Those who are new to Zen often think that the orchestrated behaviors observed in the zendo, or meditation hall, seem somewhat rigid or militaristic. However, as you become familiar with these routines, you will begin to see them for what they really are: a system that has been designed over several centuries to maximize harmony, grace, and intimacy. Sometimes referred to as “zendo etiquette,” our procedures free us of distractions and allow us to delve deeply into practice with one another.
What follows below is an explanation of the routines we generally follow at Great Wave for our weekly meditation sessions.
Entering the Zendo
Please arrive at least five minutes early to any meditation session. You should also dress in a way that does not draw attention. We suggest modest, loose fitting, dark (preferably black) clothes. Do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts. Also, please avoid conspicuous jewelry, perfumes, or colognes.
You should also observe silence in the zendo at all times unless a senior practitioner or teacher needs to talk to you.
Just outside the zendo (a space called the gaitan) hold your hands in gassho and bow at the waist. Next, hold your hands in shashu and walk along the front edge of the sitting mats or zabuton to an empty seat. Move the zafu to the rear of the zabuton, then bow toward it with hands in gassho. Turn clockwise, and bow across the hall to the person (or unoccupied seat as the case may be). Sit down on your zafu in seated meditation posture.
Correct Sitting Posture
Sit on the front third of the zafu with your knees touching the zabuton mat. Make sure you are not sitting on your tailbone but on your “sitting bones.” The top of your pelvis should be tipped slightly forward so that your lower (lumbar) spine is curved. Place your legs in one of the lotus postures. Your chest should be out, your shoulders relaxed. Now tuck in your chin a bit, and straighten your back by imagining you are pressing the ceiling up with the crown of your head. You should not be straining in any part of your body.
Now lightly press your tongue against the upper palate of your mouth.
Your right hand should be placed palm up in your lap. The fingers of your left hand (also palm up), should rest upon the fingers of the right, while the tips of your thumbs lightly touch one other, forming an oval. This mudra is known as the dhyana, or meditation, mudra.
Your whole body should now be in a very stable pyramid-like form. Look straight ahead, and then lower your gaze to a spot about four to six feet in front of you. Let your gaze go out of focus so that you are seeing, but not looking at, the floor. Draw in a deep “clearing breath” through your nose and slowly release it out of your mouth. After that, just breathe normally and naturally through your nose.
Sitting in one of the traditional lotus postures is recommended because it is very stable. However, practitioners at GWZS are also allowed to sit in seiza (on the shins) or, when it’s necessary on provided chairs. If you use a chair, place it directly on the zabuton.
First Period of Zazen, or Seated Meditation
A bell is sounded three times to signal the beginning of the first meditation period, which lasts approximately 25 minutes.
Most people who are new to Zen engage in a meditation practice known as “counting the breaths.” It is an excellent practice for developing single-minded concentration, a necessary skill for introspection. To do this, count “one” to yourself on your first inhalation. Count “two” on your first exhalation. Count “three” on the following inhalation, and “four” on the exhalation. Continue counting your breaths until you reach “ten,” then start over at “one.”
You will undoubtedly experience distractions as you try to do this. However, do not feel bad or criticize yourself if you forget to count, or if you count past “ten,” or if you manage to continue to count while simultaneously thinking about something else. As soon as you recognize that you have lost your concentration, gently direct your attention back to counting your breaths. Keep in mind that even very experienced practitioners do not concentrate with perfect uniformity. Keep in mind too that meditation is the practice of meditation. In other words, simply trying to meditate is itself the practice of meditation. As long as you sincerely try to keep your mind focused and clear, you will develop your concentration power and derive a sense of calm and centeredness that lasts all day.
The end of the seated meditation period is signaled by two rings of the bell. Upon hearing this signal, bow in gassho, and then slowly stand up, taking care not to lose your balance, particularly if your feet feel numb. (Wait, if necessary, for feeling to return to your legs before standing up, no matter what anyone else is doing.) Once standing, bow toward your seat, then turn clockwise and stand facing away from your seat with hands in gassho.
