What’s the Deal With Zen Ceremonies?

zenserviceIn 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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49 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. leslieb
    leslieb June 8, 2015 at 5:08 pm |
    1. neat-o
      neat-o June 9, 2015 at 6:17 am |

      “Extreme Anal Penetration Quakerism” will be the name of my next band.

    2. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon June 9, 2015 at 6:52 am |

      I like your blog.
      (I wanted to be laconic but Brad’s 60 character minimum for comments prevented that.)

  2. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 8, 2015 at 5:10 pm |

    Good one, leslieb!

    “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”- Samuel Johnson

    I’ve always felt that way about ritual and chanting, and the precepts too.

    The folks doing the ritual and chanting and keeping temples like SFZC and SMZC and Jikoji alive are doing what they are doing with a stoicism and dedication that I find quite impressive. Brad too.

    What’s my problem, then!

  3. burndog
    burndog June 8, 2015 at 5:16 pm |

    Thanks, Brad, for writing. Yikes! Ceremonies! Chanting! Corruption of the Youth! At first I was turned off. but now i’m more of an equal opportunity employer.

  4. Fred
    Fred June 8, 2015 at 5:19 pm |

    Om Mani Pädme Hum. Om Mani Pädme Hum. Om Mani Pädme Hum. Om Mani Pädme Hum. Om Mani Pädme Hum. Om Mani Pädme Hum. Om Mani Pädme Hum

  5. Fred
    Fred June 8, 2015 at 6:14 pm |

    Floating along in the breakers of the void, the deluded fragments of self singing this sweet song:


  6. Shodo
    Shodo June 8, 2015 at 6:36 pm |

    Following the footsteps
    Of a rag doll dance
    We are entranced


  7. chasrmartin
    chasrmartin June 8, 2015 at 8:02 pm |

    I actually kind of enjoy the ceremonies. I end up at Boulder Shambhala every so often, and we sit and then chant something, and I usually feel pretty good afterwards. And I had Buddhist ceremonies for my parents at a Jodo Shin temple, and felt better for it.

    Does there have to be anything deeper than that?

  8. Lateolabrax
    Lateolabrax June 9, 2015 at 3:10 am |

    Only this saturday a professor informed me in his lecture that DT Suzuki came to the US in the company of Henry Olccot, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, and DT studied with Paul Carus, who considered truth an absolute, free of time and space. The writings of DT should also be considered in that perspective.

    1. Fred
      Fred June 9, 2015 at 4:40 am |

      the absolute is free of time and space; truth is a human abstract term

  9. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 9, 2015 at 6:44 am |

    The latest celebrity new is that Caitlyn Jenner has announced that not only is she now a woman, she is also now Vietnamese. Her newest name will be “Caitlyn Tran Jenner.”
    Caitlyn Tran Jenner…
    Caitlyn Tran’s gender…
    Caitlyn’s transgender…

  10. Fred Jr.
    Fred Jr. June 9, 2015 at 6:53 am |

    OMG that is so creative. Thank goodness truth is a human abstract term. Thank goodness is is an abstract human term. Thank goodness an is an abstract human term…

  11. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 9, 2015 at 7:01 am |

    Last chants…
    Last chance…

  12. Harlan
    Harlan June 9, 2015 at 7:29 am |

    Do not assail this divine Aeneid; nay, rather prostrate revere the ground that it treads..


  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 9, 2015 at 10:57 am |

    “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.”

    I must be numb.

    1. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote June 9, 2015 at 11:55 am |

      I do appreciate the sincerity of the people who join together for chants, for bowing, and for the rituals. And I can feel it when the fundamental point is actualized.


  14. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 9, 2015 at 3:31 pm |

    The bowling is just bowling. The balls are just balls. The pins are just pins. The bowlers are just people. The combined activities engaged in at these games have a genuine effect that you can feel.


    1. Fred
      Fred June 9, 2015 at 5:31 pm |

      “and DT studied with Paul Carus, who considered truth an absolute, free of time and space. The writings of DT should also be considered in that perspective”


      So, are you saying that what Suzuki knew came from Paul Carus, and not from the insight gained from just sitting.

