Second in Series of Talks based on Zen Ritual.
Series of talks based on Zen Ritual
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 12, 2008
Transcribed and edited by Mary Wilson and Barbara Byrum
It’s a noisy world, you may have noticed. Inside and out. There’s not that much silence available. Human beings need a certain amount of silence. So it’s nice for us that, although we have ritual and we have service, our basic practice is silence. Our basic ritual is the ritual of silence. And silence isn’t exactly the absence of noise, or the absence of talking – some sort of negative virtue, borne of restraint or desperation. Silence is something strong and positive that emerges from sound and is at the bottom of sound. Because wherever you go, there’s always some sound. The top of the mountain, the bottom of the lake, there’s some sound. When we allow the mind to come to quiet, we notice silence. It’s an embracing, intimate experience that feels all-inclusive. The silence holds us. It brings us a kind of ultimate sense of safety and healing. It is profoundly peaceful and nourishing.
Silence is the essence of zazen practice. And we could also say, I think, that silence is the essence of ritual. Paradoxically it may be that all the noise we make, all the bells and the drums and the bowing and the chanting that we do in ritual, are for the purpose of evoking the silence. That’s always there, but through these activities we feel it coming forward.
So when we sit in zazen, we’re trying to allow silence to come forward and deepen.
We’re so prejudiced to think that we’re the ones who are meditating. We’re doing it, and we’re either succeeding at it or not doing so well at it. But this has never truly been the case. Zazen is just the expression of our willingness to enter silence: our sense of trusting that the silence will help us, will bring some peace to our lives.
In the classical Soto Zen tradition, we have the ritual of zazen, the ritual of service – the bowing and chanting, the incense offering, wearing of robes. When we repeat these things day after day after day, we become them. We begin to inhabit those things. In our case, we don’t practice this way every single day, but we keep coming back. In other words, we don’t have a ten-week course in Zen. We just keep coming back. So even if it’s not every day, it’s sitting after sitting, sesshin after sesshin. Eventually we inhabit this whole ritual space. All these acts that we perform – the act of sitting in zazen, the act of bowing, incense offering, chanting – eventually take on a great power.
After a while, if you just offer one stick of incense, all of it’s there. In offering one stick of incense, the whole of the bowing and the chanting and then zazen – it’s all right there, and you feel it, just with one moment of offering. I often say to people who complain that it is impossible for them to sit very much, I always say, Well, you don’t really have to sit that much. Just offer one stick of incense. It’s all there. Just light a candle and take one breath. If you have a bell, strike the bell. Because what I’m saying here is that zazen is fundamentally a mysterious ritual.
When prostrations become a natural part of your practice, your body becomes the body of prostration through repetition. When you make a prostration, you are literally causing the presence of Buddha to manifest. This is how the Buddha comes alive. A prostration is giving birth to a Buddha. And when, over time, we develop a sense of these ritual gestures, they’re there for us at times when we need them. So in other words, the daily practice creates a kind of substrate of energy and spiritual power that can be drawn on when the need is there, because rituals enable the expression of human feeling that’s there in us all along.
There are certain kinds of feelings that human beings have that wouldn’t come up without the ritual to evoke them. For instance, we can feel a lot of love for one another, we can feel a lot of commitment to each other, but a wedding ceremony is empowering. There’s a certain quality that comes forth in that ritual that isn’t there without the ritual. Somehow the ritual seals those feelings and gives them another dimension. When someone dies, we can send a card, we can send flowers, we can have lots of feelings about it. But when we have a funeral, or a memorial service, that service can bring up another level of these feelings, and it can seal the feelings, and change us to a new state, in the same way that a wedding ceremony seals our feelings and takes us into a new state. These are not rituals that we do every day, but they depend on our familiarity and our relationship to the ritual space, that we have created through practice.
In these rituals, and many others, there are sacred words spoken that express the feeling of the occasion. These words are not just words – we could read them, but they wouldn’t be the same, because they are empowered by the incense, the whole setting, and the feeling of the ritual that everybody participates in. We have rituals like the shuso (the head teacher) entering ceremony for a practice period. And then we have a ritual at the end of the practice period for questions and answer with the shuso. We have the ritual of receiving precepts, which we do maybe once or twice a year. When you go through that ritual, we feel the mystery and the power of the depth of our commitment to dharma. And it’s different after that ritual. We become a different person as a result of this.
