The use of ritual
The rituals we use in Zen are ancient. Some of them hark back a thousand years or more. They are designed to deepen our experience. As they originate from ancient China and Japan they may seem strange at first. However, they have their own beauty and wonder, and often express vividly what cannot be expressed in words.
Getting it right
Please don't worry about getting it right. Just follow along and enjoy the flavour of Zen. Some of the rituals will seem strange to you. As Westerners we are often resistant to things we do not understand. This information will help answer some of your questions. As you continue your Zen training, you will find many opportunities to bring up questions about aspects of Zen ritual that you find puzzling.
Zendo: Place where the way of Zen is practised
Gassho: Bowing - a practice of gratitude
Mudra: Hand gesture/ position
Kinhin: Walking meditation
Sangha: Community of Practitioners
Zazen: Sitting meditation
Jikki Jitsu: Timekeeper - uses bell and clappers, and leads kinhin
Ino: Chant leader
These are the Rituals we generally practice in Zendos throughout New Zealand. Although they will be correct at any Zendo, some Zendos will include other rituals.
1. Entering the Zendo
Gassho (bow) with hands palm to palm in the direction of the altar, on entering and leaving the Zendo (but not during Kinhin - walking meditation). This is our bow of gratitude to the Buddha - the enlightened mind that includes all beings.
During sitting, and in retreats, we practice silence - so that we can truly listen with our whole body and mind. But do not fear the need to cough or sneeze...
2. Standing in the Zendo
Hold your hands in the kinhin mudra with your right hand making a fist with thumb inside - place it against your belly, covered with your open left hand.
Before sitting down, gassho (bow) to your cushion. This is your bow to the Dharma (teachings) in gratitude to all teachers passed, present, and future.
Turn around and gassho across the Zendo. This is to the Sangha: The community of practitioners past, present, and future.
Sit in readiness.
4. Zazen: Seated meditation
Starts with 3 rings of the bell. We sit for 25 minutes.
Ends with 2 rings of the bell if kinhin is to follow and one ring of the bell if zazen is finished. Acknowledge this signal with a seated gassho - then stand up.
5. Kinhin: Walking meditation
Starts with the Jikki Jitsu (timekeeper) striking the clappers once. Gassho - and with your hands in the kinhin mudra (right hand making a fist with thumb inside), turn to your left and follow out.
The Jikki (timekeeper) signals the end of kinhin with clappers - gassho and walk quickly to your cushion.
Gassho with the Jikki Jitsu, gassho to cushion - and sit.
NB. We do not need to gassho on entering and leaving the Zendo during kinhin.
NB. Kinhin is the time for toilet stops, leaving early, or joining late. Just rejoin kinhin with a gassho.
6. Finishing a round of Zazen
Finishes with 1 ring - gassho with the Jikki Jitsu.
Chanting the sutras (ancient text) is an ancient tradition. When you chant, allow yourself to experience the chanting itself without grasping for the meaning of the words. Chant with your whole body and mind.
When we chant the Four Great Vows, holding our hands in gassho, we join our ancestors in the Dharma.
The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them.
Dharma-gates are countless, I vow to wake to them.
Buddha's way is unsurpassed, I vow to embody it fully.
N.B. Please hold the sutra book at eye height with the thumbs and little finger inside the book.
8. Three full prostration's
These are bows in deep gratitude. We bow in full prostration in the direction of the altar. These bows allow us to relinquish our small, restricted sense of self, and invite us to offer ourselves to the universe.
Watch those around you - and don't worry if it seems strange at first.
After the full prostration's, we stand in front of our mat and gassho.
You are then asked to tidy your place.
Finally bow directly forward with your hands in the kinhin mudra.
Don't worry - don't try and learn all this - come back when you need. Don't be afraid to ask.
In Sesshin, and contemporary retreats, there are other rituals to do with meals, work practice, dokusan, etc. These will be explained at the beginning of a retreat.