      Was D.T. Suzuki enlightened? Or did he just paraphrase another man’s scholastic interpretation of Buddhist scripture?

        1. Fred
          Fred June 10, 2015 at 8:03 am |

          “Here we find no reliance on scripture or a Savior, for the student isshown how to go beyond thought in order to achieve a state of consciousness beyond duality.”

          well shut my mouth

  15. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 9, 2015 at 7:32 pm |

    Kerouac couldn’t contain himself any longer and
    blurted out, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Suzuki said nothing. Kerouac then composed a koan: “When the Buddha was about to speak, a horse spoke instead.” Suzuki looked at him quizzically, waited a moment, and replied,

    “The Western mind is too complicated.” He then said, “You young men sit here quietly and write haikus while I go and make some powdered green tea.”

    He returned with a tray of old cracked soup bowls filled
    with steaming hot tea that he “brushed.” Kerouac mentioned that his two friends
    from the West Coast, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, also drank green tea, but
    only out of sleek, curved, black lacquered bowls. He said the tea tasted like
    thick pea soup and made him high.

    “That’s the weak one, you want some strong ones?”
    Suzuki asked, mentioning that he drank it daily. Ginsberg shouted, “It tastes
    like shrimps.” He had to yell “shrimps” because the scholar’s hearing was so
    bad, even though Okamura had instructed them not to shout. Suzuki decided the
    tea tasted like beef and added, “Don’t forget that it’s tea.”

    Ginsberg and Suzuki talked about “a famous old print
    with the crack in the universe,” and Orlovsky added, “You have an interesting crack in your wall that looks like the void.” The crack was situated behind a statue of the Buddha on the mantelpiece. Suzuki duly replied, “Oh yes, I never noticed it before.” He then showed them pictures of different Chinese poets, including Han Shan. Orlovsky laughed his “funny moaning laugh,” and Kerouac felt inspired enough to write a new haiku.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 9, 2015 at 8:17 pm |

      Where’s that from, John?

      Olcott was prominent in revitalizing Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Carus had some interesting ideas. Let’s not be too eager to sneer.

      1. Mumbles
        Mumbles June 10, 2015 at 4:53 am |


        I have to remember to have plenty of characters instead of just dropping in a link here, so forgive the pointless chatter…It also takes a lot of time (3-4 min each) to actually open the “Reply” and then wait for the comment to post, which is tough on an old guy with a severely ltd attn spn for such …

      2. minkfoot
        minkfoot June 10, 2015 at 6:03 am |

        I wondered about what people were complaining about. The last few days, it seems, it’s come around to me. I’ve taken to going to another tab and reading something while the site loads or refreshes.

        Was the site always https? Thanks, Obama!

        And thanks, John!

  16. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 9, 2015 at 10:00 pm |

    “you know the times you impress me the most, are the times when you don’t even try”-


  17. Michel
    Michel June 10, 2015 at 5:30 am |

    We always forget that theatre was primarily a religious function. Eschilus’, Euripides’ and Sophocles’ pieces were winners of contests for those ceremonies and the city funded them as such.
    Even the forerunners of our theatre in the Middle-Ages, the Mistery Plays, were religious performances. (Although we ought better say, para-religious).

    So we should not be so surprised about the same in Zen. And, by the way, I never had much of an impression that DT Suzuki recommended Zazen. Alan Watts, for one, said outright that it was useless.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 10, 2015 at 7:10 am |

      And yet Watts has instructional talks on doing zazen.

      I love his piece on the Trickster Guru. Should be read along with the story (Sufi?) of the thief who was discovered and chased by a village. As his lead diminished, he ran by a mud hole and was struck by an idea. Quickly disrobing and hiding his clothes, he smeared mud over his body and took the pose of a sadhu.

      “Have you seen a thief run by here?” the villagers asked. “Why do you spend your time seeking a thief, when instead you could be seeking God?”