Walking Meditation or Kinhin
To signal the beginning of kinhim, the jikido (time-keeper) will strike the woodblocks. On this signal, make a standing bow, and then turn 45 degrees to your own left. You will immediately hear a second clap of the woodblocks. This is your signal to change your hand position from gassho to shashu. (Shashu is generally used whenever standing or moving about the zendo.)
Begin to walk very slowly, left foot first, taking small half-steps. This slow walking meditation will continue for about seven minutes. You may either continue to concentrate on your breath as you walk or you may focus single-mindedly on the activity of walking.
After a time, you will hear another clap of the woodblocks. On this signal, draw your feet together, make a quick bow with hands still in shashu, and then start walking again with your left foot first. This time, hwoever, walk at a normal or somewhat faster pace.
It is during kinhin when, if necessary, you may bow and leave the zendo to use the bathroom. When returning to the zendo, look for your place in the kinhin line, make a quick bow with hands in gassho, and enter the line, continuing to walk around the zendo with hands in shashu. As you walk, focus your mind exclusively on the activity of walking.
You will soon hear a fourth and final clap of the woodblocks. On this signal, place your hands in gassho but continue walking until you arrive at your seat. As soon as you arrive at your seat, turn toward it, and bow to it. Then turn clockwise, and with hands still in gassho, wait until you hear a ring of the bell. On this ring, bow at the waist, and then sit down.
Second Period of Zazen, or Seated Meditation
Adopt your meditation posture as before. The beginning of the second meditation period will once again be signaled with three rings of the bell.
At the end of the second period, the bell will be struck once, then suddenly damped with the striker, then struck again. This is the signal to begin chanting the Four Bodhisattva Vows. The Vows are slowly chanted in a monotone three times with hands in gassho.
The vows are as follows:
Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.
Fudosampai, or Three Bows
After the vows have been chanted, you will hear two rings of the small, hand-held inkin bell. This will be your cue to stand up and take a position toward the back (the wall-end) of your zabuton in preparation for making full bows, or prostrations. (You will need to move your zafu off to the side to stand in the right place.) Hold your hands in gassho.
You will hear a series of slowly accelerating rings of the inkin while the officiant places the bowing mat before the altar. When the officiant is read, the inkin will be struck with a distinct, single ring. On this cue, bend slightly at the waist as though you were going to make a standing bow, then go down on your knees. Bend forward now until your forehead touches the zabuton or floor, holding your hands palm up beside your head. Gently raise your hands up above the level of your ears, being careful to keep your palms parallel to the floor. Then lower your hands back down to the floor again. Raise your torso and then stand up with hands in gassho. You will repeat this full bow two more times. Each bow is signaled by a distinct ring on the bell.
After the three bows, you will hear another ring which is your signal to make a standing bow with hands in gassho toward the altar. Next, a second ring signals everyone to bow to the officiant. And finally, on the last ring of the bell, place your hands in shashu and make a bow toward the person directly across the hall from your seat.
Exiting the Zendo
After the officiant has left the zendo, kneel in front of your zabuton and brush it free of lint, dust, hair, etc. Then brush off and plump up your zafu, taking care to place it in the very center of the zabuton.
Now leave the zendo, walking along the front edge of the zabutons with your hands in shashu position, just as you did when you entered. (You do not have to wait for others who may still be cleaning up their cushions.) When you reach the doorway to the zendo, turn clockwise 180 degrees and make a standing bow toward the altar with hands in gassho. You may now return to the gaitan, put on your shoes, and leave.
It’s a Lot to Remember
You will probably be unable to remember all the foregoing details on your first several visits to Great Wave. That is fine. Forgetting one or more details of zendo etiquette is not a sin, and no one will be offended if you forget something. Just do your best, discretely observe what seasoned practitioners do, and ask plenty of questions outside the zendo when the time is right. We also encourage you to participate in an Introduction to Zen workshop. This workshop, as well as regular attendance at weekly sittings, will help you internalize the beautiful flow and rhythm of our practice.