There’s a long, long tradition in each of the rituals. In the rituals, time becomes thicker. Time changes. Maybe you’ve felt – those of you who have been in these rituals – the feeling of time changing, because the whole of the past becomes present in the timeless moment. That is actually the essence of all ritual.
So there are two elements here that we can notice, and they seem to me to be common to ritual of all sorts, not only our ritual. First is repetition. Rituals are repeated: once a year, once a month, every day, but always repeated. The second factor is tradition. There are a lot of people creating rituals, and certainly you can do that, and that can be effective. But there’s something important about traditional ritual, ritual that is handed down, with a long past. These two things, repetition and tradition, are connected to one another. If the feeling of ritual is silence and timelessness, then repetition and tradition evoke them.
When we enter into a traditional ritual, we are doing something that is in another space altogether. We receive the tradition with gratitude because it comes from the past. We feel the past in the middle of the ritual. And exactly because this is something that has been repeated and repeated and repeated, over and over again, for centuries by many, many people, you feel their presence in the ritual. People, who have been dedicated to the same sort of values and spirit that the ritual expresses, have made the same gestures that we are now making in our own time.
It’s as if by repetition we are outside of time. I feel this all the time. If I’m bowing, when am I bowing? Where am I bowing? I’m in the middle of everywhere and nowhere at the same time. How many thousands and thousands of times have I made a prostration? And how many different places in the world? There’s no hurry, and there’s no time. This bow that I am making is the same as a bow that another person wearing this robe made thousands of years ago, in another culture, with a whole other sense of what it means to be a person – and yet the same bow.
So from one point of view, I guess you could say, All this repetition and all this tradition is a little boring. Over and over again, the same thing. Why do something just because they did it in the past? I think that’s a true point of view about ritual and repetition. But from another point of view, as it actually feels when you give yourself to it, and when you release yourself to the ritual, it does help you to enter into this timeless silence that is at the bottom of our lives.
Last week, Harriet was saying, “What about the ritual of washing the dishes? Or the ritual of going and taking your dog for a walk every morning?” And yes, those things do, in their own way, also have repetition and tradition. It’s my tradition: I always go out and walk the dog every day, or I always wash the dishes after breakfast. It’s my tradition, every day the same. But one great thing about religious rituals is that there is formality to them. Also, they are something that we practice together. One of the things about most rituals is that we do them together. When we do a week long sesshin (sesshin is a ritual, right?), this is a ritual. It’s not a bunch of people meditating on their own. It’s all of us practicing together and creating the ritual container, which itself contains rituals, like the ritual of eating a meal, the ritual of standing, the ritual of going to bed at night. So one of the genius things about sesshin is that it takes everyday activities – very much illustrative of Zen teaching – and makes them into ritual space. So the next time you eat a meal, and the next time you stand or walk, you remember that ritual. It’s there in the body. And through all these activities, each of us finds the ground of our own mind.
The rituals that we do together are so real that they teach us the source of our own suffering, and, simultaneously, the place of our healing. This healing always involves the recognition that it is actually impossible for any of us to be alone and isolated, even though we may feel that way sometimes, I think we come to realize, This is a function of my conditioned mind. I’m not alone. I’m not that isolated. That’s not really possible. And then we know that our problems and our sorrows are the shared sorrows of all of us. It becomes impossible for us to feel sorry for ourselves in our misfortune, because we know that we are completely at one with everyone, through the very misfortune. Because of that, compassion arises side by side with whatever anguish we have. So we might still have a lot of tears, but that’s okay, because these are not the tears of isolation, failure, anguish. They are tears of belonging.
Marilyn has been gone away for a year. She came to see me today, and she said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever left anywhere and I feel awful. I’m crying. I don’t want to go back. I feel homesick already and I haven’t even left yet.” I said, “That’s great, Marilyn! What a wonderful thing. You have found people that you love. You’ve found a situation that you really feel at home in. And those tears are great tears.”
So I think that ritual, then, is essentially strong emotion. We feel strong emotions in ritual. We feel the feeling of the human condition in all of its dimensions. We can feel many things in daily service. We can feel the joy in a marriage ceremony, the sorrow at a funeral – a whole range of human emotions is evoked by ritual.