      Collectively, the village said, “WHOA! Could this be the guru we have always wanted for our village?”

      Caught by circumstances, the thief could not but go with the villagers. So many people came to learn from him, he could never get away. Being a thief, he was rather clever, and devised what he thought were suitable teachings. To his surprise, many of his students became enlightened. To his even greater surprise, he did, too!

      When teachers say they are selling water by the river, they are not being humble or poetic. But it profits one’s spirit to engage in the con, preferably with one’s eyes open.

      Religions refine generation by generation, growing by trial and error, keeping the effective and letting the pointless atrophy. All these rituals and arts condition the body/mind at various levels. When one commits to a practice/discipline/tradition, should one not have the humility to adopt it as whole-heartedly as one can? How can a beginner tell the baby from the bathwater? Time enough, once you let the mind clear a bit, to drop the non-essential.

      Daido Loori’s funeral had a thousand or two attendees. His people rented the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston, NY, for the ceremony. About half of it was reminiscing by old friends of his, like Peter Matthieson, Genpo (yup!), Bernie Glassman, and other Dharma siblings; and half was a pretty standard Sanbo Kyodan liturgy. Most of the audience knew the words by heart. When it came round to the Dedication of Merit, the hall thundered:
      All Buddhas throughout space and time;
      All Honored Ones, Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas;
      Wisdom beyond wisdom,
      Maha Prajnaparamita!
      You could hear the words with your pelvis!

      And yet I came away unconverted to White Plum. How about that?

      1. Fred
        Fred June 10, 2015 at 7:43 am |

        too eager to sneer he sneered. too eager to sneer he sneered. too eager to snear he sneared. too eager to snaer he snaered. to eager to beatpoet he beatpoeted. too eager to bleatpoet he bleatpoeted. too ltd attn spn he ltd attn spded

      2. Fred
        Fred June 10, 2015 at 7:51 am |

        Ah, Daido Loori, soon to be followed by Ryushin Sensei, soon to be followed by Shodo the Magnificent.

        1. Shodo
          Shodo June 10, 2015 at 11:53 am |

          Shodo’s passed on! Shodo is no more! Shodo has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace!! His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!

          …but probably not before Fred. 😉

  18. Fred
    Fred June 10, 2015 at 7:54 am |

    “And yet I came away unconverted to White Plum. How about that?”

    You should have tried the Ayahuasca. It goes well with white plums.

    1. Fred
      Fred June 10, 2015 at 7:57 am |

      “You could hear the words with your pelvis!”

      Mark will explain how that works.

      1. Fred Jr.
        Fred Jr. June 10, 2015 at 9:56 am |

        I heard the words of Elvis
        When I was down in Memphis
        He said he’s now an apprentice
        And works all day painting fences

  19. Duke_PA
    Duke_PA June 10, 2015 at 9:33 am |

    I go to a Taiwanese Chan monastery. Some of the stuff is just meditation and dharma talk. Some of it is traditional Chinese Buddhist ceremonies. I enjoy both.

  20. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara June 10, 2015 at 10:18 am |

    I have nothing to say about this.

    [I have nothing to say about this.I have nothing to say about this.I have nothing to say about this.]

    1. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote June 10, 2015 at 11:35 am |

      say no more! Say no more! You attend to your work, and

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 10, 2015 at 11:46 am |

    If I were better at chanting, I’d probably be better at sitting sesshin too, and maybe I would have been part of a zen center focused on silent illumination by now:


    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 10, 2015 at 2:33 pm |

      Can’t get much further from East Bay than this. But it’s a sweet little temple lost in the hills and bogs on Cranberry Meadow Road. You can hear the Heart in Sino-Japanese, and the keisu rings it’s profound tones down the hollows pierced with the rays of the setting sun.

      Shao Shan Temple:

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm |

    I tweaked my back two weeks ago. I retweaked it last Sunday.

    I sat around a Weber while a friend burned papers last week. Monday I caught a cold.

    Thanks, Brad, for having us here.

