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Some Reflections on Ritual in Zen – Tony Shinro Doubleday Sensei

East Barn Zendo exists so that people may come together to practise zazen (meditation) in the Zen Buddhist tradition promulgated by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995). For this reason, the zendo (meditation room) has a Buddhist altar as its focus, towards which we bow and chant. Some people are disconcerted by the idea that in Zen we practise ritual as well as meditation. On this page I set out to try to explain the purpose and value of ritual, as I see it, and hopefully to reassure those people who do find the idea of it challenging.

Whenever we try anything new, we inevitably have some preconceptions. A common one (which, to be fair, certain books encourage) is that Zen is irreligious and iconoclastic, and therefore ritual has no place in it. Dennis Genpo Merzel, one of my own teachers, once related how, not long after he first began Zen practice at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, he was working with Maezumi Roshi in the garden when Roshi asked him how he was finding Zen practice. Boldly, Genpo replied that he didn’t like all the bowing and chanting, because they weren’t the true Zen. “What do you know of true Zen?” Maezumi Roshi demanded to know. Genpo held up his hoe, shook it at the Maezumi Roshi, and shouted, “Just this!” – an impressive performance! Nevertheless, Roshi replied: “Your Dharma eye is not fully open!”

Another early American Zen teacher had a story about his own amazement, when as a beginner, he saw his Japanese teacher bow to a Buddha image. Explaining that he’d understood a Zen master would sooner spit at a Buddha image than bow, he was told that he could spit if he wished, but his teacher preferred to bow!

Both of these stories illustrate that when we try to split Zen practice into discrete parts so that zazen is separated from its associated ceremonies, services and rituals (euphemistically known as ‘form’ in the StoneWater Zen Sangha to which I belong), we end up with only half of the picture.

Making the distinction between zazen and ritual can be attractive, because newcomers to Zen practice, as well as some ‘older hands,’ struggle with the ceremonial trappings and ritualised activities. Even in a small zendo, these govern when and how to sit in zazen; how to stand, bow and walk; what and how to chant, and how and when to strike which bells, clappers or drums! There are many reasons why people struggle with these things; and they are no sooner distinguished from zazen than it’s assumed they cost nothing to omit altogether – disregarding ritual as an irrelevant cultural appropriation.

It’s not a surprise if distrust of organised religion in general disinclines many people from embracing ritual in Zen. If zazen can be understood as a rational, secular practice, empirically testable and easy-to-understand as a means to enhance general wellbeing, even the more religiously minded may find bowing to an image of the Buddha difficult, especially if it conflicts with (or reminds them of their rejected) religious beliefs from another faith.

Another consideration is that, even if they’re open-minded about ritual, many people have rather sophisticated responses to anything new. They aren’t necessarily satisfied to be told that some things are done in Zen because… well, because they just are! They may be willing to try something new, provisionally, but before they do, they want an explanation. They prefer to know why it’s necessary, and what it means. More prosaically, even after all their questions have been answered, they may still struggle to warm to Zen ritual, because it’s intricate and difficult to get right. Working within Zen ritual can induce in people an unfamiliar and self-conscious awkwardness, particularly when they’re asked to play a new and leading role, such as jikidō (the time keeper during zazen) or enō (the leader of the chants).

So, taken altogether, there are a number of reasons why people hesitate to practise the ritualistic aspects of Zen. It’s understandable that some people prefer to leave out ritual from their Zen practice, ignoring everything that is not zazen. Some secular versions of Buddhist meditation have narrowed the practice to the act of sitting still, in mindful reflection and investigation. They offer a stripped-back, unstructured method of meditation, which can be very helpful and attractive to many people.

Acknowledging all of that, I want to explore some of the reasons why I believe that the rituals of Zen do contain something of value from which we can learn; why I believe that separating ritual from zazen can be viewed as a misunderstanding of both; and why StoneWater Zen Sangha therefore encourages people to follow a certain ceremonial style. I do this under four sub headings.

The first section is the transcription of a talk given Hakuun Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973) to north American Zen students, at some time in the 1960s. It was translated into English by Eido Tai Shimano Roshi & Robert Chotan Aitken Roshi, and afterwards adapted in minor respects for sense. Yasutani Roshi presented a Japanese Zen Master’s perspective on the reasons why 20th- century American Zen students should continue to perform the ancient rituals, as he taught them. I think it’s fair to say that Yasuntani took a conservative view of the ceremonies of Zen. Apparently, he fell out with his student, Philip Kapleau (the author of, The Three Pillars of Zen), over changes to certain ceremonies made by Kapleau to make them more accessible to a North American audience (for example, he translated the Heart Sūtra into English: see Robert H. Sharf: Sanbokyodan Zen and the Way of the New Religions, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 1995). Therefore, under the first sub heading a traditional explanation of the importance of chanting sūtras is presented.

