Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center. It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.
The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea. They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School. It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press. In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.
As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one). As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment. The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.
Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike. He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts. There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food. The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.
Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant. We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment. He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.” This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.
As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within. Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings. Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…