    From “Chapter 13: the Oral Exposition of the Teaching”:

    “5. The Millstone Turns, But the Mind Does Not Turn.

    The turning of the millstone is a metaphor for the turning of the waist. The mind not turning is the central equalibrium resulting from the sinking of ch’i to the tan-t’ien.

    The millstone turns but the mind does not turn is an oral teaching within a family transmission. It is similar to two expressions in the T’ai-chi ch’uan classics which compare the waist to an axle or a banner. This is especially noteworthy. After learning this concept my art made rapid progress.”

    (Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, by Cheng Man-ching, trans. Douglas Wile, pg 67)

    Selling somebody else’s way of life to myself, by the river; I keep falling in, and clutching at pieces of paper to keep from drowning. I must be dreaming, because I’m not dead yet.

    1. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote June 10, 2015 at 12:19 pm |

      “When old Master Chien-hou taught people, he always quoted the Classics: ‘The feet, legs, and waist must act together simultaneously.’ He also quoted the line: ‘It is rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers’…”

      (“Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Ta’i Chi Chuan”, Cheng Man Ch’ing, trans. Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn, pg 105)

      That’s the practical side of “the activity of zazen is really ‘reflex movement (that originates) in the old nervous system'”, which is really the same as “comprehension of the long and short of inhalation and exhalation can enter into the sense of place, and be embodied as the posture” (from D. L. Bartilink, “No Special Effort”, and the “Best of Ways”, by yours truly).

      1. Mark Foote
        Mark Foote June 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm |

        reads like ubantu.

        That’s the practical side of “the activity of zazen is really ‘reflex movement (that originates) in the old nervous system'”.

        Walking up the street tonight, I lost track of ‘rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers’, I was fine, just breathing along.


        1. Shinchan Ohara
          Shinchan Ohara June 11, 2015 at 10:15 am |

          Three things I was taught this week:

          Awareness of the back while sitting down assists balance once seated.

          From a neuro-muscular POV, sitting is just standing on the sit bones.

          FM Alexander’s concept of non-doing is mostly not the same as a Daoist’s wu wei

  23. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm |

    What Is A Cult And How Does It Work?
    Margaret Thaler Singer, Ph.D.

  24. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon June 11, 2015 at 6:31 am |

    On The Historicity of “Jesus.”
    Dr. Robert Price teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary. He has a PhD in Systematic Theology and a second PhD in the New Testament. A published author and recognized expert in the history of Christianity, biblical criticism, and theology, Dr. Price has also written books on the historicity of Jesus and the various Christ myth theories.
    He has served as a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, the former editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism, a fellow of the Center For Inquiry’s Committee on the Scientific examination of Religion and the advisory board of the Secular Student Alliance.

  25. Southern freeze
    Southern freeze June 13, 2015 at 3:28 pm |

    i’m fairly new to Zen Buddhism, , but this sort of stuff seems unnecessary and turns me right off.

  26. barryevans
    barryevans June 16, 2015 at 5:52 am |

    The deal with Zen ceremonies and ritual is that it puts off countless folks who would otherwise experience the highs and lows of zazen. Most first-timers don’t return (by my casual count, when I was a zen instructor, 4 in 5 don’t come back). The ones I spoke to almost always mentioned the trappings as a turn-off, especially bowing to a statue and ritual chanting.

    If we really wanted to encourage shinkitaza, just sitting, in the population as a whole (I do–if everyone took time out daily to sit quietly, the world would be a better place), we’d extend our kindness by dropping the BS.

  27. otaku00
    otaku00 June 17, 2015 at 7:47 am |

    “But chanting some funny words after sitting zazen is not the same as joining the Nazi party (…)”

    In a way it is. It makes you feel being part of “the group”. And it lets you repeat over and over again things that may be wrong, e.g. that there was a continous lineage of trustworthy ancestors that you name one after the other (like in the Sodô Fugin). The reason why this is done is similar to other group dynamics: It enhances the feeling that one belongs to s.th. and s.o., and it confirms certain truths that are actually errors.

Comments are closed.