Thursday, September 23, 2010


Many religious groups have developed rituals to such an extent the ceremonies come close to magical practices. By that I mean the rites are so elaborate, they are often understandable only to the high priests. For the average person, the meanings are lost. So the average person goes along with the hocus-pocus out of habit, rather than out of any sort of conviction as to its necessity.

I’m talking about a mixed bag of practices that includes kneeling, groveling, clapping, chanting, reciting, and so on and on.

The Roman Catholic priest Thomas Merton said that with all the bobbing up and down, the prancing and boogieing, the Catholic mass was like an elaborate ballet.

Human beings are . . . well, human beings are curious. They not only become caught up in formalized performances, but they attach themselves to objects and symbols. Things such as a cross, a star, a crescent, an effigy, or a venerated book.

These things in themselves are harmless. It’s when they become attachments, or else objects of worship, that a human’s true self becomes befuddled.

Zen doesn’t condemn rituals. Zen doesn’t judge anything. However, Zen does consider that most sacraments and liturgy can be hindrances to its purpose.

What is the purpose of Zen?

The purpose of Zen is self realization. It’s recognizing one’s true self. It’s recognizing the connection that exists among everything in the universe.

What is unfortunate about mystical practices is that they can set up sham values and bogus habits that distract from self realization.

Satori, or enlightenment, or awakening, may be instantaneous or it may be gradual. However, if one’s mind is involved in concentrating on physically fiddling around—with artificial rules—a tension is set up in the inner self. That tension hampers the spontaneity of the awakening experience.

Newcomers to Soto Zen are often baffled by its simplicity. I’ve been asked how one’s hands should be held during zazen. I say, “Hold them palm up just below the navel."

"But I’m used to resting them on my knees,” I’ve been told.

I have no argument with that because whether the hands are on the knees, or against the abdomen, or in the lap doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if one meditates in the lotus position on the floor, or sitting in a chair, or hanging by one’s thumbs.

I teach mostly what I’ve been taught. My practices in Zen are neither better nor worse than anyone else’s practices. Allowing oneself to become caught up in the physical aspects of practice—or in bell ringing, or in chanting—can muddle the experience of enlightenment.

So don’t worry about our singing bowl. It merely provides a signal to do something, just like your alarm clock provides a signal to get you out of bed in the morning. Your clock, this singing bowl, and what ever position you prefer for meditating aren’t matters of great importance. What is important is you.

If you let your mind pester you with why we do walking meditation in a clockwise direction, you’re depriving your mind of doing what it’s capable of doing. What it’s capable of doing is hanging loose and letting happen what ever will happen.

Zen masters contend that enlightenment may be realized on any occasion. The sound of a broom handle knocking against a stone has triggered satori. So has a poke in the ribs by a master’s forefinger. Just remember that the broom or the stone or the finger—even the master—isn’t significant.

The result of the occasion is what’s vital.

Every insight is an occasion for satori.

I’ll say it again. Every insight is an occasion for satori.

But the occasion for one’s awakening can be numbed if one’s self is swaddled in ritual.
Many religions and organized systems teach that reality is outside of us in some physical object or in a practice, and that reality must be approached in a ceremonial manner.

Reality is in us.

Rather, we are reality.

Everything in existence is important, but nothing is sacred unless we make it that way.


Anonymous Bunc said...

I very much enjoyed this article.

I am what most people would refer to as an atheist but I also practiced za zen for a long time as part of training in martial arts.

My recollection is of kneeling for who knows how long and doing breath and mind control. sometime we woudl be put straight to this from a heavy training session. I learnt to be able to do this more widely in my life.

I haven't set aside time for zen meditation for years yet I feel that the practice that I did still has a positive influence on me.

I understood eventually that it was not the kneeling and the pain per se that was the lesson - or the struggle with it. The lesson was to be able to see it as something transient and not attach to it yet be in the moment.

You'll understand i think what it was like to be doing heavy martial arts training then being sent to ones knees ( the whole dojo) and expected to do za zan and be centered. Then he'd get us to jump up and train again.

I haven't read more than this post so I'll come back and read more.

Friday, September 24, 2010 3:06:00 PM  

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