Boundless Way Zen

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Zen and Rituals
A Dharma Talk by James Ishmael Ford, Roshi, 2 July 2001
Boundless Way Zen, Henry Thoreau Zen Sangha

The Case
The great Fa-yen of Ch’ing-liang took the high seat before the midday meal to preach to his assembly. Raising his hand he pointed to the bamboo blinds. Two monks went and rolled them up in the same manner. Fa-yen said, ‘One gains; one loses.’

Wu-men’s Comment
Tell me, which one gained? Which one lost? If you have the single eye regarding this, you will see where the National Teacher Ch’ing-liang failed. But I must warn you strictly against arguing gain and loss.

Wu-men’s Verse
When they are rolled up the great sky is bright and clear,
but the great sky still does not match our Way.
Why don’t you throw away that sky completely?
Then not a breath of wind will come through.

All those stories of Zen masters spitting on statues of buddhas, of old teachers shouting great shouts disrupting the quiet of the meditation halls, of slaps and belly laughs, and blowing out candles which fill the heads of many visitors to a Zen center; rarely do they adequately prepare one for the reality of the Zen hall. After reading all those popular books on Zen, people visiting an actual Zen center or sangha, are often confused or even shocked by what they find.

Instead of apparent spontaneity, enigmatic waving of fans, and oblique conversations between teachers and students, the visitor usually encounters ritual form, bowing, chanting, and lots and lots of silent meditation. This evening I want to address some of this. What are these ritual forms? What are these texts? And why are we asked to take all this on as Zen practice?

While this is not formally a teisho, the "shout," the pure pointing to the heart of the matter, there will be some of that direct pointing as we go on. So, to frame this exploration of our rituals, of the why and the how of it all; we start with the 26th case of the Wu-men kuan, the great classic koan collection.

Fa-yen, called Hogen in Japanese Zen, flourished on the cusp of the ninth and tenth centuries. Those who are fond of history will note he comes at the tail end of the classical period of Chinese Zen, a time rather like our own, rich and dangerous. He originally studied with Ch’ang-ch’ing. But, then he encountered Ch’an-ch’ing’s cousin in the dharma, Ti-tsang. Their meeting is recorded.

Ti-tsang asked Fa-yen, ‘What is your journey?’
Fa-yen said, ‘Going around on pilgrimage.’
Ti-tsang said, ‘What do you expect from pilgrimage?’
Fa-yen said, ‘I don’t know.’
Ti-tsang said, ‘Not knowing is most intimate.’

As we consider our existence, as we delve into the great matter of life and death, of suffering, its cause, and our own possible liberation from the cycles of anguish, it is important to understand this not knowing. As we come into a Zen hall, and we encounter the forms presented to us, it is important to engage them with some of this sense of not knowing.

Of course we also come into this hall as children of the modern west. We are ever, as much as we might be Zen students, heirs to the postmodern impulse, to irony and that notorious hermeneutic of suspicion. For most of us as we come into this room, things are encountered with some distance. We place ourselves, frequently, just beyond where we might be touched.

It is from that place of Observer - critical, perhaps outright suspicious - that we find people sitting in rows, bowing, and chanting. This observing is not unworthy. Indeed I think it is absolutely necessary for us to question what we encounter. But, also we need to do this questioning from a bit of a different place.

We must allow ourselves the possibility of being touched. This is, after all, about life and death, about our most intimate questions. So, we need just a little openness to the possibilities of being moved, to turn in new directions. Here, during this talk, I would ask a minimum suspension of disbelief, allowing the possibility there are methods to the madness.

Let's allow that. Let's come into this room with some of that not knowing, of what Shunryu Suzuki called beginner’s mind. We may well encounter something of value, some way through the torrent into a place of deeper knowing. At least I offer that as a possibility, and with that some additional comments on Fa-yen’s words.

Koun Yamada, one of the central teachers in our own contemporary Zen line, stressed how the "pointing finger should not be mixed up with the blinds." Commenting on this, his student and another of the great teachers of our specific lineage  - Robert Aitken  - says, "Here it is!" "Fa-yen has expounded the sutra."

