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Practice Forms

Entering and Leaving the Zendo

We enter and leave the Zendo only before or after meditation periods. If you arrive after meditation has started, please sit in the back room (next to the bathroom) and enter the Zendo at the end of the meditation period.

When entering the Zendo, we pause briefly at the door and do a standing bow towards the altar. In a standing bow, our hands are held in prayer position (palms together, fingers touching, with the top of our fingers held about even with our nose). We bow from the waist at a 45-degree angle.

After entering the Zendo, we move to an empty seat. (If you pass directly in front of the altar on the way to your seat, you also stop briefly in front of the brown mat on the floor and do a standing bow to the altar.)

Before sitting down at your seat, first arrange your cushion or chair on the black mat. Then bow once toward your cushion or chair, and turn around and bow once to everyone in the room (even if no one else is sitting nearby).

Before a sitting period begins, others facing us and on either side of our seat should return our bows. Once the sitting period formally begins (after three bells are rung), we no longer bow if others enter late, but maintain stillness.

Sitting Meditation

This is the main formal practice in Zen—often referred to as zazen (the Japanese term for silent, seated meditation). The basic meditation practice is taught during the orientation program on Saturday mornings. The length of a sitting period in the Zendo may vary but is typically 30 minutes. The sitting period begins with the sound of wooden clappers to let everyone know it is time to sit. When you hear the clappers, proceed to the Zendo and find a seat.

The sound of three bells indicates that the meditation period has begun. From the moment we take our seat until the sound of the third bell fades, we can move to adjust our posture. After that, we sit in stillness.

During the sitting period, we sit in an upright posture with eyes slightly open and unfocused down on a spot on the floor or wall in front of us. Whether we sit on a chair, a cushion, or a kneeling (seiza) bench, we create a three-pointed foundation with our bodies.

On a chair, both feet are flat on the floor, and the third point of balance is our buttocks. We don’t lean back in the chair, but sit gently upright. On a cushion or bench, our knees are on the mat and our buttocks are on the edge of the cushion, or supported by the bench.

Our hands can be folded in our laps, or rest on our thighs, or held in a mudra with the fingers of the left hand resting in the fingers of the right hand and thumbs lightly touching. This mudra is held with our hands positioned on our stomachs at about belly button level.

We can adapt any of these postures to fit the needs of our bodies, including adding extra cushions to support the knees on a cushion or our backs in a chair.

If we find ourselves slumping or falling asleep, we can silently adjust our posture to sit up straighter, without moving our limbs. If we are uncomfortable, we continue to maintain stillness, bringing awareness to how our body feels. We don’t move, adjust our posture, yawn, sigh, itch, stretch, or look around. If we cough or sneeze involuntarily, we lift our arm, or use a tissue or handkerchief, to cover our nose and mouth.

While complete stillness is what we aim for in sitting, we never sit with serious pain that could cause injury. If we need to adjust our position because of pain, we do a hand bow (our hands are held in prayer position with palms together, fingers touching, and the top of our fingers held about even with our nose, bending forward slightly at the waist) first, change our position as quietly as possible, then bow again, and resume sitting in stillness. We do not leave the Zendo unless there is a physical emergency.

Walking Meditation

When the sitting period ends with the sound of two bells, we do a hand bow while still sitting. We fold over the mat and place our cushions (with the label facing the room) or our folded chair on top. Then we stand up on our mat facing out towards the room.

When the wooden clappers sound, we do a standing bow and turn to turn to our left with our hands in prayer position. At the second sound of the clappers, we do another standing bow, then bring our hands into the walking position, in which the left hand is held in a gentle fist in front of the stomach, with the right hand covering it lightly and the thumb of the right hand resting on top of the left hand. As we begin to walk slowly, our head is held upright with the eyes lowered so we are not making eye contact with others.

We walk in step with our own breath, taking one small step on every exhalation. As we walk we continue to do our regular meditation practice.

When the clappers sound a third time, we begin 'fast' walking. Stay close to the person in front of you, walking quickly and quietly, minimizing the sound of your footfalls.

When the clappers sound a final time, we first raise our hands to bowing position, stay in line, and walk quickly until we reach our seats. Then we pause with our hands in prayer position, facing outwards. When we hear one ring of the bell we bow to each other, bow to our seats, and then sit down for the next period of sitting. (Or we may go out briefly at this time to get chairs or exchange cushions if we need to change how we are sitting.)

During walking practice, we may go to the bathroom or get water to drink at the snack table. When we exit the line, we make a small hand bow as we leave. When we return, we join the line in our original place, if possible. If we return after the final clappers that end walking practice, we wait at the door until everyone has reached their place, and bow with everyone from the doorway, and then enter and take our seats.

Reciting the Practice Principals

After the final sitting period, we recite the practice principals together while sitting in our seats with our hands in prayer position.

Caught in a self-centered dream, only suffering.
Holding to self-centered thoughts, exactly the dream.
Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher.
Being just thing moment, compassion’s way.

Then after a bell we chant:

Time swiftly passes by and with it our only chance.
Each of us must aspire to awaken. Be aware.
Appreciate this precious life.

Bowing

At the end of the final chant, we come to standing and then do three bows together, each begun at the sound of the bell. We have the option of doing standing bows (as explained above) or full prostrations. We do not bow to anything or anyone in particular. We each have an opportunity to discover the 'meaning' of bowing in the process of doing it, avoiding expectations and preconceptions.

To begin a full prostration, we bow with hands in prayer position, and without moving our feet, bring our knees to the mat, steadying ourselves with our hands, if necessary. Next, we bend forward so that our forehead and forearms touch the floor, with hands resting palms up. We then lift our arms from the elbows, so that our hands rise up to ear level and then lower them. Finally, we rise up to standing with our hands ending up in prayer position again. We repeat this process, three times in total, guided by the sound of the bell to begin each bow.

Service

Our service is a short ceremony/ritual that includes recitation of an ancient or contemporary text and a rice offering. It is intended to acknowledge our true nature of wisdom and compassion and recognizes our interconnectedness.

Readings

We read aloud both classic Zen texts and short excerpts from contemporary writings or poems during service and at other times during retreats. When reading in unison, hold the reading booklets with both hands and follow the pace of the reading leader. We 'read with our ears' by listening carefully to others around us in order to harmonize our voices.

Meeting the Teachers (Daisan)

Informally, both teachers are usually around after talks and always happy to meet new people. There are also opportunities for one-on-one discussions (called Daisan and often referred to as practice discussion) during sitting periods and retreats.