Sunday, July 5, 2015

Form and Ritual in Zen

Many forms and rituals can be used in Zen
The latest issue of Bodhidharma magazine is dedicated to exploring form versus practice, that is, the way we practice versus the practice itself. All religions wrestle with this, and the magazine provides some great thought around the questions entailed. How important is form/ritual? What should it consist of? What do you do to practice your faith? Is there a better or best way? Are there certain things you should not do? Practice usually leads to many such questions about form. My belief is that - in Zen Buddhism - form is irrelevant. In other words, any form you choose is acceptable as long as it doesn't become an impediment to practice.

What does this mean? Let's take zazen as an example. Some Zen Buddhists practice with their eyes open and others prefer to close their eyes. Some emphasize breathing while others ignore it. Some people practice zazen while seated in a specific place, while others do so while walking down a street, working out, or in any place they feel like. None of these forms are better or worse than the others. We're free to practice zazen standing on our heads with clown hats on our feet if we want, so long as we successfully discipline our minds and enter samadhi.

However, form encompasses more than just how we meditate. It also includes ritual and 'things' that go with ritual. Do we tap a gong to start and stop zazen? Do we light candles? Are there certain clothes we must wear? Do we play music? Do we chant mantras? Are all of these things to be avoided? Just as with the form of zazen, the accouterments of its ritual (or lack thereof) is neither good nor bad, so long as we successfully discipline our minds and enter samadhi.

Given these points, it is clear that form is irrelevant to zazen and - by extension - to Zen Buddhism more generally. Some may balk at this, but the fact is that it would be silly to say no one can effectively sit in zazen while playing music (or not playing music). That one must be in a group (or alone). That one must chant, or light candles, or have a 'special Zen spot' (or that any of these things absolutely preclude successful zazen). Bottom-line: Disciplining the mind does not have anything to do with details of ritual or form, so we can never designate a particular form as a requirement.

That doesn't mean ritual and form are useless. In fact, they are often extremely positive aspects of practice. Some Zen Buddhists find some or all of the items mentioned above very useful in practicing zazen and reaching samadhi. As such, they are helpful and should not be categorically rejected. Form and ritual are never a problem unless they become an impediment to zazen practice or if we endow them with intrinsic importance. In other words, if we view a form or ritual as anything other than a tool or a means to an end, then it will become a barrier to effective practice and are detrimental. We cannot forget that practice only requires what is inside us; it never demands a ritual or an object outside of us.

When we assign intrinsic importance to ritual and form, then they are naturally used to assess the quality of practice rather than focusing on the actual practice itself. We will find ourselves thinking things like: "I can't sit in zazen today because I ran out of candles" or "I can't reach samadhi today because group meditation was cancelled" or "until my iPod is fixed, I won't be able to play the music that quiets my mind enough to practice." When put in this way, we see how negative the reliance on any form or ritual can be. It distracts us from the fact that we can achieve samadhi at any time and in any place.

So while form and ritual can be very helpful, we must always keep them in their proper - and non-essential - role. A person who cannot achieve samadhi or quiet their mind without the right ambiance or the proper ritual possesses a questionable level of mental discipline. Such is person is unlikely to bring the mind state they achieve in zazen into day-to-day life and, as a result, will reap minimal benefit from their studies. And if we are unable to apply what we learn or the wisdom we gain, then it is it questionable whether we have learned anything or possess wisdom.

So how do we navigate ritual and form with other practitioners? Must we set up rules or dogma about what is and is not correct? Should we debate these rules with others? Should we discourage what we judge as ineffective practices when we encounter them? The answer is a resounding "NO!"

Since form and ritual possess no intrinsic value, there is never any justification for debating about them with other practitioners or concerning ourselves with them beyond what we like to do in our own practice. For example, if I enter a zendo where practitioners chant mantras and that is something that I see little purpose in, then my proper action is to "go with the flow". The forms may help those around me, and I should be disciplined enough so that engaging in them will have no negative impact on my practice. If the fact someone lights a candle or engages in a ritual prevents you from sitting in zazen with them, it is not their fault. It is yours! Work harder to discipline your mind.

Of course, following this line of thinking is hard (perhaps impossible) to those who are just getting started. Quieting the mind during zazen and achieving samadhi takes much practice, and if we find that certain rituals or forms help us get the hang of it, then we should most certainly use those rituals or forms. If we find ourselves in a challenging environment, we should look at it as an opportunity to see how disciplined we have become.

All practitioners, new or old, must always guard against any ritual or form hardening into dogma or being mistaken for the discipline we are developing. The latter - not a lit candle or a successfully followed ritual - is the true measure of the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) in our practice.