In the second part, I consider whether a distinction made between zazen and ritual withstands scrutiny, using Zazen as an Enactment Ritual, by Taigen Dan Leighton, which article appeared in Zen Rituals: Studies of Zen Theory in Practice, edited by Steven Heine and Dale Wright (Oxford University Press, 2006). Leighton argues that zazen is itself a ritual of enactment of the Buddha’s realisation, which I think rather undermines the distinction of zazen from other forms of Zen ritual. If the distinction is sustainable, it is so only for reasons unrelated to Zen practice itself.

In the third and arguably most important section, I highlight the everyday importance of rituals for giving context and meaning to our lives, and also offering us the possibility of growth and transformation. If you are skim-reading this page, I urge you to read section 3 carefully! I draw on ideas about the value of ritual in On Relationships: Confucius and As-if Rituals, which is published as chapter 3 of The Path; A New Way To Think About Everything by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh (2017). Puett and Gross-Loh explain Confucian thinking by referring to the work of Hans Vaihinger in The Philosophy of “As If”; A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind (1935). The point I want to bring out is that, whether we recognise it or not, our lives are replete with little rituals that enable us to relate to one another and explore different ways of being in the world. As Maezumi Roshi said:

“To understand one’s own self, we definitely cannot live without tradition and without culture. Even if we protest against these things, still we are in them. We are under certain influences one way or another. (In the practice) there is an effort made to find new value in what we have inherited, in accordance with the life we are living.”

Following the reasoning of ‘as-if’ rituals, Zen ritual can make sense to us as our conscious choice to perform certain kinds of ritual in order to bring about particular kinds of self-cultivation in our relationships with others.

Finally, in the fourth section, I discuss the significance of choosing to participate in ritual wholeheartedly, rather than reluctantly.

1. Why We Recite Sūtras by Hakuun Yasutani Roshi

There are three reasons why we recite sūtras. First, we recite them to make an offering to the Buddhist ancestors; second, to create a noble relationship with all beings; third, to unite these first two actions with our Buddhist training.

The first reason, to make a sincere offering to the Buddhist ancestors, is a natural expression of gratitude for the opportunity to hear, to believe, to learn and to realize Buddhist teaching. Our action in erecting a Buddhist image and offering incense, flowers, candlelight and deep bows is such an expression. The greatest delight for Buddhist ancestors is for their followers to respect, to maintain and to spread the teaching. Therefore, we sit before an image and recite with sincerity the sūtras that they composed. In this way, our sūtra recitation is the expression of our gratitude to them.

Second, Buddhist followers want to have others know about, believe and realize the noble teaching of the Buddha. In order to do this, we must read sūtras as often as possible. It is necessary and important to do this to establish a relationship with many people. You may ask why, then, we may read sūtras alone or before a dead person? Such a recitation has value, and I will explain it to you.

We recite sūtras before others as an education of their subconscious minds. On the surface, it may seem that the effectiveness of teaching is limited by the extent of their understanding. So, it may be thought, if we read difficult sūtras they will have no effect. However, only people who do not understand the power and subtlety of the subconscious hold such an opinion. If you have studied only a little about the subconscious, you will know that even though you do not grasp meaning with your conscious mind, you may understand very clearly with your subconscious. If you do not get any conscious impression, you may already have a subconscious impression. Moreover, you will know, if you have studied the matter, that our conscious mind is influenced by our subconscious; indeed, that our subconscious operates with absolute control over our character. Reading sūtras alone in a mountain temple is announcing Buddha’s teaching to the entire world, to the entire universe. For our conscious minds, we need a radio station and a radio. However, on the subconscious level all people in this world and all life in this universe receive perfectly the sūtras recited by one person in a mountain temple, and they accept completely the doctrines of Buddhism. Moreover, if you know the grandeur and subtlety of the thinking process, you will realize that just thinking the sūtras without using the voice has a great influence upon the people of the world. Thus, whether or not others can see or hear, whether they are alive or long dead, if we recite sūtras time and again with a great conviction to the visible and invisible worlds, we permeate everywhere and guide many to Buddhism, saving all beings. Therefore, the recitation of sūtras is very meaningful work.

