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Zen Ceremonies

August 19, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Last Saturday, during our sangha’s monthly one-day sesshin, we had a lively discussion about the importance of our ceremonies. A few people confessed that they really didn’t like chanting sutras and prayers and much preferred just to sit, as well as listen to the Dharma talk. After all, they said, isn’t our practice best described as just sitting or shikantaza? Isn’t truth outside all scriptures? The answer is, like many answers given to Zen students over the centuries, neither “yes” nor “no.” Our response, our experience of ourselves, must include both yes and no. This is the middle way.

Many of us come to Zen because we cannot accept the beliefs and rituals of the religion of our childhoods. We can no longer pray with devotion to an external God. We come to Zen not to exchange one belief system for another, not to pray to Buddha instead of Jesus or Allah. We come to Zen for experience, not belief. Zen chants are not meant as a means to worship anything external to our Self. They are not declarations of organized beliefs. They offer us a means to study and experience ourselves in a new way, in the context of Buddhism’s basic ideas.

The sutras and other things that we chant often contain the experiences that our ancestors have had during intense periods of practice. For example, the Heart Sutra begins: Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the prajna paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering. It doesn’t say that Avalokitishvara believed in the emptiness that Buddha taught; it says that he perceived it while practicing. We shouldn’t believe in what Avalokiteshvara is saying until we have experienced it for ourselves, in our sitting practice. We shouldn’t take these chants as anything to believe in. Instead, we should take them as guidelines for our practice. We should use them as a means to understand what we are experiencing when we sit.

It would be very difficult to understand sitting meditation as a way of experiencing our Original Nature, without having some idea of what Buddha Nature is. Many of us don’t have the time or the wish to spend hours reading books on Buddhism and Zen, so the easiest way for us to learn about Buddhism is in our chanting. Many of our chants are condensed versions of longer sutras. The Heart Sutra that we chant is about a page or two, but there are versions that go on for over 100,000 lines! Chanting the Heart Sutra over and over again is a way of letting the heart of Zen into ourselves, without thinking too much about it. That is, it is a way of letting something unknown into ourselves without the censorship of the discriminative intellect getting in the way. Once it is inside us, it can be slowly digested over the course of our practice.

When we sit zazen, our posture expresses Buddha Nature and when we chant our voices express the truths discovered by Buddha and the ancestors in their own sitting practice. Chanting and sitting are two ways of harmonizing the body and mind. When in a group setting, we learn how to harmonize our practice with the practice of others. The silence of our sitting blends with the silence of others to create a deeper silence in the room. When we chant we learn how to let our voices blend in with others—neither too loud or too soft or too fast or to slow. This is a good way of losing one’s sense of self and other and experiencing interconnectedness. It is a way of experiencing that we are all in this together, for as long as it takes…



From → Zen Buddhism

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