Working with Zen forms

In Zen we use the word “forms” referring to practice formalities – things we do together like bowing, posture, liturgy, or meal etiquette. We inherited these formalities from Japanese teachers who brought Zen to America in the 60’s and 70’s. At most Soto Zen practice places, they’ve been modified a bit, but there’s still a strong feeling of patterning after the Japanese way.

These forms seem to have become one of Zen’s signature features. Some Americans find them strange, awkward, quaint, pretentious, alien, or even ridiculous. Others find them intriguing, appealing, even beautiful and profound. But few Americans who have an intimate encounter with Zen fail to notice them or have a point of view about them. Personally, I’ve always loved the Japanese Zen aesthetic. But the way we American Zen practitioners imitate and embody Japanese Zen formalities sometimes feels a bit stilted to me. And I say this as a robe-wearing priest myself.

Some American Zen practice places put a ton of weight on doing forms “just so.” At one extreme, I heard about an American Zen teacher who commented that the “misplacement” of a single object on an altar had effectively ruined an entire elaborate ceremony. At the other end of things, some practice places have such a casual, even careless attitude about forms and formalities that practice can feel half-hearted.

The meaning and impact of the forms we’ve inherited (or just made up) is an interesting lively question for American sanghas that include both priests and lay practitioners. Many wonder: what’s with all the robes? More granularly, when should priests wear their robes? How do people feel about the wearing of robes – their own or others’? What role should such feelings play?

Many Americans come to Zen in retreat from disappointing experiences with the faith traditions in which they were raised. They’re suspicious about organized religions and the structures and accoutrements that come with them. Others (like me) grew up without any religious training at all and imagined Zen to be free from religious rituals and forms. Imagine our surprise!

Our Japanese ancestors brought us the gift of Zen, a tradition and practice whose deep meaning and value we’re just beginning to really understand. So how do we honor this gift we’ve received – including the distinctive formalities – without getting tangled up in slavish, worshipful imitation? How do we know what’s Japanese and what’s Zen, and whether they really can be separated? How do we understand the inner meaning of these practice forms? What’s essential and what can be changed?

I’ve spent time in Japan both as a Zen student and as a tourist and it seems clear that we Americans are never going to “get it right,” if getting it right means matching the way the Japanese embody Zen forms. Whether it’s bowing, chanting, wearing robes, offering incense, doing walking meditation, or just moving around in the zendo, trying to match the Japanese is hopeless and I think pointless. We haven’t grown up hearing and seeing and embodying these forms, so they’re never going to be integrated in our bodies in the same way. And why should they? One source of our sometimes stiff and unnatural way in Zen comes from such efforts to act Japanese. To the extent we try to act Japanese, we also miss assimilating, modifying, and integrating these forms in ways that are deeply compatible with our own culture.

An American friend who’s lived in Japan for decades explained a key difference he sees between Japanese and American cultures: in Japanese culture, form has a higher priority than content, and in American culture, it’s the reverse. It’s not that Japanese don’t care about content or that Americans don’t care about form. It’s a question of priority.

In Japan, there’s one right way to do any given thing. You don’t make it up as you go along. You wait for the light to change before you cross the street, even if there’s no traffic. You take your assigned seat even if the train car’s empty. When serving a customer, you say “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” even if you haven’t. The wrapping of a gift is at least as important as the gift itself.

In America, you improvise. You try a new way. You challenge and test how it’s been done. There’s no one right way to do anything. And if the gift wrapping doesn’t get done, no big deal. It’s the thought that counts.

These are a broad generalizations and there are plenty of exceptions, but it’s an illuminating perspective. For me personally, the most important implication is that we need to find ways to feel and be as natural as we can – to be ourselves – when we’re practicing. Many of us have been practicing Zen for decades, working with the Japanese forms we were taught. At this point, we can begin to trust our instincts, our understanding, and our bodies to shape the forms to our own physical and cultural idioms. This shaping shows up in different ways.

Some sanghas have reduced or eliminated chanting in Japanese and chant only in English. The feeling is that understanding the meaning of what’s being chanted adds to the power and value of the chanting. Some sanghas have modified traditional wording to bring chants into alignment with evolving values. For example, in the sangha where I practice, we’ve changed or eliminated elements in some chants that essentially say our way is the only true way. Some zendos have replaced traditional incense with offerings of dried flowers or water to accommodate practitioners allergic to the smoke. Some priests do not shave their heads, in part because of work or relationship situations. Some sanghas have ceremonies that give all members the opportunity to serve the altar – not just priests – and some have replaced or accompanied traditional Buddha statues on the altar with stones or driftwood. These are only a few examples.

I’m not suggesting we move quickly or radically away from the traditions we’ve inherited. Hewing to traditional forms is one expression of gratitude and respect for our Zen progenitors, and taking up whatever we do with reverence and discipline is a wholesome practice. But we should also remember that at some point each form was simply made up by someone. A bow in and of itself is no more holy than a handshake or a salute; it’s just what we’ve been taught. So after we’ve learned and understood and practiced the traditional forms, we should allow ourselves to experiment with change when and where it fits our distinctive American culture and circumstances.