I suggest we can take up the matter of rituals, of bowing and of chanting within this context. Let’s keep in mind Fa-yen’s pointing, and those blinds. Let’s see if we can find the Here-it-is of it all. Let’s see what expounding the sutra can mean while considering rituals in this Zen hall. Let’s explore the how and the why of practice.

First, the how. The form of our Monday evening ritual is bare-bones Soto. We abridge the regular weekday evening ritual of the Soto tradition from which our school derives. These rites are the family form of this community. Daido Loori, our cousin in the dharma, tells us how "generally defined, liturgy can be considered an affirmation or restatement of the common experience of a community."

He explains how "all of Zen’s rites and rituals are constantly pointing to the same place, to the realization of no separation between the self and the ten thousand things. Zen liturgy is upaya, skillful means. Like zazen and all the other areas of our training, it functions as a way of uncovering the truth which is the life of each one of us."

Right off I can identify six points to framing our group practice, six actions of skillful means. First is silence. We need to remember the silence. Our style is informal and friendly. We’re different than most zendos in that we don’t ask people to be quiet as they enter the hall.

This is an important aspect of our specific community. I think it is important for us to offer each other hospitality, to offer each other welcome as we enter. But, to do this successfully, we need to recall that nonetheless the core of this way is silence. As we settle into our practice, we need to remember the foundation, the source, is silence.

Second, we take off our shoes before entering. It is as simple as that. If it helps one can call up to mind other echoes in this practice. Moses taking off his shoes before entering the divine presence is worth remembering. Or, perhaps calling to mind our own essential nakedness before reality can be helpful. It is as old custom to enter the hall leading with the right foot.

Third, allow the bells and clappers to lead our actions. Learn what they signal, and follow them. Four, dress appropriately. The tradition calls for dark clothing, but the most important thing is unobtrusive and comfortable. Five, respect. No one should do anything they feel uncomfortable with. All we ask is respect. So, for instance, if you’re uncomfortable bowing, don’t.

A respectful response would be to stand, holding your hands in gassho, grasping your right thumb in a fist and covering it with your left hand, holding them at your solar plexus. With slight variations this is the normal fall back posture within a Zen community. We use it standing, we use it when walking in kinhin.

And sixth, most important of all: bowing. If you don’t feel comfortable bowing, perhaps it is worth reflecting on why. You don’t want to bow toward the Buddha statue? You don’t want to bow toward the teacher? You just plain don’t want to bow? Worthy hesitations, no doubt. And an equally worthy question might be: why not?

Here we come to the most ancient part of our practice, what I believe to be the heart of the discipline. When we bow we allow ourselves to stand in the second place, if only for a moment. Now women sometimes see this as one more continuation of an oppressive system, as also sometimes do people of color. Certainly, that is worth sitting with, and reflecting on. No one needs more oppression in this life.

But also, at some point, to find who we truly are; I suggest that all of us must learn to bow. Bowing is not about oppression. It is about liberation. Without at some moment in our lives taking that second place, without throwing everything we know away, without coming to that don’t know, to that beginner’s mind, we won’t find what is offered in the Zen way.

Gassho is the most distilled form of the bow. Our hands placed palm to palm, the tips of our fingers at eye level, our elbows slightly elevated; here we are offering a bow: Thank you. Hello. Goodbye. Dogen Zenji once said that as long as there is bowing there will be true dharma. Here we find the essential and the relative brought together. Here we find the way revealed.

So, this is the beginning. Here we find the shape of the blinds. Here we are asked to roll them up. And that rolling takes us to the form of the liturgy itself. After bowing we offer a general confession. We acknowledge ritually that the ills of our lives arise from our own minds, from our seemingly continuous greed, hatred and ignorance; manifesting in our own minds, our own hearts, our own mouths.