I presume that you understand that the first two elements of sūtra recitation are elements of Buddhist training. But I want to emphasize this point that there is a great difference in effectiveness in both elements according to the way you recite the sūtras – with great energy and single-mindedness, or half-heartedly. This third element is this: if you recite sūtras with great energy and single-mindedness frequently, then your own samādhi-power will be strengthened and you will be closer to awakening. Or, if you have already had some degree of awakening, it will shine more brilliantly in your character and act more effectively in your everyday life. The most important attitude in reciting sūtras is to recite with your whole heart. Then there will be no difference between zazen and your recitation.

2. Zazen Is Not Differentiable From Ritual

​In his Recommendation for the Practice of Zazen (Fukanzazengi), Eihei Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253) said, “Have no designs on becoming a Buddha”. In Zazenshin he said, “…[T]here is a practice of a Buddha that does not seek to make a Buddha. Since the practice of a Buddha is not to make a Buddha, it is the realization of the kōan”. In other words, as Taigen Dan Leighton points out, when Dōgen presented the bare awareness meditation practice known as zazen or shikantaza (sitting Zen, or just sitting) to his students, as the foundation of Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhism, he did so on the basis that to sit down and take up the posture of zazen fundamentally enacts the Buddha’s complete realisation, as embodied by our own meditation practice. In other words, if we follow his recommendation for the practice of zazen, we inherently embody, or ritually enact, Buddhahood. It is not a matter of sitting down in order to eventually awaken to Buddha’s understanding at some future date. By ritually taking the posture of meditation we already enact it. In this light, from the perspective of Sōtō Zen’s founder, it would make little sense to argue for a distinction between zazen and ritual, because zazen is a ritual. Zazen, as both the practice and the realization of Zen, reflects an outlook in which the goal of the teaching is inseparable from its content. Therefore, there’s no sharp distinction between theory and practice; and nor could there be any, I suggest, between zazen and ritual.

Leighton says that the physical enactment of Buddha mind within the ritual of zazen originates in the esoteric or tantric (vajrayāna or mikkyō) background of Shingon and Tendai Buddhism, which precede the advent of Zen in Japan. According to these traditions, our bodily postures (mudrā), speech (the sūtra, mantra and dharani that we chant), and our thought or creative imagery (artistic, symbolic and metaphorical – such as the altars we set up) are themselves expressions of ultimate reality, which is impermanent, insubstantial, and contingent, or in different words, empty, without gain or loss, and pure. The triad of body, speech and thought are the sanmitsu, or three secrets, in esoteric Buddhism. Buddha Nature is given expression by deliberate performative enactment through the body, speech and creative thought. In this context, zazen is not an isolated and exceptional instantiation of the unification of theory and practice. The realisation of Buddha Nature is enacted within any performative activity. For this reason, it is recorded in the Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (Denkoroku) that the sixtieth ancestor, Tettsu Gikai, was able to say to the fifty-ninth ancestor, Koun Ejō, that, “Dignified actions are the true Buddha Dharma; other than the dignified decorum in raising our arms and moving our legs there could be no profound Buddha Nature.” Zen ritual is therefore as much the practice-realisation of the essence of Buddhism, as is zazen. The two are no different in this respect.

So saying, we do not need to slavishly adhere to forms of practice passed down to us by our predecessors, nor unthinkingly accept all aspects of Zen practice as we inherit them. Philip Kapleau did not err in translating the Heart Sūtra into English if by doing so he enabled his students to better understand what they were doing. Dōgen Zenji did not lose to sight the importance of realisation. In Zazenshin, he said, “More than a carved dragon we should love the real dragon.” However, it does not follow that we should therefore eschew or external forms of Buddhism and iconoclastically smash our idols, like Cromwell’s soldiers. Alluding to the tale of a Chinese artist, so skilled at fashioning carved dragons that his sculptures could summon up clouds and rain (as a real dragon was supposed to do), he added, “We should learn that the carved dragon and the real dragon both possess the potency of clouds and rain.” In other words, just as the Buddha Nature is without form, a carved dragon fully embodies a real dragon; and, in the same way, a Buddha on the altar fully embodies the Buddha Nature of the Buddha and the ancestors. It follows that, by bowing to the Buddha on the altar we genuinely are bowing to the realised Buddha mind, which it enacts; just as when sitting in zazen which really do enact the practice-realisation of the Buddhas.

