Maria Kannon Zen Center Zendô Protocol
The zendo (literally, Zen hall), is space dedicated to the practice of Zen, and is considered as sacred space, with the altar as the centerpiece. We bow toward the altar as we enter or leave the zendo, and in crossing the center aisle, face the altar and again bow, with palms joined together in the gasshô position.
Gasshô and Bowing
Gasshô is a Japanese term which means “palms joined.” The palms of both hands are placed together before the face, fingertips about the level of the nose. The bowing involves bending your body forward to the level of your shoulder. Bowing is a gesture of “acknowledging and honoring the holy,” be it toward another person or a specific a location. As you arrive in front of your place of zazen, bow and perform gasshô towards your cushion, and then turn around and bow once again facing the center (toward the sangha). This act honors your practice, and is an acknowledgment of respect for your intrinsic Buddha nature, for the sacredness of the place you are in, as well as for the community with whom you are practicing.
During sesshin (extended periods of intense zazen practice lasting from three days to one week or more), a series of prostrations is sometimes practiced together. This is not an act of adoration or worship, but is a gesture of humility and self-emptying.
During zazen, one is to remain still throughout the time between the beginning bell and the ending bell. This is important in developing your own practice, but also vital in the community setting of the zendô, where any movement or noise is distracting for others. Before beginning to sit, move your mat about six inches away from the wall and be sure that you are in line with the rest of the row of sitters. And as the ending bell is rung and before you stand up for kinhin, use your hands to push back the mat, and then lay your cushion in the center. Never use your feet to push your mat back.
If you arrive late for sitting, do not enter the zendô to join the others, but sit in the hallway or dining area and wait, unless the monitor beckons you to come in. If dokusan is in process, do not sit in the dokusan line, as those who had arrived earlier are given priority. As the bell is rung for the end of the sit, you may also stand up and quietly pace the floor on the hallway or dining area, and wait until the end of kinhin. When the signal for the end of kinhin is given, and the practitioners walk briskly and then stop in front of their places, you may now enter the zendo (making a bow as you do) and look for a vacant place. Briefly glance at the monitor for a signal that the place you have chosen is vacant, and if not, choose another place that is.
During kinhin or walking meditation, one may leave the line and use the bathroom. As you return and people are still walking, join the line at any point
Dokusan is a formal, one-to-one teacher-student consultation. This is a very important aspect of practice. It enables the practitioner, as it were, to look at oneself in a mirror and see what is happening in one’s practice through the eyes and with the help of the teacher.
If you wish to go to dokusan, pull out the yellow strip from under the mat and make it visible for the monitor to see. Place it on the right hand side (facing the wall) of your mat. When you are tapped for your turn, go and take your place in the dokusan line, leaving your strip visible sticking out of the mat. As you come back, be sure to push it back under the mat. When walking to go to dokusan, walk mindfully as you exit the zendo, and again, after dokusan when entering the zendo. In the dokusan line, remain seated and maintain the zazen position. Do not loiter in the dining room or kitchen area while waiting for dokusan. After you come out of dokusan and zazen is still going on, do not use the bathroom or loiter around, but go immediately back to your sitting place, bowing as you enter the zendo, then again toward your place, and finally to the sangha facing center, before you take your seat.
Teishô (literally, “recited offering”) is the traditional Zen talk by the teacher, typically delivered at specified times in the context of seated meditation or zazen, on a theme related to practice. Teishô is not a “lecture,” but a verbal expression of the matter of Zen at that moment. These talks are to be heard in the fullness of attention. A formal meditation posture is recommended for listening to the teishô, including a respectful and attentive state of mind. Writing down notes is not permitted during a teishô. Listen to the teishô a one-to-one communication, addressed specifically to you, addressing topics that are intimately related to your practice. While listening to the teishō, you may put your hands in the relaxed mode, (one hand over the other). Do not slouch, lean against the wall, or sit with a curved back with your elbow on your knee.
While everyone is standing facing center, as the teacher comes in and makes a bow to the sangha, all respond with a bow. Take your seat after the teacher has seated himself/herself. After teisho, or whenever the teacher is present at his/her seat after a sit or after tea, let teacher rise first, and then everyone follows in standing up. Remain standing while teacher leaves the room. Do not begin to fix your cushions while s/he's exiting the zendo, but only do so after the teacher has left
Chanting is an important part of community zazen practice. The rhythm of the chants, the participation with others in harmony, the texts of the sûtras as vehicles of meditation, are all important to deepening practice.
When chanting, if you don’t hear the person beside you, that means you are chanting too loudly. Go with the pace of the person leading the chant and do not drag.
At the conclusion of zazen and chanting, tea is sometimes served. Designated servers bring the tea into the zendô, first presenting tea at the altar and then serving the teacher, if present. Tea is served in silence, offering the opportunity to “savor the moment” in the company of the sangha. As the server offers you a cup from the tray, simply put your hands in the gasshô position (without bowing), then take a cup, and place it on the floor to the right side in front of your mat, again putting palms together in gasshô without bowing. If you are sitting on a chair, place the cup on the floor to the right side of you, and wait for the tea server to offer you the tea. As the tea server comes before you, lift up your cup to the level where tea may be poured easily. Give the signal to stop, place the cup back on the floor, place palms together in gasshô and back again, and wait for the signal to begin taking the tea.
Always keep in mind that the zendô is a sacred space, a place for formal zazen practice. The formality and silence maintained in zendô offer a conducive atmosphere enhancing an awareness of a sacred presence that will naturally flow into our day-to-day life.