This can be a hard thing. It can be even harder than bowing. We’re being asked to take full responsibility for our lives, starting with the acknowledgement that we haven’t done all that good a job so far. We tend to prefer the statement "we’re doing the best we can." And actually, from a Zen perspective there is truth to such a sentiment. But, usually we’re not speaking from our depths. Rather we’re simply mixing up the finger and the blind.

And here we are in the great mix of things. You and I as separate beings, each of us caught up in the great play of cause and effect. We’re the product of so much and everything we say and do continues the play of cause and effect. And here is the truth we’re called upon to acknowledge at this moment. So much of that doing, of that saying, has caused suffering, for ourselves, and for others.

One starts to cook by cleaning up the kitchen. Well, one starts Zen practice by fessing up, by cleansing our hearts through an outward expression, acknowledgement of our shortcomings, of our failures, of our clinging to our desires and aversions and opinions. Here we begin with a confession that is in the doing purification, a preparation for taking up the way.

Now the best way to do all this formal ritual is to memorize it. There are times when one sits in the traditional zazen posture, such as when chanting the Heart Sutra, and there are times when we hold our hands in gassho as with the Enmei Jiko Kannon Gyo. When we’re holding onto the booklet it’s harder to do the form. Of course, some of us have trouble memorizing. I know I do. Perhaps some of us will always be holding onto that booklet.

So long as we do use the booklet, there is a form for that, as well: hold it at eye level with the thumbs and little fingers inside the book. This form allows for you to read from the book while maintaining the balance and concentration that holding your hands in gassho asks of you.

The Vandana is an ancient invocation of the Buddha’s wisdom. It is our tradition to chant it in a Sino-Japanese form, a liturgical language created by pronouncing Chinese words in the Japanese manner. Here we find ourselves letting go of the meaning, and just chanting. Taizan Maezumi explains something of this. This quote is a little long, but it's helpful. Maezumi Roshi tells us:

Chanting is an effective means of harmonizing body and mind. Chant with your ears, not with your mouth. When chanting, be aware of the others who are also chanting. Blend your voice with their voices. Make one voice, all together. Chant not too high, not too low, not too fast, not too slow. Take your pace from the senior practitioner, who will take the initiative. Chanting should not be shouting. When a person chants like that, he chants as if only he exists and no one else, which is not so. Always adjust yourself to the others, rather than expecting them to adjust to you. Then there is harmony. Chant as though each syllable were a drop of rain in a steady shower. It is very mild, consistent, and sustained.

Chanting functions the same as all of our practices in Zen. On one level, we can see that the sutras we chant have their own content; they mean something. Some, like the Heart Sutra for example, are especially concise and packed with deep meaning. But again, apart from the texts, the act of chanting is in itself an absolute practice, simultaneously expressing and creating an inner state of consciousness. And as we chant together and hear each other chanting, we are helped further in joining our minds. This is harmony. This is practice together.

The next chant is the Ti-sarana, or Three Refuges. It is the most ancient form of acknowledging the three treasures and our relationship to them. The Buddha is the teacher. Not just the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, but all who teach us throughout time and space. The dharma is not just the specific teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, but again every turning word that moves our hearts, clarifies our minds, and turns us to wisdom. And the sangha is not just the community of practitioners, but every thing from dust-mote to spiraling galaxy.

Here we discover we are not just ourselves, you and I, separate things on separate trajectories. Robert Aitken followed the practice of his early teacher Nyogen Senzaki, and we follow him, chanting these refuges first in Pali, possibly the language closest to that spoken by the Buddha. For us it is a reminder we belong to a very large community, not just Zen, but vastly larger. At our deepest levels we find an intimacy with all who walk this way.

And that's the why of it. The way is intimate. As we continue on it turns out we really are not alone. This is the most important point. This is not an abstract or philosophical truth. In some fundamental,  real sense we can actually know in our bodies, we are not alone. The separation that we experience is strictly functional. As the old line goes, Time exists so everything doesn’t happen at once. We exist as one and as separate. Here, at this moment, in this sangha, we find our most intimate reality.