3. The Transformative Power of Ritual

Visiting a zendō for the first time, and witnessing people bowing and chanting together in response to various signals given by officiants with bells and drums, it’s not uncommon for newcomers to remark the harmonious and aesthetic effect of the ceremony. Even as they understand very little about it, they nevertheless sometimes intuit that something is different. In this section, I would like share some reflections on why that might happen.

Referring to the importance of relationship and ritual in Confucian practices, Puett and Gross-Loh explain that ancient sages reimagined their world by stepping outside everyday life into a world empowered by ritual. The transformative effect of their rituals had the effect of making participants feel differently and better in some way, as human beings.

Confucianism analysed life as being a succession of often unconnected, disparate encounters, interactions and relationships, managed, more or less, through habituated patterns of conscious and unconscious behaviour. We can recognise how this works if we notice, for example, that certain relationships tend to make us happier, whereas others tend to make us unhappy. The repeated experience of various relationships begins to pattern our behavioural responses into habits, so that we gradually become less and less in conscious control of our reactions to changing situations. In light of this tendency, Confucian sages saw great value in ritual as a potent means to refine and cultivate new responses to changing relationships, situations and encounters, because it was easier within a ritual to step back from unconscious reactivity and learn better ways to behaving towards others.

The continuity of consciously repeated engagement in a ritualistic practice offered people a means to cultivate and appreciate their lives. Ritual created bonds between people based around refined and out-of-the-ordinary kinds of inter-relationship, which broke down their habitual patterns of behaviour. Rituals were transformative for Confucians, because in their performance participants were able to become different people for a time. The efficacy of the transformation brought about by ritual did not depend on whether a given ritual contained any literal truth (for example, about the presence of the spirits of the deceased) but rather upon whether the ritual was performed as if it were true. Confucius said, “If I’m not there at my own ancestral sacrifice, it’s as if there were no sacrifice at all.” (Analects III.12; trans. Hinton). In other words, he sacrificed to the dead, as if they were present. He sacrificed to the spirits, as if the spirits were present. If he didn’t do that, then, for him, it was as he hadn’t sacrificed at all. What mattered to him was participating fully, which in Buddhism would be participating with body, speech and thought.

When performed well, Confucian rituals removed participants from the everyday world and created a ritualised space in which ideal relationships could be forged. Confucius saw the value of ritual in its expression, rather than its content. It benefited the living people performing it, when they did so as if it mattered to them. To have stood away and asked whether the spirits were actually present would have missed the point. If, during a ceremony, the relationships between the participants changed for the better, or if there was a change in their feeling for a deceased parent, then, for a time at least, the ritual would have achieved its purpose, by healing or ameliorating some friction in the life-experiences of those involved.

It was because these changes would only have lasted for as long as the power of the ceremony continued to have an effect on the participants that ritual had to be repeated regularly. Better general relationships were gradually imbued as the participants in a ceremony performed it more often. Learning and performing a ritual repeatedly brought people closer together in a mutually respectful way, which was unconstrained by the everyday, habitual ways they would otherwise have behaved towards each other. Moreover, because ritual represented a break from the everyday and an entry into a different realm of ritual space, participants could see themselves more clearly, and work on their relationships in a different light. The power of ritual lay in how distinctive it was from the everyday. The break with the everyday was what gave participants in ritual the freedom to respond differently and find new ways of relating.

Puett and Gross-Loh argue that ritual is a kind of make believe, a form of play, or an art form that people tend to forget as they grow out of childhood. When children play, they consciously pretend and lose themselves in alternate realities, exploring imagined and different sides of themselves, and finding new and creative ways of being in the world that enrich them, as they develop their personalities and enhance their relationships in everyday life. Confucian ritual was a cultivated form of play or performance art that could have the same effect on adults as play does on children.

The rituals of Zen practice are capable of working in precisely the way that Confucius envisaged ritual to work. If Zen ritual feels strange and contrived to us, that very strangeness confers an opportunity to consciously examine and change the everyday patterns of behaviour we unthinkingly follow most of the time. If we bow to a cushion before we sit down to meditate as if we are genuinely grateful for the opportunity to sit on it, we allow ourselves the ritual space in which to acknowledge the circumstances that enable us to sit quietly in zazen. In Zen ritual, we create the space to really appreciate life itself. With continued practice of ritual we remove ourselves from an attitude of entitled consumption to one of gratitude for all that enlivens and enriches our lives together. If, on the other hand, we bow uncaringly and disaffectedly to a cushion, merely because it’s there and that’s what we’re told we have to do, we learn nothing from doing so. Meaningless, rote exercise does not help us. Bowing as if we are genuinely grateful does – even if, and perhaps especially because, it feels artificial.

