No Meaning in the Forms

Ok.  I am over it, right?

I know that we’re not in Japan, and I’m glad not to be in Japan.  I understand and appreciate that we have our own ways of practice, and that it is beautiful and essential that we do.  I know that a lot of the pomp of Japanese high ceremony just isn’t appropriate here:  we don’t need all the swoops and swooshes, and we can do fine with about half of the folds and creases.

Beyond that, I know that the forms are fundamentally just something to do.  They are just some place to put a body that needs to be somewhere; they are something to do with a body that needs to do something.  I know that the true form of Zen is just this present activity:  washing or typing or touching.  Like Toni Packer I’ve seen through the veil of religious forms.  They too often intoxicate us with false spirituality, rob us from the actual life that’s always right before us.

So why does it make me so crazy?  Why can’t I just get over it and join wholeheartedly in the newly mandated shashu bow?

Please indulge some slightly technical backstory (ok, back-rant), and then I will get to my point.  As of today (and who knows how long this will last) the form at Green Gulch for entering the zendo – for service, not zazen – is to come to your place, turn to face the altar, bow with the hands in gasshō, face center, and bow in shashu.  I can accept that – it is the “real” form.  My body knows it from Japan, my robes know it.  The fabric, muscle, and bone delight in the deep bow and the graceful quarter pivot, the slight bow – even slightlier answered by the monk standing across.

Furthermore, however, as of today, when we enter the zendo to perform this service-time form, we are no longer to offer a gasshō bow, but instead a shashu bow.  This, to my regret and consternation, causes me great regret and consternation.  I “so willingly reimmersed in American Zen”;  I so “over” the formal bickering of narrow-minded trainees.

Why this one point?  Why would this particular minor detail send me spinning off into “No Zen in the West”?

One story is that to sometimes enter the zendo in gasshō and to other times enter the same zendo in shashu creates a feeling of arbitrariness.  But, you say, the whole damn thing is arbitrary!  Yes.  And no.  The more we import Japanese Zen forms out of their contexts, the more we create a feeling that the Zen forms are arbitrary, when in fact they are efficiencies and elegances and coherencies of worship and respect and practicality.  That you enter the sōdō (for zazen) one way and the hondō (for service) another way is not made up, is not a fabrication but a response to the space and a dance with the environment.  The sōdō is a room set apart, and the hōndō is better described as a temporary widening of a hallway.  In Zen temple layout, the spaces imply a different treatment – not arbitrary but studied, even intuitive.  Architecturally determined. 

(And I understand again the vigor with which some Japanese insist that a temple needs to be built in America.  No matter that there are many Zen temples in the U.S., each replete with dedicated practitioners – what they mean is the roof, the layout.  They mean a physical temple.  If Idaten in the kitchen isn’t geometrically across from Manjushri in the distant sōdō, how could you call it a temple?)

Deeper than my theory about the logic of this particular form, though, is a deep and fragile nostalgia, a feeling about the futility of all of our best quasi-monastic efforts.  All of our sincere attempts to coordinate and perfect our ceremonial forms seem suddenly doomed to be flimsy and out of context. 

For example, to begin our shuso intiation ceremony we follow the ceremonial instruction to strike the wooden han three times.  But what does that mean to us?  It has no context; it’s basically just to make a sound before the ceremony.  But monastic life is all context:  the sequence signifies an arrival, the three hits that announce a new guest, a returning monk.

In a life of monastic observance, each piece fits seamlessly into a whole, a mandala suffused with reference and meaning.  To snip here and there and pull out a piece here and there, as we inevitably do in our semi-formal, part-time Zen, the integrity and the rich texture of each act is broken.  Rather than unify and create layers of meaning, as it would in a monastic context, it implies this arbitrariness, or worse, a mysticism where disembodied bell sequences somehow hold special spiritual power.  The forms are not arbitrary, nor are they supernaturally potent – they are rather the alphabet and language of a whole way of life.

It’s not that I am giving up on the struggle to maintain the life of these ancient Zen forms.  However clumsy and out of context, they do make up the shape and the sound of our American temple life, and they do find their way into our bodies and hearts.  I’m glad that we keep striving to shed some and maintain some of our monastic ceremonial heritage.

But I’m struck tonight with a sadness, a nostalgia, that the three han hits before the shuso enters go from here forward into history as “just how it’s done,” isolated from its matrix of meaning.  Like a dying language, so much is lost.  What will we find to replace it?

Really – what will we find to replace these forms whose syllables are no longer coherent?

In the meantime, shasshu bow it is, as per the latest mandate, and forward to the next complaint…


11 thoughts on “No Meaning in the Forms

  1. Jiryu,

    Thanks for your opening the discussion. I have an interesting relationship to form and to practice. I have a body that limits me in real ways, and I have had to adjust to continually find ways to experience practice. What this continues to teach me and continues to bring me to my knees with is that form serves a purpose, and to honor it is important, but we can’t allow ourselves to think there is “the right way” because as soon as there is a right way, my body will remind me there is just the way I can do it.

