Friday, July 8, 2011

Zen liturgy

Liturgy often falls by the wayside as a form of practice. Many Americans have an aversion to religious rituals of any sort, perhaps the result of negative religious experiences in their past. But liturgy--chanting, bowing, and prostrating--are excellent opportunities to broaden one's practice.

I think at some point we've all had the "Why am I chanting? Everyone else seems to be so absorbed. Why can't I be?" experience. I distinctly remember feeling that way the first time I chanted the "Heart Sutra" in Sino-Japanese.

"What the heck am I doing?" I thought, eyeing the door for the first chance to bolt.

But that's a great opportunity to practice. Uncomfortable feelings mark boundaries of fear and desire to have life be other than the way it actually is. That's where we dig in. As we settle into the anxiety, boredom, or anger, we not only experience the emotion in its fullness and emptiness, but also become intimate with the beliefs that created the feelings in the first place. Like, "Life should be fun--ALL THE TIME." Or "I hate people telling me what to do." Or my favorite: "This is stupid!"

Be the barrier, Daido Roshi always said. Be the resistance. And there's plenty of that in Zen, especially while chanting.

Part of the problem, I think, stems from our expectation that bowing or chanting should be some kind of heavenly, transcendental experience instead of aching backs, hard wood biting into our knees, and dry mouths. But that's the way life is. Our addiction to special effects and sugar buzzes is most noticeable when we're sitting and staring at a wall for three hours, or chanting in unison when we'd rather be lounging on the couch and munching on chips.

Be the barrier. Be the doubt, the impatience, the aching back. Zen training and liturgy has been masterfully designed to wear those edges down.

I just finished reading Daido Roshi's Bringing the Sacred to Life, an excellent little book about how to incorporate liturgy into Zen practice. Do it with your whole heart, mind, and body, Daido instructs in the true spirit of Master Dogen. Liturgy is an opportunity to make the invisible visible, to give life and body to the spirit of our practice.

Liturgy is a living, breathing embodiment of the Zen tradition. We should cherish it just as much as we do our zazen, because at it's heart, chanting and bowing is no different from zazen. It's all practice, all an opportunity to wholeheartedly engage life as it is.

We can then extend this care and attention to other aspects of our lives--eating, driving, excercising. Liturgy is a way of consecrating the everyday, of realizing the Absolute within the Relative, which is the ultimate goal of Zen.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Big Mind Zen Center.


  1. i'll have to check that book out. as tenzo, i'm unfortunately almost always stuck in the kitchen for full services during retreats so it's rare that i get to participate, but it is something i cherish.

    i know my own experiences were exactly the same. i came for my first morning sitting and was taken aback when the bell rang and i heard the shuffling of the doshi behind me offering incense. i was unprepared.

    but after the sitting when i was asked if i'd stick around for the morning service i figured why not. it was hard to not participate among a half dozen people, to not do so would have been more uncomfortable than chanting.

    i'm always encouraging others to stop questioning why they're doing it and just throw themselves into it to see what happens.

    thanks for the post

  2. Great post, and one I needed today. I studied at Firelotus Zen Center in NY with Myotai Sensei. I remember being put off by the chanting, having grown up Catholic and felt alienated by the rote of people repeating words while wondering when the service would be over in Church on Sundays. Sensei spoke of faith - and how we practice faith in everyday life without thinking about it (such as buying something online and paying and assuming it will come, getting on a bus and paying and having faith you will get to your destination, etc). I now relish liturgy, and find it reaffirming. Gassho.