In the Rinzai Zen tradition, the first interview between student and teacher is an auspicious formal occasion. The required attire includes not only a robe but also the white booties known as tabi, which cover the feet and ankles. Tabi are fastened with hooks and eyes located on the inside of the ankle. For Westerners they are difficult to manage, even on the best of days.
On the morning of my own first interview with Jiro Osho Fernando Afable at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a formal Rinzai monastery, I forgot all about my tabi. They were nestled like sleeping rabbits in the sleeves of my robe. As I prepared to leave for my interview, a senior monk noticed my oversight. He gestured sternly toward my feet, and I took his point.
Unfortunately, there are no chairs in a Japanese zendo. Rather than hunker on a cushion, I stood on one foot, then the other, as I struggled to put on my tabi. At one point, I hopped; at another, I nearly fell over. It must have taken me three minutes to marshal my partially hooked tabi into a semblance of order. Meanwhile, the senior monk was summoning every bit of his Zen discipline to keep a straight face. I suspect that he told the story to his fellow monks later on.
Embarrassing though it was, my awkwardness was not unusual. Ceremonial forms abound in Japanese Zen, and to the uninitiated Westerner they often feel as alien as they are compelling. From the relatively simple protocol known as jukai, in which a lay practitioner “receives the precepts,” to the high theater of shitsugo, in which a seasoned priest receives the title of roshi, public ceremonies acknowledge the practitioner’s deepening insight. And even on ordinary days, when nothing special is being recognized, celebrated, or commemorated, a sense of ceremony permeates the zendo. It can be seen in the bows and heard in the bells. It can be smelled in the incense. For the Western lay practitioner, this pervasive atmosphere of ceremony presents a challenge to the skeptical mind as well as the reluctant body. How much Asian ceremony should be included in a Western lay practice? How much is essential?
In addressing those questions, it is important to remember that Asian ceremonial forms, as used in Zen, exist primarily to support the practice of mindfulness. Pressing the palms together and bowing to one’s teacher, for example, is a way of expressing gratitude and respect. But it is also a way of knowing that one is expressing gratitude and respect and a way of cultivating those states of mind. For those prepared to embrace them, the bows, chants, prostrations, and other elements of traditional Zen can become as integral to the practice as awareness of breath and posture.
For those who are not, however, there is another way of integrating a sense of ceremony into one’s daily life. It is well described by Brother Joseph Keenan (1932-1999), who taught religion at La Salle University and was also a master of the Japanese tea ceremony:
The making of a bed, the folding of laundry, walking down stairs, driving a car to work — instead of racing through these actions with the mind-set of simply getting them done, savor them as present moments which contain hidden riches, and do them in the most beautiful way. Do them not from egotistical motives of self-fulfillment, but rather as gifts to the world that express to those you meet that you really want to present the best to them. In this approach to life even in today’s world . . . the niggling details of the daily grind can become moments of joy, moments filled with sweet nectar to be savored rather than tension-filled tasks. With this sort of attention to mundane actions, you can open yourself and others to a greater awareness of what is around you in the here and now.*
Although Brother Keenan is speaking of the tea ceremony, his description applies equally to a committed lay practice. In such a practice, each mundane task becomes an occasion for ceremonial regard. Each is an end in itself, not a means to a practical end. Each is an act of giving.
* Brother Joseph Keenan, “Tea for All Nations: The Japanese Tea Ceremony”
See also http://www.phillytea.org/about.html
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