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Zen Forms

On the benefit of the practice of Zen forms

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Sep 30, 2006
Location: St. Dorothy's Rest
In topic: Zen Forms
We do the practice of Zen forms to promote and extend awareness. When we de-emphasize the outer person through practicing the Forms, we can allow the true inner person, the person that Suzuki Roshi was always on the lookout for, to emerge.
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(Transcribed and Abridged by Barbara Byrum)

Somebody asked me to say something about Forms in practice. Why do we have Forms? We have talked about it over the years, but it would be good to talk about it today because we are in sesshin and there are so many Forms.

Now days when there are other dharma groups, and other forms of Buddhism that don’t have so many Forms, it begs the question, “Why do you guys go to all these lengths? It is so funny, almost ridiculous. Why do you do all this? Why is there so much detail: the way that you bow, the way that you stand, the way that you turn? Should you have one hit of the clappers or two hits of the clappers? Hit the bell this way but not that way?” In other words, we have created a million ways to go wrong, and it always feels bad when we make a mistake. So why do we have all this?Wouldn’t it be simpler to forget about it all and just sit, because, after all, isn’t that the point?

Well, now that I think about it, I am almost persuaded by that thinking! There are reasons that why we might want to keep the Forms to a minimum, and when we do the Forms, to present them with an easygoing spirit, so that it is clear to everybody that mistakes are no problem. The way we do things is not the absolute truth. It is just the way we do things, and there are other ways of doing things too. Still, we wouldn’t do the Forms if we didn’t understand that there is a point to them.

Many of you have read passages in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, in which Suzuki Roshi speaks about the importance of the Forms. His words about the Forms have become the basic understanding of our School on Forms. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring his book and look up what he said, so you are stuck with my view of it for today!

We use the forms to promote awareness and to extend awareness. Our practice is primarily the practice of everyday life. That’s true not only in Everyday Zen Foundation practice places, but I think that it is basic Zen. In Soto Zen especially, the practice is really everyday life, but everyday life lived with awareness and fullness of presence. In our everyday life we don’t have so much awareness, and we don’t have so much fullness of presence.

If our primary focus of awareness practice were just awareness on our cushions, then we might get the idea that awareness is an “inside” matter.In other words, something that had to do with meditation, with states of mind, or with our inner condition. But if we extend our awareness not only to what is going on inside of us, but also to how we are walking, how we are standing, how we are holding our hands, how we are eating our food, and how we are chanting or striking a bell…if we extend awareness into all those other places in our living, we begin to get the idea that meditation is not just something that happens on our cushions. It is not just an inside job. Awareness should be extended into all the times and places of our living. Our life is a totality and not just about what is going on inside of us. It is about our whole lives, where we meet one another, as well as where each one of us is separate. The price of this, which is all the mistakes that we make, actually turns out to be worthwhile in itself, because every time that we make a mistake, we learn something about ourselves. It is a challenge and we grow from those miscues. So that is the first reason why I would say that the Forms are important: so that we can develop and extend our awareness.

The second reason why the Forms are important is that they connect us to our Ancestors in the dharma, and we are honoring a particular set of Forms that we receive. We could just make up a bunch of Forms to extend awareness. We could do a variety of things. But we don’t do other things to promote awareness. We do these particular Forms that have been passed on to us by our Ancestors.

I think that we mostly look at our practice as being about ourselves: about our lives, about our own happiness, about our well being. Maybe this includes compassion, but it is still primarily about our life and the lives of those around us. Of course, our practice is about that, but if you think too much about your own life, your own well being and happiness, and the lives of those around you, it is counter productive. It actually does not produce more happiness and well being; it makes you very self concerned. Self concern makes you very unhappy, nervous, and upset. The way to be happy is to have less self concern and less worry about how you are doing. If you have less self concern, whatever is happening, you have more self ease and you actually do have more concern for others. You get it that the way to be liberated is to see that you are part of the bigger picture, and not to worry so much about how you are doing and how the people around you are doing.

So, if we did our own Forms, if we walked and stood and struck bells and beat on drums the way we wanted to, and not according to Forms, it would really feel odd.It would feel odd to the person doing it, and we would all see the oddness of it. But when we walk or stand or strike bells or hit drums, not the way we want to, but the way that practitioners throughout the ages would do it, we are liberated from ourselves. We will see a self here in front of us that need not be limited by our circumstances or conditioning. We feel like we are joining with others across the centuries who have also practiced in this way. There is something really important about that. It is something that is not just a theory, but that you can feel, as you bring the Forms into your own body. Eventually you feel joined in a wide circle of support that goes back through the ages and across cultures. It is very inspiring and liberating.

