On Ritual

A dharma talk given by Daniela (Myong Soen Son Sa) 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 … .

zen practitioner bowing 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.

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:

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.