A koan asks, “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your 7-piece robe at the sound of the bell?” Why do we have guidelines for practice forms at the Temple?
One of the answers to this question lies in the nature of the heart-mind, which is like a fire, uncontained. Practice and its forms help us to create a container for this fire, which then becomes a form of energy that helps us to see more clearly and act with compassion.
Another answer lies in the way we encounter each other as a Sangha, a community of persons of the Great Way. We are all meeting the world through our own particular, ego-centered viewpoint. In following forms, we bow and surrender to something greater than our small view. We allow ourselves to feel the support of others in the community, and learn to act as one body, for the sake of all beings, not just for our own needs.
Yet another view of surrendering to practice forms lies in the teachings of one of our ancestors, Eihei Dogen, who encourages us to see our life of practice and the forms of practice as one. When we bow, our awakened nature is bowing. When we walk, our awakened nature is walking.
Here are some guidelines we have developed at Boundless Way Temple to contain, unify, and express our practice. Boundless Way Zen is a combination of many Zen lineages, primarily Japanese Soto, Korean Rinzai and a combination of Japanese Soto with Japanese Rinzai elements. Our forms are also influenced by the various places our Guiding Teachers have trained. You won’t find these precise forms anywhere else in the world, but many of them would be recognizable in any Zen community.
Entering and Leaving the Zendo
When we enter the zendo (meditation hall), we pause at the door and bow from the waist, with hands in gassho towards the Buddha altar.
We then go to our places, and bow to our cushions or chairs. Then we turn and bow to the community, even if no one else is in the zendo. Before zazen begins, others facing us and on either side return our bows.
Once the zazen period begins, we no longer bow to those who enter late, but stay in our zazen posture.
Sitting Meditation (Zazen)
Zazen begins with the sound of clappers, and then three bells. From the moment we take our seat until the sound of the third bell fades, we can move to adjust our posture. After that, we sit in stillness.
During zazen, we sit in an upright and dignified posture with eyes slightly open and unfocused down on a spot on the floor or wall in front of us.
Whether we sit on a chair, a cushion, or a kneeling bench (seiza), we create a three-pointed foundation with our bodies. On a chair, both feet are flat, and the third point of balance is our buttocks. We don’t lean back in the chair, but sit gently upright.
On a cushion or bench, our knees are on the mat (zabuton) and our buttocks are on the edge of the cushion, or supported by the seiza bench.
Our hands form the zazen mudra – left hand resting palm upward on top of the right hand, with the thumbs forming an oval shape, the tips of the thumbs lightly touching.
We can adapt any of these postures to fit the needs of our bodies, including adjusting hand positions or adding extra cushions to support the knees or for the back against a chair.
During zazen we maintain stillness. We don’t yawn, sigh, itch, stretch, or look around. We do not leave the zendo unless there is a physical emergency.
If we find ourselves slumping or falling asleep, we can re-adjust our posture to sit up straight. If we cough or sneeze involuntarily, we lift our elbow, or a tissue or handkerchief, to cover our nose and mouth.
During chanting, we chant with our whole bodies, joining our voices together with energy. If we know the chant, we leave the liturgy books at our sides, on our cushions. (Only people playing instruments can place their books on the floor.)
If we don’t know the chant, we hold the book in front of us, so that our posture stays upright, without bowing our heads to look down.
We use two hand positions for chanting, either the zazen mudra indicated by a symbol resembling two open hands at the beginning of the chant, or gassho. If we are holding our books for a chant that uses gassho, we hold our hands palm-to-palm and support the book with our thumbs. If the chant has the other symbol, we make a bookshelf with our hands, with the thumbs and little fingers facing us, and the three other fingers facing away from us.
Download our liturgy book.
When the zazen period ends with the sound of two bells, we bow and come to standing. Then, at the sound of the clappers, we bow again and line up behind the practice leader or timer with our hands in gassho.
At the next sound of the clappers, we bow again, and bring our hands into the kinhin position (shashu), in which one hand is held in a gentle fist in front of the stomach, with the other hand covering it lightly. The head is upright with the eyes down.
We then walk in step with the person in front of us, staying about a forearm’s length behind them. When they step left, we step left. When they step right, we step right. If a gap arises between us and the person in front of us, we close the gap by taking a few extra steps.
When the clappers sound again, we bring our hands into gassho and, staying in line, walk quickly until we reach our places. At the next set of clappers we bow to each other and then bow to our seats.
Between this moment and the final ring of the third timing bell, we can go out to get chairs, cushions or shawls if we need to change how we are sitting.
During kinhin, we may go to the bathroom or get something to drink in the kitchen. When we exit the line, we make a small bow as we leave. When we return, we join the end of the line. If we return after the final clappers that end kinhin, we wait at the door until everyone has reached their place, and then bow with everyone from the doorway.
At the end of the final chant of our practice period, we come to standing and face the altar to do bows toward the Buddha. We have the option of doing standing bows or full prostrations.
To begin a full prostration, we bow in gassho, and then, without moving our feet, come down to our knees. Our forehead and forearms touch the floor, with hands resting palm up. Then we lift our arms from the elbows, so that our hands rise up and then lower. We then come back to standing with our hands in gassho.
Individual Meetings (Dokusan)
When leaving the zendo for dokusan, we do not bow as we exit, because the dokusan room is considered an extension of the zendo.
When we arrive at the dokusan room, we do one bow and then close the door. We move to stand behind the cushion and do a second bow. These bows can be done standing or as full prostrations.
We then take our seats, and when we are settled, we say our name and our meditation practice (for example, breath, shikantaza or koan practice). Then the dokusan meeting continues from there.
The teacher signals the end of the meeting by bowing. We return this bow. Then we stand, do one more bow, and leave the door open as we return to the zendo.
If, after dokusan, we need to go to the bathroom or get something to drink, we can do this before we return to the zendo.
When returning to the zendo, we don’t bow at the threshold. Returning to our places, we bow to our seat and then to the community. We then settle back into our zazen posture.
Be Gentle with Yourself
These temple practice forms are guidelines, not rigid rules. Please take your time to learn them, and always feel free to ask teachers and practice leaders for help to understand or practice any of the forms. Remember that Zen practice is not about right and wrong, but about learning the true meaning of being human.