Puett and Gros-Loh say: “Our patterned behaviours and rote habits – not rituals – are what really dictate our lives and get in the way of our caring for other people. But through life spent doing as-if rituals that break these patterns, we gain the ability to sense how to be good to those around us.” Paradoxically, we are not, as we might sometimes suppose, stuck in conditioned behaviours when we submit ourselves to a set of Zen rituals. Rather, we are stuck in our conditioning when we decline to practise wholeheartedly and prefer to remain in our unexamined ways of relating to others and the world around us. To deliberately engage in ritual is not to behave like an automaton. On the contrary, it can bring about a recognition of how many of our everyday, unexamined patterns of behaviour truly are the places where we act like automatons. By creating an ‘as if’ realm of ritual in which new and different roles and behaviours are possible, the habitual patterns of behaviour into which we unthinkingly fall break up and develop into better, more creative and refined ways of behaving.

4. Practising Ritual Wholeheartedly

If we’re to perform ritual as if it’s true then we will need to do it wholeheartedly, which is to say, with body, speech and thought. Whenever anything is done wholeheartedly, the whole self is engaged in it. When the whole self is engaged in activity, we participate selflessly, because no part of us is left out from the activity. Dogen Zenji called wholehearted activity ichigyo zanmai, by which he meant that everything that we are is brought together in one, unified action or expression of ourselves. When an activity is unified within its wholehearted expression, it is experientially the only thing which is happening in the moment it is given expression. In this sense it is therefore transcendental or irreducibly absolute, because, being unified, it transforms the everyday, relative, fractured experience of self and other into a self-fulfilling expression of everything, as it is, in a single moment of unified action.

Exercised unreflectively and habitually, the activities of body, speech and thought generate karma and mire us in the web of defiled dualistic thinking and conditioned behaviour. Body, speech and mind are ambivalent agents. They are gateways to both enlightened and deluded activity. In the Sōtõ Zen tradition, we acknowledge the nature of body, speech and thought by chanting a verse called The Verse of Atonement. The karma for which we accept responsibility in that verse is that:

‘… born of … body, mouth and thought’.

Yet we atone for that karmic defilement using body, speech and thought. When chanted wholeheartedly, which is to say, as if we mean it, the Verse of Atonement becomes a ritual in which the purpose and content of the teaching combine, and we create a space of clarity to reflect upon and transform our habitual patterns of behaviour within a Buddhist ritual.

In terms of wider practice, to put things simply, we could say that the role of the body, understood as mudra (or symbolic signs), is to bring the hands together in gasshō and bow, or to adopt the posture of meditation; understood as speech it is to chant sūtra, mantra or dharani, or to remain slient in zazen; and understood as thought, it is to concentrate on the sūtra, mantra or dharani or the practice of dhyana (the use of meditative technique, which transliterates as Zen, in Japan) in zazen.

Considered generally, we could also say that our lives move continuously through all three mysteries of body, speech and thought; and that body, speech and mind are inseparable components of who we are and what we do. The founder of the Shingon Sect, Kobo Daishi, said that the three mysteries are the indispensable means to the attainment of Buddhahood in this very body, because they are available to us through what he termed the “grace” of the absolute reality, which centuries later Dōgen Zenji would identify as the wholehearted activity of ichigyo zanmai.

For there to be enlightenment, there must be practice; and if enlightenment is to have expression, it must be in embodied activity. Therefore, both practice and enlightenment depend on the three mysteries of body, speech and thought. Dōgen Zenji saw practice and enlightenment as indispensable to one another. In other words, for him, practice, as the activity of body, speech and thought, was the day-by-day realisation of the mind of Buddha. He called this shinjindatsuraku – body and mind fallen away – which means that enlightened activity is engagement in activity with unselfconscious ease. By unselfconscious ease he meant wholeheartedly relating through the activities of body, speech and mind. The forms of Zen ritual give us a ritual framework to engage wholeheartedly, through body, speech and thought, in activities that we recognise as embodying and enacting the Buddha Way.

I think, for the reasons I have set out on this page, that there is a value to Zen ritual that’s worthy of careful attention, and for those reasons I would say that it is a mistake to treat ritual as an optional extra in our Zen practice together.