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…