The third reason why I think the Forms are important is that when we are creating the Forms, we are creating something really beautiful. A Zen meditation hall is beautiful. The feeling in the hall - the way people practice together and move and stand - is beautiful. It is more beautiful than if we all came in and plopped down and had our different sets of pillows and purses and water bottles and computers to measure our heart rate. I think that if we had all that, the zendo would be a lot less beautiful. The way it is, the Forms create the possibility of our harmonizing together.There is a beauty in the zendo. If we all walked our own way, it wouldn’t be so beautiful. When we have a way to harmonize with one another, we feel the beauty of our inner connectedness, and we feel the rhythm and shape of our being together as one body of practice. This beauty really inspires us all.

Even though we don’t have a beautiful temple or a big altar, somehow in all the different places where we practice, we create beauty. Here, we have this beautiful place. I am always moved when I come to the sesshin. This time I see that there are lots of different Buddhas all over the place.There are beautiful flowers and trees outside. All of this, and the way we move and practice together, is something beautiful and uplifting. In the midst of this beauty we discover how much we appreciate one another. We begin to feel within ourselves, each one of us, and all together, as if we are all dignified Buddhas. Because of the Forms, we move as if we were Buddhas. We share together one Buddha life.

Suzuki Roshi said, I think, in Zen Mind Beginners Mind, that because of the Forms and everybody doing everything in the same way and more or less dressing in the same way, he could see each student in his or her individuality more clearly. This is very counter intuitive. He said that we when we all stand or walk or sit or chant in exactly the same way, our true individuality comes out, and it is very clear. On the other hand, when we each stand or walk or chant in the way that we like, as we do in our ordinary daily lives, we become hidden in our seeming uniqueness. Very counter intuitive.

Doing the Forms certainly seems like literally “to conform.” That is what “conform” is, to do forms together. How could conformity produce true individuality? It is true that on one level we give up our individuality in doing Forms. But on another level, the level that Suzuki Roshi is talking about, something else is going on. Each of us has a unique and unrepeatable person within us. This person is not necessarily expressed by our clothing, by our choices, by our conditioned styles of speech, our attitudes, or by our movements. This unique and unrepeatable person actually may be quite unexpressed in our ordinary lives. It might even be quite unknown to us. We may be suffering or unhappy for lack of relationship to this person. When we temporarily de-emphasize the usual outer person, which we have been so conditioned to see as ourselves, our inner selves emerge. When we de-emphasize the outer person through practicing the Forms, we can allow the true inner person, the person that Suzuki Roshi was always on the lookout for, to emerge. When that person emerges and interacts with others, it is always a thing of beauty. It is that way in the zendo and it is that way in the rest of our lives too.

I say all this because in sesshin we practice a lot more formally. Usually we do zazen everyday, but often without any form at all. There is a difference between the zazen that we practice daily and the zazen that we practice in sesshin. The difference is simply that in sesshin we have the chance to strengthen and deepen our zazen experience. Because we set aside many continuous days for sitting, and because we leave home and become like monastics, leaving the dust of the world entirely behind for awhile, naturally we try a little bit harder. We concentrate a little bit deeper. Then we enter, through our zazen, little by little, into a deeper and fuller sense of our lives.

So in sesshin, we give up our outer selves. We give up our outer lives, and we allow an imaginative life, an imaginative self to emerge. This is not something that we can produce or make happen. We have to allow it to happen. We have to allow it to emerge on its own. The more we can allow it, the more confidence and faith we will have in it. That confidence and faith will be there for us as a wellspring in our daily zazen and in our daily living. That is why the practice is everyday life, but to make the practice of everyday life real, we have to sit zazen everyday. In order to sit zazen everyday and have that be a well spring for our lives, we need to sit long, so that the strong sitting spills over into our everyday practice, even though our everyday life does not feel like a sesshin.

To be clear, when he talks about giving up views and interpretations, he doesn’t mean that we would go around in life like idiots, not having any views about anything. We could not do that, and even if we could, it would not be worth doing. He means can you know the experience of being free of your views and their becoming the center of your living? Can you not be the victim of your views and interpretations, but rather use your views and interpretations in the service of your real life, instead of having them take over your life to the point where you are always in conflict, and you never know this world. To know this world is to see something with appreciation, without views and interpretations. To hear something with full appreciation. Just to see and just to hear without interpretations. Just to feel. Just to taste.

When we quiet our minds in sesshin, we can have those experiences. We can know what it is like to have simple joy in living in the body, in the senses. We need that as a foundation for what we will do in our lives when we get up from our cushions and leave sesshin. That’s our touchstone, that’s our basis. We need to see that and to experience it and to hold it behind all of our views, all of our interpretations, and all of our activities.