    I came to SFZC the first time in 1995. The forms and “culture” of it all chased me away. Zen was not for me. I had enough lessons of what happens mixing culture and spirit from my childhood. In 2003, I realized I had practiced alone and had gone as far as I could, I needed sangha. I found that at SFZC. Yeah, the guy who ran away from form in 1995 picked it up again in 2003. What changed? I realized that practice wasn’t about finding what fit me, but what pushed me to the edge, and made me “take the backward step”. I constantly am forced to ask myself, why does that form bother me? Why does not being able to do that form bother me, why does this limit bother me.. It’s all fodder for the grinding stone.

    Anyway.. that’s enough from me for now.

  2. I’m just as interested watching how Zen here in Ireland develops and the differences there will need to be between it and Zen in America. The mindset of the Japanese and Americans are miles apart but the Irish seem even further out. As Freud said, the Irish are the only race impervious to analysis. I heard one zen teacher say recently we may also be the only race impervious to traditional zen training lol
    Nevertheless we continue to develop based on the SFZC model 🙂

  3. I agree–I remember that it wasn’t until I trained as a Tassajara doan that the bell sequences became meaningful, a language of signals that spoke, guided, or simply alerted one to the ongoing events. It was a revelation and after that service became a richer experience for me–just as learning the names of the stars has brought me closer to the night sky. Before, the bells were background noise, lovely, but in confusion. As I connected each form to part of a language, the ceremonies sharpened in my body and mind. I wish that new practitioners had this opportunity to make those connections sooner, rather than doing things by rote and trusting that eventually the aha will dawn. Some people don’t stay long enough for that to happen organically. I’m probably going off on a tangent, but I feel you…

  4. Jiryu, this is very well-put. I lived at Yokoji monastery in SoCal for a year, where the form was practiced quite rigorously, although probably not in comparison to Japanese temples. When I left the monastery to resume lay practice at the Village Zendo in NYC, it took years to get over a sense that “No one does it right”, or worse, “No one cares.” The form here, probably like everywhere in the West, changes from month to month as the office of liturgy master is handed off from person to person. New practitioners guess at the form and start their own trends that prove viral. I hope we find a stable American form sometime soon; the current state of affairs can be maddening. =)

  5. Hello, Jiryu,
    Congratulations for this text. We struggle with similar issues here in Brazil and I agree wholeheartedly with you. If I understood you correctly, I too would be saddened and shuddering to imagine a shasshu bow to Buddha????? No gassho bow to Buddha??? What informality!
    To me, our Western extreme informality stands for “in-form” = “without-form” = “chaos”. It´s not that there is a magic in a given form, but by following a mutually agreed-upon form, we are called to attention and mindfulness – and required to gain “control” of our actions and minds. Yes, there´s the risk of blindly following “empty form”, so we have to teach the meaning of “form”.
    As you say, the Japanese forms – all those bells and clappers and things – are an incredibly gorgeous choreography, remarkably efficient and full of meaning.
    How to communicate this richness to members of our “more-easy-fast-cheap” consumer culture?

  6. It has been five years since I lived at Tassajara and it’s not that I miss the forms. I don’t. Laylife suits me. It’s more the relationships to the forms that I miss: how passionate people who live at a Zen Center can get about a shasshu bow vs. a gassho bow. And you, Jiryu, you who are so articulate and have stayed for so long within the SFZC system, are so generous to have this blog to bring all of us back into the conversation. I love how much you care for the forms and I remember how much I enjoyed being on the doan-ryo with you!

    I came to feel at the end of my year as Ino that the tradition that we are establishing in the West is that the forms are fluid and that they partly exist to give us something benign to relate to each other about. Instead of sitting down to hash out health care reform or foreign policy in the Middle East, Zen Elders sit down & refine/transform the forms of practice. Then they transmit the changes to the community & the process begins…resist, acquiesce, ignore.

    I don’t think the fluidity (or the lack of historical context) is going to ruin Zen in the West. As long as there is a room, a schedule, a few bows, bells, elder black robed practitioners–I trust that zen will continue to flourish (especially if qigong is added into the mix).

  7. Jiryu, I really appreciate your articulation here. Being half-Chinese, being around Chinese Buddhists in the States and practicing a bit in China, there is a clarity around the forms, a unity, and a depth of meaning that is not separate from the sitting practice – it’s a seamless ceremony. My experience at ZC is that It starts to come together that way during Tassajara practice period but it has to get recreated each season through many Ino announcements – it doesn’t feel like one long unbroken lineage / timeless experience. I don’t know that it interferes with the sense of practice – maybe it’s more the artist in me who longs to feel the beauty of the expression aligning with the authentic hearts of the participants.

