In his book An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, DT Suzuki said, “Zen … is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, no future abode to which the dead are destined, and, last of all, Zen has no soul whose welfare is to be looked after by somebody else and whose immortality is a matter of intense concern with some people. Zen is free from all these dogmatic and ‘religious’ encumbrances.”
Suzuki is one of the most respected authorities on the subject of Zen Buddhism and this book is still in print 81 years after its first publication in 1934. It’s a standard text for college courses in Zen Buddhism and it’s still one of those books lots of people pick up as their first introduction to what Zen is all about.
So it is not surprising that lots of people are fairly stunned when they go to a Zen temple and find people in strange costumes offering incense to statues, congregants bowing in unison to those statues, and folks chanting things that often sounds very much like the hymns and prayers they’ve heard in their local churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. What’s up with that?
I learned most of what I know about Zen Buddhism from two teachers who did very little of this sort of ritual. So when I first went to places like the San Francisco Zen Center and saw the very elaborate ceremonial rites they engage in, I too was taken aback. By then I’d seen similar rituals in Japan so I knew that Suzuki’s stance was rhetorical and could not be taken literally. Still, I found all the genuflecting and chanting kind of off-putting and definitely unnecessary.
But when I signed up for a month in the summer at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery a few years ago, I also signed up to participate in the morning Zen service seven days a week for the duration. After a while, my irritation at having to do all that silly chanting and bowing gave way to a reluctant sort of semi-enjoyment and eventually I began to genuinely like doing it.
Initially I figured the only practical use for such ceremonies is as sort of a communal bonding exercise. I still feel like that’s its primary purpose. When a group of people all do a thing together they feel closer and more friendly to each other. But I also think it may go deeper than that.
We chant the sutras as a way of connecting back to our ancient forbearers who chanted the words of the Buddha so as to memorize his teachings. By regularly chanting things like the Heart Sutra and the Harmony of Difference and Equality we are able to fix them in our minds in a way that simply reading them silently by ourselves won’t do. We connect with them deeply.
It also melts down some of our intellectual resistance and insistence upon our own individuality as paramount. Much of the reluctance I had to chanting was based on a fear that it would somehow degrade my sense of self. I don’t like joining teams or participating in group activities in general. I had to confront that aspect of my personality.
Much of my resistance was based on the idea that bad things happen when people allow their individuality to be subsumed into a group consciousness. I mean, that’s what happened when the Nazis took over! Plus, the majority is almost always wrong about anything. The most popular music and movies are generally the worst, to take an obvious example. I don’t have much faith in the majority.
But chanting some funny words after sitting zazen is not the same as joining the Nazi party or even buying the latest bullshit on Billboard’s Top Ten. Plus, sometimes you have to forget about your own preferences and do something together with others. As long as you’re reasonably careful about how far you allow it to go, you’ll be just fine.
I started to incorporate what I learned about ceremonies at Tassajara into our regular sessions in Los Angeles. Some folks hated it. Others liked it a bit too much for my taste. But that didn’t matter to me. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s a little performance. It feels nice. It’s harmless.
The turning point in my views about these ceremonies may have come when we did one at Tassajara that turned into a complete train wreck. So many people screwed up their parts of the ritual so thoroughly that we actually had to stop one of the chants and start over again. After it was all done, Leslie James, the guiding teacher at Tassajara said, “That’s all right. It shouldn’t be too perfect.”
Although the ceremonies at Zen temples might look like the ones you see at houses of worship in other faiths, the approach we take is a little different. No one ever insists you must believe in any of the rituals and chants and suchlike in Zen. You’re not worshipping anyone. You’re not pledging your allegiance to the temple or to Buddha. You’re not heaping praise upon unseen entities.
The chanting is just chanting. The bowing is just bowing. The bells are just bells.The statues are just statues. The priests are just people. The combined activities engaged in at these ceremonies have a genuine effect that you can feel. But there is nothing supernatural about any of it.
I don’t know what DT Suzuki meant when he said Zen has no ceremonial rites to observe. In one sense he was just straight-up wrong. Zen has plenty of ceremonial rites. He knew that as well as anyone could. Perhaps he meant that these ceremonial rites are not a necessary part of the practice. If so, then I agree. We can toss them out if we want and what’s left is still perfectly legitimate as Zen Buddhism. This doesn’t seem to be true for most religions.
In any case, I think as long as we approach our ceremonies with the same spirit of rationality and healthy skepticism that the Buddha clearly taught in sermons such as the Kalama Sutra, we can simply enjoy them for what they are and not have to worry so much about the rest.
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