On Ritual

A dharma talk given by Daniela Myozen Osho at the Lexington Zen Center, August 29, 2016.

Do you think that there will be a time when your students will do the chanting in English? In the future, maybe. When I first came here I thought to change it to English. But then I went to Poland. Can’t use English chants there. And Germany. So I decided to keep Korean style. Now, when our Sangha has a big ceremony, people come from all over the world. No problem, we all chant together in Korean.

— Zen Master Seung Sahn (interview 1996)

I’d like to look into ritual a bit, as a response to what Tyson shared in the group, about how turned off by the chanting he was when he first came to practice, and how now it has become one of the favorite parts of his practice.

His words resonate with me a lot, and probably with many of you as well.

I remember my first ever Zen retreat, and how put off not only by the chanting I felt. Coming from an Evangelical-Lutheran background my family was still proud that in 1526 Luther had created directions for mass to be held in German so that folks who did not understand Latin could actually fully participate in the service! And here I was, at my first Zen retreat, chanting in Korean, with not the faintest idea what I was chanting. It felt like a betrayal of all the values I had been taught my entire life.

There were other rituals too.

Food was served in the meditation hall, four bowl style, with what to me then was a complicated system of giving and receiving, of stacking and un-stacking one’s bowls the right way, of pouring water and of trying not to make any noise or any mistake … .

And then there was the bowing: Three bows, the entire Sangha, in front of the teacher, every morning, and after that 108 bows at one’s place, 108 bows as a group in unison, and my inner rebellion growing with every single one of them.

Zen practioner bowing
“Bowing”: From Going Beyond Buddha by Zen Master Dae Gak.

And finally there was the Kyosaku – the “encouragement stick”. In the middle of each meditation session the Kyosaku-master got up from his seat to get the Kyosaku from its place on the altar; made two-and-a-half-steps back, bowed while holding the Kyosaku, turned around to approach the first person to the left and bowed to her. And after he or she had bowed back—whammmm!—he hit the person on their back with a very loud, dry whack, a couple of times before he bowed again and moved on to the next victim. And to the next one, and the next one, and the next …, coming closer to me, and closer, and closer ….

If you know where I come from—if you know that severe beating was part of my growing up—you might understand what this ritual did to me. When he came closer and closer I obviously started shaking so much—I don’t even remember doing that, someone told me afterwards—that the Kyosaku Master mercifully spared me, and took me aside after the sitting round was over, telling me how to signal if I didn’t want to be hit.

It was a relief to hear that this wasn’t mandatory, yet I still thought I had ended up in some kind of weird cult: a Zen cult where masochistic people enjoyed being beaten with a long, flat wooden stick, where they bowed to another human being as if he was God made manifest, where they chanted song after song in a foreign language and were shouted at for almost everything: from not sitting still enough to sneezing, eating too loud or even for crying silently on their cushion.

Rituals, when we don’t understand them and look at them from the outside, can look weird, can make us feel anxious, can turn us off and can be terrifying even. It takes courage to open up to something that seemingly undermines our own sense of dignity, our values, our sense of who we are and what is “just”.

Having grown up in post war and post fascism Germany in a family deeply scarred by fascism and, after that, by communism in the “German Democratic Republic”, the part of Germany that belonged to the “Ostblock” I had (and have) a deep seated repulsion against any form of doctrine, of ritual or of giving up one’s proper reasoning for some declared group experience or “belonging”.

“Belonging” has always felt like a trap on some level. Because the Germans belonged: to the “Führer”, to the “Reich”, to an ideology of destruction, not only of those who weren’t granted any belonging, but also the destruction of any form of individuality. And after all of that had collapsed my poor parents ended up in the same kind of nightmarish pipe dream, this time called communism, where they belonged to the “community of equals” until they fled in 1961.

All of this I brought to my first Zen retreat. And I bring it as a teacher to our Sangha. Form and ritual are always double sided: They can hold us, they can provide a frame of belonging, they can be dharma gates in themselves if we are able to use them to look at our own self “arising-in-opposition-to”. And they can take on a life of their own, where they become empty of meaning and are just done because “it’s always been done this way” or because “this is how we do it here”.

I believe that whatever sense of opposition, of feeling “turned off” by ritual arises in our practice, it´s worth inquiring, worth listening to:

  • Feeling this sense of un-ease, am I up against my own conditioning, my own deep-seated beliefs? – Then feeling “turned off” can be an invitation to let go; because, after all we don’t need to believe everything we are thinking, right? Am I up against my own like/dislike mind that’s trying to push and pull the ox around by its proverbial nose-ring? Then again, let’s just see it arising, dwelling and falling away, without the need to bite the hook … .
  • Or am I up against some calcified form that has taken on a life of it’s own and is a hindrance to practice, to our opening and to our becoming wide? (Or worse: Might this calcification even be dangerous because it’s hiding and supporting somebodies rise to power and use of power over others?)
  • It took me a couple of years to shift my attitude towards the bowing, the Kyosaku, and the chanting.

    I realized at one point that not only we were bowing to the Zen teacher, but that he also was bowing to all of us; that bowing is not the activity of lowering ourselves, but of recognizing and acknowledging our shared humanity, our Buddha nature.

    I learned that being hit by the Kyosaku actually helps to relax stiff muscles and drive off exhaustion. And I later served as the Kyosaku master on many retreats myself.

    And since many years chanting is one of the parts of our practice I cherish the most, because just like the sitting in silence, it creates us as one body, one mind, and one expression.

    Zen Master Seung Sahn always invited people to not only chant, but to listen to three voices during chanting practice: One’s own, the voice of everyone else in the room, and the voice of the group. And he invited us to give ourselves fully to the practice of chanting, not holding anything back. Just like in our ritual of sitting, the ritual of chanting is an invitation to enter fully. Again and again and again, fresh and new in each moment.