    At the same time, I like what Melissa had to say also – that also reflects my experience. We’ll do what humans do around any stimulus. 🙂

  8. I haven’t got so much time to dig into this, but here are a few thoughts.

    It’s probably worth noting that there is nothing comparable in East Asian Buddhism to the American notion of “the forms”. (Saho comes close but that’s still not quite right.) My feeling is that many of the problems that crop up around “the forms” do so because of how we’re approaching the issue. It’s not something intrinsic to the maintenance of Buddhist traditions.

    As long as we continue to see this in terms of being a “Japanese” thing that we’ve got to make fit our Western context, then we will continue to walk down the same dead end road. The vast majority of customs, habits and traditions being maintained in modern Japanese monasteries did not originate in Japan, but are based on a Chinese adaption of Indian monastic practices. Your average Japanese person is no more familiar or comfortable with that way of life than your average American is. Speaking about this in terms of Japanese vs American/Western culture is simply not a useful way of delving into the issue.

    Indeed, it is an “alphabet and language of a whole way of life”. If we can speak of it as a dying language, perhaps it’s only because of neglect. There’s no reason we can’t continue to study this. Aren’t we being a little quick to assert that we have established the way Buddhism in America “is” and act is if it must now run forever parallel with the separate Japanese tradition?

    There’s something disturbing to me about how many American zen students relate to Japan and I think it bears looking at. It’s an odd mix of contempt stemming from a belief that our Buddhism is better because we sit more zazen and insecurity that that might not actually be the case. I think that if any other ethnic group where exposed to as much public derision as I’ve witnessed in American practice centers, then I’m sure that someone would raise concerns about racism. (Mind you, that’s not what I’m saying you’re doing, only that it’s out there.)

    Well, that’s my initial hit. I wish I was 1/10th the writer you are and then perhaps I might have made a better case for myself. I always seem to end up either ranting or picking a fight though.

    I enjoyed your book and I also enjoyed the talk you gave at Santa Cruz some time ago. Take care of yourself and tell Sarah I said hello. I’m off to Hokyoji (to freeze in my kimono) in about a week. ガんばってね!

  9. Forms are not important. It is the way we do them that matters. I have a problem when change takes place. I am old now and any change messes with me a lot. I have an opinion on change of forms, but they are going to continue to change. Changes in relgion are the hardest. How can a person go to hell for a sin committed 10 years ago, and now it’s not so bad. Mainly because it is easier to change and most people want the change. It makes no sense to go to hell for eating a piece of jerky on a Friday anymore.

    Hanging on to forms is not the way. Will changing forms change the basic premis of practice? Where I practice we chant a lot in Japanese. I haven’t a clue to what I am chanting, but I am uncomforatable changing the chants to all English. Why? How can a chant work today and have to be changed to make something better tomorrow? We are chanting in English now because we need to understand what we are chanting. This is better, yes? Maybe.

    Chant in English or some other language, change the words and the meaning. Does it matter? Who can know this?

  10. “We need act only according to the conditions to realize the way. What are the conditions but the many forms themselves? When it’s cold, they’re cold. When it’s hot, they’re hot. There’s no shortage of old and new expedients. Just do what is appropriate to the moment. Don’t rely on either form or non form. Just pay attention and be attentive. Don’t worry about whether it’s the many forms that arise form the one manifest body, or whether the one body arises from the many forms.”

  11. Dear Jiryu,

    thanks for your amazing writings here. I very much agree with a lot of what you say here. Form without the context is arbitrary. So, japanese forms no matter how beautiful and efficient they are in Japan, will always feel arbitrary in the west.
    This in fact touches upon your other post about the lack of young people in Zen. To those who have practiced these forms for years or decades, they indeed do have meaning. The problem is, to the newcomer they can seem senseless. Someone who comes to Buddhism with a burning desire to practice and work with his mind will often not want or even understand why he should first learn such elaborate foreign rituals.
    If we want to practice a living Mahayana, as in “the great vehicle”, we absolutely need to see what is most important: the preservation of a “dying language” or the vibrant transmission of that which this language was pointing at?
    I feel your sadness at seeing the changing of forms that you learned to value. But isn’t one of the first and foremost teachings of Buddhism that everything is always changing? How could the forms that buddhist practice takes be exempt from that?
    In the Karma Kagyu Tradition there is a bodhisattva vow that includes the vow to learn every language in the universe, so that one will be able to teach the Dharma to each in his native language. This is what we need to do! Forms are language. If the old form-language from japan is dying, that just means it was not well suited to the situation it is in here. We will have to find our own language to practice and transmit the Buddha Dharma.

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