In case that isn’t clear enough, we have the constant, explicit, and inspiring reminder that is the Heart Sutra. Somewhere around a hundred years before the Common Era the first of these prajna paramita sutras - that is, the teachings of the perfection of wisdom  - was published. The first was eight thousand lines, and it was so popular in Mahayana Buddhist circles that over the next two centuries some forty versions were produced. From eight thousand lines, various longer versions came into being, culminating in the perfection of wisdom in one hundred thousand lines.

The perfection of wisdom literature belongs to a perennial and transcultural tradition called apophatic, in which reality is named through a detailed listing of what isn’t to the real point. Not this, not that; constantly stripping away the lesser realities, taking us, on a journey not unlike peeling an onion. And like that peeled onion, taking us past a core, to nothingness itself.

After the great burst of energy that produced the perfection of wisdom in one hundred thousand lines, it was rendered into even briefer versions, the Heart Sutra being one of the briefest, most succinct of the cycle. Forever popular within the Zen community, the Heart Sutra is recited at nearly every gathering of Zen practitioners, joyfully enumerating the way through to ultimate intimacy.

Then we come to the Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo. It is as close to a prayer as we are likely to find in Zen. Here we call upon the bodhisattva Kwan-yin, essentially to pull us out of the fire. Here we appeal to that aspect of reality that most closely corresponds to what we think of as our mother, to have mercy, to help us, to save us. As Joan Sutherland, a teacher in our community once observed, "We simply ask, for ourselves and for others, and the asking is enough."

But, for you, is it? Does a critical heart; does the hermeneutic of suspicion cut you off from that possibility? Which monk are you? Here we find ourselves confronted with an ancient reality, something we don’t just think our way into. Rather we are on ground so old that it compares only with the birthing of stars. As we come into these chants, as we take up the way of ritual within the Zen context, we find ourselves offered something.

Can we accept it? The way of Zen is framed at the end by giving away whatever merit might have been accumulated. Here, once again, we reveal the little secret: You and I are not alone. As we surrender the merit of our actions, we discover the play of reality that is our individuality and our commonality. Here we discover each act of giving is also an act of receiving. This is the why and the how of it.

And in that context we find ourselves endeavoring to make four impossible promises, in the form of the Bodhisattva's Vows: to save every being, to cut off delusion, to master the dharma gates and to become one with the Buddha way. Impossible. And, once we’ve undertaken the way, impossible not to do.

So, back to the questions hidden within the 26th case of the Wu-men kuan. Back to Fa-yen and those monks rolling up the blinds. Which one gained? Which one lost? Which one are you? But, that’s the easy question.

As Robert Aitken, commenting on this, notes: "Ultimately Fa-yen is not saying merely that gain is gain, loss is loss, high places are high, and low places are low—although this is certainly an overtone of his words. To see into his meaning, you must take gain and loss as the fundamental configuration of the universe, beyond evolution and entropy.

"Wu-men’s comment: ‘Tell me, which one gained? Which one lost?’ That’s easy. The first one gained; the second one lost." Form gained. Emptiness lost. The ten thousand things. The mother of the ten thousand things. The harder, the more important questions are in fact found in Wu-men’s commentary verse. Here we revisit form and emptiness from another angle. And here once again we approach what might be found within our ritual forms.

"When they are rolled up the great sky is bright and clear, but the great sky still does not match our way." That way, our way, is about not being trapped by form. But - and this is the real assertion here- it is also about not being trapped by emptiness. The peeled onion is important, but so is each and every one of the peels.

Our words, our actions, each thing we do and think, has value and place and relationship. When we come to understand this the rituals and liturgy become teachings. When we chant, we just chant. As we do so we open ourselves to not knowing. And therein lies the beginning of our liberation. The content is significant and is worth our reflection. However, the heart of it emerges as we just chant. Each thing as it is, emerging from the great emptiness.

"Why don’t you throw away that sky completely? Then not a breath of wind will come through." Here we surrender both the why and the how of it. Here we are invited to the pure way, the Zen way. Here self and other both fall away. Here the chanting happens. Here the emptiness is. Here everything is just as it is. And here, at this moment, in this breath, all beings are saved.

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