I remember so well the first time I stepped into the zendo at Green Gulch Farm Zen Centre. It was beautiful, mysterious and confusing all at the same time. Even though I had been meditating on my own for several years, this was my first time at a large meditation hall, or sitting with more than a handful of people. The Sunday morning crowd for zazen was gathering and there was a great deal of bowing, ritual and arranging of cushions just so. All this was done in complete silence. The formality of it all reminded me a bit too much of attending church as a child and that made me wary. My initial interest in Buddhism was due to it’s lack of dogmatic thinking and casual acceptance of differences. I was happy just to sit on my cushion and be one with all.
Luckily, the beauty and mystery of the zendo won out over my initial apprehension. As I attended each Sunday I began to learn the meaning behind the bowing and ritual. Each time we put our hands together in prayer position (in Zen this is called “gassho”) our attention is drawn to our fingertips. Focusing the mind on this point we bow at the thresh hold of the meditation hall. This is a way to say ‘thank you’ for this chance to practice in this peaceful place, but also to begin drawing our attention inward. Passing in front of the Buddha statue we again place our hands in gassho to bow in honour of our teacher and focus our mind on our fingertips again. We slowly and deliberately walk to a place at the wall and notice a zafu and zabutan that will serve our purpose. We bow to our cushion and then turn to bow to the entire hall. The cushion is our seat for enlightenment, and although we sit alone, we also sit together. By bowing to the entire hall we acknowledge all our fellow students of Buddha.
These are some of the ‘forms’ of mindfulness in Zen Buddhist practice. Like walking meditation they help us move from our everyday lives of multiplexing our concentration on several tasks to bringing our awareness to a single action. By understanding their purpose and performing them with true intention, we prepare ourselves for our meditation practice. Over time, I have found it very helpful to bring these forms into my home practice. I don’t have a meditation hall or even a dedicated room for my practice but the repetition of these forms brings my mind back to a time when I was entering a beautiful and mysterious place. Maybe this is what is meant by ‘entering the dharma gate’. I’ll talk more about that another day…..
I bow to the Buddha in you.
What a great image that evokes. Can you see it? Someone sitting on a cushion, completely serene with their head aflame? For many years I thought this famous Buddhist saying was pointing to the level of physical energy we should bring to our meditation practice. To a certain extent, this is true.
I remember one Vipassana retreat in the middle of summer in South Korea. As we sat, a slow, steady trickle of sweat meandered down my spine and my forehead. Any sound of a breeze outside the hall was an immediate distraction as you willed it to enter a window near you and caress your skin. Walking meditation was no better. The effort required to continue the slow, minute movement back and forth in the hall stirred no breeze to cool you. Those hours of practice required an enormous amount of physical and mental energy, but also a certainty of purpose and surrender to the experience. Perhaps it was more akin to practicing like a mountain.
On a deeper level to “practice like your hair’s on fire” points to one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy: impermanence. I’ve found that getting really cozy with this subject, that nothing lasts…emotions, physical hardships, ecstasy, and life itself…is a tremendous comfort in moving through difficult times, as well as enriching those moments of bliss. For me, it also creates an enormous gratitude for this life I’ve been given.
There is a very famous example in which the Buddha said that if this whole continent became a huge ocean, and within that ocean you had a yoke floating on the waves and a blind tortoise that popped up once every five hundred years, the chances of obtaining precious human birth would be equal to the chances of that blind tortoise emerging with his head poking through the yoke.
As practitioners, embracing impermanence helps us hone our long-term spiritual goals. What will we do with our time on this earth? Of course, we need to balance our spiritual goals with practical aspects of this life…managing our bills and making sure we have a place to live and food to eat. We also have to meet our responsibilities to our friends and family. But we also need to make our spiritual work a priority. In the Mahayana tradition this is so beautifully outlined as our role as Bodhisattva. As humans, we each have the same potential for enlightenment. To use this lifetime to generate the mind of enlightenment in order to relieve suffering for all beings is the vow of the Bodhisattva. The foundation of living this vow is found in meditation. So, here we are…back at our cushion…is your hair on fire now?
I bow to the Bodhisattva in you.