The Practice Form



Zen is a tradition of Buddhist practice which has been brought to the West from Japan during the last 50 to 100 years. In Japan it dates back over 1000 years, and is itself part of the great Buddhist teaching, called the Dharma, which traces itself back through China to India, and to the man, Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. Zen is a path to awakening for those who follow it.

First and foremost in Zen is the question of relationship, and how it concerns our perception of our self as a separate entity in a world of objects. How is it that we, as selves, seem one minute to be completely separate and self-contained entities, only to disappear in the next moment into intimate relationship, then to reappear again as we separate?

It happens so fast and so often that we seldom even notice. Yet herein lies deep insight into the nature of who and what we, as human beings, are. To become aware of this we must pay attention – very close attention – to our selves and to everything we do and experience.

Ritual is a powerful tool in this process, bringing the attention out of its habitual dwelling place in one’s thoughts and hopes and desires, and into the present moment. In learning the rituals of formal practice, one is forced to pay very close attention to many things one ordinarily takes for granted – the position of one’s hands and feet, the straightness of one’s spine, the feel of the floor under one’s feet, the sound of one’s own voice. All of these present an opportunity to witness the dissolution of our selves in activity as we give ourselves wholeheartedly to it.


Formal Practice at the North Carolina Zen Center

Our formal practice at the Center is based on Zen as taught and practiced in the Rinzai tradition in Japan. For those who have practiced at other Rinzai centers much of the form will feel familiar, although there will invariably be differences.  For those from other traditions, or those how have not experienced formal practice, it will be new, and can seem daunting.  It is important not to become attached to a particular form of practice, ritual and formalism. It is particularly unhelpful to speculate on the relative worth of the various traditions that have come to America and the ritual attached to them, or to believe that one form is inherently better than another. They are all merely tools we use in the process of teaching and learning awareness.

The staff of the Center provide a brief orientation for newcomers on the first Sunday of every month at 9 AM, before formal practice begins at 10 AM, which is the best introduction to formal practice at the Center. The following notes are simply for general reference. Please understand that it is not expected that a newcomer will remember everything that follows, nor execute it all properly the first time. This is not a test, and no one is keeping score. Do it as well as you can, and when in doubt, do what the person beside you is doing. Very soon it will all seem very simple, no matter how daunting and complicated it might seem at first.

A typical Thursday evening session will serve as an example. The formal session begins at 7PM. Please try to be on time. Five to ten minutes early is best, because this will give you the time to enter the zendo, arrange your cushions, and be in place for the start of the service.

The leader, known as the jiki jitsu, will guide the session with a series of bells, gongs and claps. If you follow the person beside you you’ll figure it out pretty quickly. Service begins with the ringing of a bell. The jiki jitsu then rises to light incense and make three bows before the butsudan. When he returns to his seat he will ring a gong, which begins chanting. You will find a chant book under the right corner of your cushion. Chanting begins on page one.

During chanting the jiki jitsu will lead, beginning each chant by chanting alone the first few syllables. The group joins in at the sound of a bell and is accompanied by a drum. Between the group chants the jiki jitsu will also intone a separate chant called an eko.

At the end of chanting everyone stands and performs three deep bows. Take a small flat cushion from your seat and place it in front of you on the floor. Place your hands in gasho, which means to bring them together in front of you as in prayer, bow from the waist, then continue to the floor, with hands extended by your head, palms up, and raise your hands from the floor.

After the three bows comes a 20-minute session of sitting meditation, called zazen. What does one do during zazen? One could begin simply by paying close attention to one’s posture and breathing. During this period please try to refrain from moving or making any noise.

At the end of this sitting period everyone rises to begin a brief period of walking meditation, known as kinhin. At the sound of a clap everyone turns to his or her right and follows the person next to them, walking in a line, either around the exterior of the zendo on the walkway or on the paths around the Center. Walk with your hands flat on your chest, left over right, thumbs interlocking. Please stay close to the person in front of you, and stay in step. (Kinhin is a chance to use the restroom if needed. Please step out of line, and when returning, bow to the line reenter the line in your same spot.)

Following this period of kinhin, we return to the zendo for another period of sitting. During this period. if a teacher is present, that teacher will be available for interview. Interview is held in the adjoining building. When the teacher signals with a bell, whoever wishes to have interview may rise and go. There is no order, but only one may go at a time. When you enter the interview room please stand behind the cushion in gassho and bow, then seat yourself in front of the teacher. Interview is optional, but it is hoped that everyone will avail themselves of this opportunity to discuss their practice with our teacher. After interview, return quietly to your seat in the zendo.

After interviews the teacher will return to the zendo to give a dharma talk. If no teacher is present, after this period of sitting meditation a senior student will give a talk or guide a discussion.  During the talk you should give the speaker your complete attention. It is not necessary to maintain your zazen posture, but one should remain alert and not slouch.

When the speaker finishes the talk he will return to his seat in zendo. The jiki jitsu will go to the butsudan and make three deep bows, then return to his seat. The formal session closes with one more chant, the Kozen Daito, from page 7 of the chant book. Then all rise, make three deep bows, straighten their cushions and exit the zendo.