Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In The Beginner's Mind There Are Many Possibilities

We are still experiencing the New Year boost in attendance; not so much for early morning zazen, but definitely in the afternoons.
I was thinking during this afternoon's period, when I wasn't falling asleep on the cushion, of the tell-tale signs of a new person in the zendo. This is not at all meant to be disparaging, because as I have said before, most of our forms are not self-evident, so there is no reason for people to know them unless they have been shown beforehand. Now, we always encourage people to start with the Saturday morning zazen instruction, so that they are shown beforehand, but of course everyone is free to come whenever they want to and try it out. Maybe this can be a little cut-out-and-keep guide for newer people, and you can check off each one you have successfully mastered.
So the first sign of a new person is if I can hear whispering in the gaitan - this usually means that someone is checking in with the doorwatch about what they should do, and that's a good sign because at least they are concerned about getting it right.
Next is the one that is always the most in my face, bearing in mind where I sit - someone entering the zendo on the right-hand side of the curtain. Again, this is a matter of convention more than anything else, and if you follow the natural line offered by the zabutons in the gaitan, you end up on the right anyway.
Then there is the bow - which should be two steps forward and then a gassho bow to the room. People bow before the threshold, at the threshold, towards the altar - someone even bowed to me today, which was embarrassing. A surprising number of people, even those I think have been around long enough to know better, do a shashu bow instead. Some do not even bow at all.
Hand position is the next clue - the perfect zen student always has their hands in shashu inside the zendo, not in their pockets or swinging at their sides.
Number five, the one that seems to upset most people, the person takes a left turn and walks across in front of the altar. The upset is definitely a conditioned response - if you know it is wrong to do it, it looks bad when someone does. If you don't know, there is no reason why you would worry about it. I have learned to be relaxed about this, though I notice the lurching feeling, which sometimes comes from the doan wanting to run over and grab the person to prevent them from committing this heinous act. I usually grab the doan first, hopefully before they have leapt from their seat.
The one that I do cringe at is the ascent of the tan. New people may or may not do the correct gassho bow to the cushion, a clockwise 180 degree turn and a gassho bow to the room. But instead of sitting back down on the zafu which they have previously pulled towards them so that it is perfectly placed to receive their backside, some people go head on, climb on the tan - feet on the mealboard for good measure, because there is no way to guess what purpose that strip of wood serves, and stand up on the zabuton before sitting back down . This one always looks bad to me, just because the person is towering over everyone else.
Once seated, of course, everyone is swimming in the same ocean of enlightenment...


Tony Head said...

Offered with great respect: If there was a fire in the zendo, would you worry about saving the altar, or the person who ignorantly walked in front of it?

There is love, or a search for love, in a person's willingness to walk hesitantly in the front door of any zendo for the first time. Perhaps focusing on that love could overcome our annoyance at those initial errors and mistakes.

Shundo said...

Great clarifying question Tony.
I have been hoping that this post doesn't read as mean-spirited. I feel much more open to new people making mistakes as ino than when I had just learned the forms myself and wanted to feel superior to those who didn't know them.

By the way, in the Tassajara zendo fire of 1978, everyone got out safely, the Gandhara Buddha shattered in the heat, and then got lovingly pieced back together by experts at the Asian Art Museum, and is still in the new,'temporary', zendo.

Matthew Stibbe said...

As one of your new year newbies, I thought this post was very helpful. You do things a little different here than other groups and despite an orientation at Zen Center and at Green Gulch (long ago), the finer points of zendo etiquette are easy to overlook or forget in the heat of the moment; especially when they are slightly different to what you are used to.

However, my experience is that everyone at SFZC is very gracious in welcoming newcomers and gently pointing them in the right direction. It says a lot for the generosity of spirit there.

However, reading this post and reflecting on my own experience, I wondered whether it might be a good idea to post some more detailed explanations of the etiquette on your website or even as YouTube videos. I wonder whether this might help an infrequent visitor, a guest from another tradition or lineage or someone who has had an orientation but was unsure about some of the details. (Or someone, like me, who falls into all three categories!) It's just a thought but I'm sure lots of people would find it helpful.

Shundo said...

Hi Matthew, thanks for stopping by and for your insights. I think that in the near future, what with the streaming and everything, we will have a video zazen instruction available. I hope the rest of your trip is going well.
I love the idea of entering the zendo being 'the heat of the moment'...I guess I am just too blase and institutionalised to have that feeling, though I guess it happens in unfamiliar ceremonies still. What I notice on those occasions, just as I notice it with everyone who steps into the zendo, is that having the right intention counts for a lot, even if you get it wrong.
One factor I didn't mention in the post was noise - someone silently committing all the mistakes listed is far less disruptive to the zendo than someone who isn't thinking about how noisy they are being...

Chris said...

As one who sits seiza for zazen (sacre-bleu! travestie!) I've often found myself a little self-conscious when I finish my bows and turn back around, mounting the tan like some playground equipment. I try to compensate for this (and did so during my stay at City Center as I was aware what that wood was for) by alighting, knees first, onto the zabuton directly, then re-orienting myself towards the wall and positioning the cushion under my backside between my feet.

I loved reading this piece though. Very kind-hearted, I felt. Though newbies tip the forms, they don't fall over.

Chris said...

By the way I didn't mean to make it seem I was jumping onto the zabuton or anything. I was using the word "to alight" rather loosely. Still doing it one knee at a time, at the same time as I turned from my facing-out bow.

Nowhere to fall, nothing to tip.

Shundo said...

I haven't figured out the most graceful way to carry out this form when one is going to sit in seiza. If anyone else has an ideas, please share them.

sb3day said...

Hi Shundo- I also found this post way more helpful than discouraging. It's a great reflief to be able to read about what to do beforehand so that when I try it, I have an idea of what I'm supposed to be doing (instead of trying to figure it out as I go). I do have a question though: What is the difference between a gassho bow and a shassu bow? (I promise not to bow either of them AT you...)

Shundo said...

Hello sb3day,

I refer you to the glossary:
I also found this helpful post with an excellent illustration of a gassho bow:
Even more comprehensively:
Although not all our forms are the same as these.

Daigan said...

Hey Everyone,

Reb once taught me how to sit seiza with grace while at Tassajara .

You move the cushion to the wall all the way... sitting directly on the zabuton you spin around like you normally would.. then get up on your knees. It actually works quite well.