Posts Tagged ‘Rinzai Zen’

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice.

For the past two decades the Falling Leaf Sangha, our local Zen practice group, has met weekly at the same time—7:30 on Sunday evenings—and in the same location: a spacious, high-ceilinged room in the Miller Center at Alfred University. We have trod, as it were, a well-worn path. And every week the protocol of our sessions has remained essentially the same. After seating ourselves on zafus (round cushions) and chairs in facing rows, in the traditional style of Rinzai Zen, and after the customary bows, the lighting of incense, and the low tones of a gong, we begin by drinking genmaicha, a green tea flavored with roasted brown rice, holding our yunomi—our small, handle-less cups—with both hands. Mindful of the saying chazen ichimi (“Zen and the taste of tea are one and the same”), we take time to savor our tea. When we have finished, our jikijitsu (timekeeper) strikes his wooden clappers, and we chant Atta Dipa (“Be a lamp unto yourself), the purported last words of the Buddha. This practice reunites body, breath, and mind, while also affirming our intention.

Having thus prepared ourselves, we settle into our first sitting. For the next twenty minutes we sit together in stillness and silence, following our breathing. Then, at the sound of the inkin (a hand-held bell), we rise and proceed to practice kinhin (walking meditation), maintaining continuous awareness while making a circuit around our facing rows. Next comes a second, twenty-minute sitting, followed by a recitation from Zen teachings. Once again, the inkin sounds, and we rise together. Our sessions conclude with another crack of the clappers, a deep formal bow, and our palms pressed together in gassho: a gesture of respect for ourselves, the practice, and our fellow practitioners.

All of these forms are rooted in Zen tradition. They derive from the exacting forms and rituals of Japanese Rinzai Zen, as practiced at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, the Zen monastery where I received formal training. To a newcomer such forms may seem awkward, but to those of us who have practiced them for decades, they have come to seem both natural and reliably supportive. Like other established conventions, they feel as familiar and dependable as they are old.

Yet every Sunday evening, without fail, something new arises: a new circumstance, a new experience, a new understanding.

The Falling Leaf Sangha consists of a core of committed practitioners, ranging in age from eighteen to ninety, but we have always welcomed newcomers, be they students, faculty or staff, or members of the wider community. Children have sometimes attended, accompanied by their parents. After a brief orientation, in which we introduce the basics of sitting practice, the new participants join us in our facing rows. Their presence colors the tone of the sitting, as do other changing conditions, including the rhythms of the seasons, the light streaming through the tall windows, and, not least, the presence or absence of external sounds—the noises in the building, the traffic in the street below. All of these conditions, as well as others too numerous to mention, shape the experience of everyone in the room. No two sittings are quite the same.

Nor should we expect them to be. According to Zen teachings, each moment of our lives is unprecedented and unrepeatable. Although such phrases as “same old, same old” mask the newness of each new moment, that quality is there all the same. Our practice is not only to observe the received forms of the Zen tradition but to cultivate openness to what is indeed unprecedented and unrepeatable in every moment, lest it escape our notice. In this way, as one of my teachers put it, we more fully appreciate “this precious moment together.”

Paradoxically, adherence to established forms heightens our sensitivity to what is new in every sitting. Shakespeare wrote thousands of lines of verse in a single form: the decasyllabic line known as iambic pentameter. Yet within that form, any number of expressive variations—in rhythm, diction, texture, and tone—are possible, and it is the stable presence of the established form that allows those variations to be heard. Analogously, by practicing zazen (seated meditation) in the authentic, time-honored fashion, Sunday after Sunday, we open ourselves to the boundless fluctuations, the nourishing freshness of the present moment. By taking the path we took yesterday—and the day before—we learn something new.






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“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”

At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.

As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.

I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation.  So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest. (more…)

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  Dai Bosatsu Zendo      Meditation Hall

Dai Bosatsu Zendo
Meditation Hall

If your waking hours are anything like mine, many if not most are spent in attending to ordinary things. Although you might wish to be contemplating the meaning of life or encountering something out of the ordinary, groceries need to be bought and e-mails answered. Bills need to be paid. Whatever your spiritual aspirations, ordinary life assumes the foreground.

At first glance, Zen practice might seem a welcome escape from the daily round. At its deeper levels, Zen is indeed concerned with the alleviation of suffering, the cultivation of compassionate wisdom, and the “Great Matter” of life and death. Cloistered in their mountain monasteries or secluded in their urban centers, Zen masters and their disciples may appear to have risen above the quotidian fray and to have transcended the concerns of everyday life. (more…)

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Let us imagine that it’s a Friday afternoon, and you are driving on the New York State Thruway. You are in the passing lane, going seventy-five miles per hour. The car on your right is not slowing down, and the SUV behind you is fast approaching. You can see its emblazoned grill in your rearview mirror. You do not want to increase your speed, but the driver behind you is leaving you no choice.

As the SUV draws closer, you feel your heart rate increasing, your anger arising. You can’t see the driver in your mirror, but you can well imagine him: an aggressive, insensitive lout, with no concern for anyone but himself. As you reluctantly speed up and move over, an epithet comes to mind, and you let it slip from your lips. It is not a nice word, but it gives you satisfaction.

Moments later, the SUV passes on your left, and you see that the driver is not a lout at all but a petite, professional-looking woman in her thirties, who is keeping her eyes on the road, apparently unaware of your distress. And a few minutes later, after she and her SUV have long since disappeared, you realize that your anger, too, has disappeared and your clarity of mind is slowly returning. It is as if a veil, through which you were viewing the world, has gradually been lifted. (more…)

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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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