When I was at sesshin in Switzerland, someone asked me about the importance of zendo and liturgical forms. She came from a sangha where these were observed very strictly, and she felt that in our sesshin they were observed more loosely. Of course, the sesshin had participants from a number of different sanghas, and everyone brought with them the forms they were accustomed to, so it was challenging to do something uniform.
But here we are, towards the end of our three-month winter intensive in which we studied liturgy, or ceremony, and spent a lot of time focusing on the forms of ceremony—chanting, playing the various instruments, setting up the altar, bowing, reciting names of ancestors, service dedications, etc. I think there is something ironic about this because many of us come here to get away from all that. We escape a busy life full of forms to come to a meditation hall for a sense of formlessness, spaciousness, and total freedom.
Instead, look at what we’re taught to do right away: Bow to the altar when you come in; set up your cushion or chair; bow to the cushion, bow to the person across from you. Look at all the signals we’re given: one ring signaling the end of the sitting period, two rings for walking meditation, three rings signaling the beginning of meditation. There are different bells to signal the beginning of zazen, the beginning of service, the beginning of meals, the beginning of a talk. And that’s before we even get to oryoki, our ritualized retreat meals.
Who wants all that? Didn’t we come here to escape from all those bells and whistles and discover timelessness and empty space?
Unmon said, “Look! This world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your priest’s robe at the sound of the bell?” The essential nature of this world is that it’s vast and wide, yet when the bell sounds we put on our robe. Another bell sounds, and off we march to the dining hall. Another bell sounds, and off we march to do work practice. All this despite the fact that our practice is not to follow sounds or cling to forms.
Dogen, in his Fukanzazengi, warned of this: “[t]he bringing about of enlightenment by the opportunity provided by a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and the effecting of realization with the aid of a hossu, a fist, a staff, or a shout, cannot be fully understood by man’s discriminative thinking . . . It must be deportment beyond woman’s hearing and seeing¾is it not a principle that is prior to her knowledge and perceptions?” While stories have come down of great enlightenment experiences that seem to come from something seen or heard, he’s warning us not to make the mistake of thinking that this came out of regular perception through our senses.
There is a koan that appears in our upcoming Book of Householder Koansthat deals with this directly. I believe it’s called The Retch. It tells the story of a woman who moves into her dream apartment, except for one thing. Every morning the man next door goes into a prolonged cough and retching that penetrate the thin walls of the apartment and disturb her peace. In fact, it disturbs her so much that, without having met him, she refers to him as The Retch. Till one morning, deep in meditation, she hears the same loud, retching noise, and something else happens.
To live fully in everything we do is the secret of our practice. I encourage you to fully settle into every form, plunge in and discover its limitlessness. The opposite of that is picking and choosing: I want this but I don’t want that.You may think that the forms that we follow in retreat are an upaya, skillful means, because you’re following a schedule without having to think anything out, without picking and choosing, but even that’s not enough. You must plunge into every form, penetrate each cue and signal. When the person who does that disappears, then the ringing of a bell, the smell of freshly brewed coffee or the taste of an orange can bring about the kind of experiences Dogen referred to.
I do a certain flip whenever I come into the zendo. We all come from home or office, from making dinner for the family or picking up something at the drug store. Here, we take off our jackets and shoes, step into our small and simple sitting space, and a certain flip happens. Till now we were following our individual lives, picking and choosing various things, but now we do whatever everybody else does. We bow with our hands together, turn, bow again. A cue from the bell and we chant the Verse of Atonement, another and we put our rakusus on top of our heads and chant the Verse of the Robe. We listen for three rings of the bell, sit, hear two rings, make a small bow and get up. Another ring and we turn and put our hands across our chest and start walking slowly, like everyone else.
I flip right into these forms every time I enter the zendo: sitting, chanting, bowing, and walking. No picking and choosing, just doing things wholeheartedly.
The same goes for the forms of our day-to-day life. When we work with the forms of our life with conscious awareness, we get out of our minds and our small selves, leave the subject-object dichotomy behind. I leave the land of the brain, the land of disconnection, and focus attention on just this.
Forms are the container for your practice. They are the container for your life. Whatever forms you choose, really fill them and use them to the max. For years I saw Bernie wear his kesa. With his pudgy body and short neck, he didn’t wear a kesa elegantly, but he settled into it completely. I watched him wear the same old ragged brown samuejacket in the Greyston years, running from a meeting with the construction crew to a meeting with the mayor of Yonkers, always wearing that same old samue jacket totally and comfortably. After he disrobed, he also had robes, but different ones: jeans, Hawaiian shirt, suspenders, sometimes a vest or sweater, sometimes a beret, and always sneakers. In his pocket always went a pen, a cigar, and a telephone. He completely settled into those robes, too.
Whatever you wear, whatever form you take on through ceremony and vow, please honor it completely. Honor the form and the role it represents. Playing it middle-ways, one foot in and one foot out, doesn’t do anything for anyone. It might give you a sense of keeping all your options open, which many of us mistake for freedom, but it’s far from genuine freedom. When we genuinely put on the robes of our life, nothing is impeded. As Shibayama comments on Unmon’s koan, “It has to be the Truth, not as an idea but as the fact actually lived by us.”