Zen ritual.
Prostrations and offerings are admittedly just forms—just a human way of expressing what cats express by rubbing themselves against a beloved person’s legs.