    Once I understood this it didn’t matter anymore that the chants were in a language I didn’t know and still don’t speak. Because we do understand. Because we are understanding if we become the chanting itself. Listen, please ….

    gate gate paragate,
    parasamgate bodhi svaha.

Getting Dirty with the Dust of the World

(Editor’s Note: The following Dharma talk was given by Daniela Myozen Herzog at the Lexington Zen Center on Sunday, June 19, 2016.)

Our Job is to Get Dirty with the Dust of this World

A poem, written 1938 by Soen Nakagawa Roshi: 1

Looking for serenity
you have come
to the monastery.

Looking for serenity
I am leaving
the monastery.


Stop running about seeking!

The dusty affairs of the world
fill the day,
fill the night.

I am not sure this is the proper poem for what I want to talk about today. But there is something in Roshi’s poem that touches me in a profound way. Maybe because I live in what many people consider a monastery—a place far removed from “the dusty affairs of the world.”

And maybe because from where I live I look at the dusty affairs of the world and my heart breaks.

At the Mountain we have started a garden recently—the first major garden since I can remember. pondSo far there is no water easily accessible, and I need to carry water, in buckets, in the morning and evening and sometimes throughout the day, from our pond to the garden area. It’s tedious and hard work, and it reminds me of the Zen saying: “A day without work is a day without food.”

I have called it the Garden of Hope, because it’s not just a garden: it’s also an attempt to connect with the local community around us, and in the long run to help with food security in our area. Right now we are working together with two neighbors, poor in money with no land of their own, but rich in knowledge about how to grow and tend to a garden.

Tending continuously to the plants—keeping them watered, healthy, happy and keeping the deer from eating them—takes a huge chunk out of my day. It has put my consumer habits in perspective too, and added a level of both appreciation and apprehension.

It engenders appreciation for Nature so willingly providing for us: stick a plant in the ground, give it some water and it will begin to grow and feed you and your neighbors!

It engenders apprehension because, realizing in my own body the difficulty of this work, I realize in my own body how unsustainable our consumer culture is. It doesn’t hurt to grab a box of strawberries from the coop shelf, nicely packaged in plastic made in China and boxed by some unknown and underpaid Mexican worker. I can just pile everything into my shopping-cart, a huge variety of groceries from all over the world, and filling my cart doesn’t even take as long as watering our garden one single time. As for the price for all the goodies in my cart—well, I only pay a fraction of the real costs. Some workers somewhere, underpaid and exploited, pay the price. And so does Mother Earth.

We are all involved in this consumer culture, without exception. And it does not only apply to food: the dusty affairs of the world fill the day, fill the night, fill our consciousness whether we are aware of it or not. Getting on the cushion is no escape. Entering the monastery is no escape. There is no such thing as escape.

But we all come to practice out of some kind of suffering, out of the sense of something lacking, something missing, out of some kind of longing. And practice might provide a container for us to deal with the content of our life in a different way; but we cannot leave it at that.

For centuries the practice of sitting still and becoming silent has helped people all over the world to connect with the numinous, to “become one with”, to be still and know God, the Divine, the Absolute—whatever one might call it.

The Buddha was not the first one to awaken through stillness and silence. Zen does not hold a trademark as a container for awakening. All mystics of all time have used the same gateway into awakening: becoming still, becoming silent, retreating from the affairs of the world.

Looking for serenity
you have come
to the monastery.

All awakened masters have returned to the world:

Looking for serenity
I am leaving
the monastery.

“The dusty affairs of the world fill the day, fill the night.” How beautiful! And what an invitation to not flee from the suffering of this world, to not look away, to not turn a blind eye? What an invitation instead to take up our lot, to chop wood, carry water, become active, and bring much needed change to issues in areas around us where we actually can affect and heal the world!

Practice can never be an escape, and all practice must lead us back into the world, into more engagement with the world, with its beautiful and heartbreaking dusty affairs.

Our practice must help our heart to be a container for all that is. Not some piece of “equipment” that allows us to register the cries of the world, like a Geiger counter reacts by mirroring surrounding radioactivity, but rather an active process of engaging as holding, because that is what a container does in the original sense of the word: it holds together.

Practice is an invitation to actively hold the suffering of the world, not in the sense of a vessel holding content, but actively holding, enclosing, processing the dusty affairs of the world. From such a perspective there is no world outside that differs from a world inside. There is only this huge invitation to engage with the world one hundred percent. Because world is what we are—the entirety of it.

That raises a question: Why do I practice? (Or, vice versa: what makes me skip practice?) Do I want to get something out of practice? What is that? Who do I want to get it from? And if I got it, what would be different?

If you notice you come to practice—or skip it—with a similar kind of mind, I invite you to change the question to this:

“What am I giving?”
“Am I giving?”
“Who do I want to give to?”
“And if I did, what would be different?”

The entire world is on fire; we can no longer go on with business as usual. There is no time to waste: we must make every effort to wake up now and help others wake up too.

This is why we sit. This is what all the masters of the past and future have realized: That separation is an illusion and that we are all in this boat together.

And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to encounter the dharma in this lifetime and to have found friends to practice with, it means not only a beautiful chance, but also a tremendous responsibility: in our sitting still, in our silence, we are holding space for everyone we are sitting with, and for all the suffering in this world. And we become the container, so big that we’re able to get up at 5:45pm, store away the mats and cushions and move back into the world as living, breathing Bodhisattvas.

The monastery, the temple, is always right where we are. And sometimes the work necessary is making phone calls with first-time voters, another time it’s spending time with one’s nephew, and another time again it’s carrying water …shovel

Our job is to get dirty, with the dust of this world.

Thank you for listening.