by Joseph Hall
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?”
Zen is an embodied practice. When we say that the sutras are just a raft to carry us to another shore and that you shouldn’t carry the raft around with you, we’re serious about that. Since words are just symbols pointing to concepts which are just a fractured way of looking at our own perspective, the foundation of Zen is that nothing is truly understood until it is integrated into the unconscious. The body is where Zen is actualized. You’re Buddha - it’s your original nature, and Buddha speaks a language that is older than words. Since position in time, place or status does not grant us wisdom, it is the way you move through life that connects you with the Buddha.
So, how do you teach an embodied practice? Through a combination of stillness and movement that we call the forms.
Westerners are generally taught to identify primarily as an individual rather than a collective and we get sent to go find our own truth rather than to imitate others. Thus, our first encounter with the forms often leaves us feeling a bit like Yamaoko encountering Dokuon’s pipe. Entering the Zendo for the first time, between the bowing, turning, mudras, and general obsession with cushions, strong emotions sometimes arise. We came here to find ourselves and sometimes we discover a drill team instead. The feelings that arise can be so strong that some communities have tried to do away with forms completely and just place a rock in the center of the room as a simple reminder of an ancient way. And yet, even in this search for formlessness, unintentionally a new culture and new forms arise. These may be helpful or harmful.
If we can’t find a rock sangha then we might end up practicing with people who practice the more traditional forms.
In a place like this, we might be offered the opportunity to enact the forms. Enact is an important word. It is different than doing or accomplishing which is important because there is no inherent value in our ability to correctly execute a bow. Forms are nothing more than a way to express the moment. The shape of a form might appear a bit special at first glance, but the overarching movement arises from the idea that after generations of trial and error, this is the simplest way to do something. The movements are simple, direct, and quiet. When we encounter a person in contemplation, sometimes we bow, and in that fluid motion, everything can be said. While it could be a shorter line to cut across the meditation hall to get to our seat, over time, Zen has been discovered that it can be easier to maintain a sense of stillness when we simply avoid the willy nilly and walk along a clearer path. In this case, we do it according to the advice of Dogen and try to walk in the footsteps of a thousand Zen masters. Enacting a form means to bring them all to life.
Since we all have less than a single lifetime to base our design of form upon, it can be helpful not to dismiss the 120 or so generations before us and ask them for their wisdom. In their words, their constant refrain is to set their ideas aside and to put our hearts into moving through the world as they did. Why not practice by beginning with mastering a basic set of forms and begin with understanding how they work before adapting them to our circumstances.
Recognize the desire to change the standards to match our abilities when a task is daunting.
The forms invite us to take our fear here head on and to learn virtuosity. It’s easy to forget that Picasso needed to learn to paint like Raphael in order to fully navigate the world of the abstract. He needed to become skillful in order to unleash his creativity.
As we become comfortable with the forms, we notice they are not so complicated, and as it turns out, it is just the voice of the ancestors showing us the easiest way to do something. We gradually refine them and discover that when we enter the zendo and bow at the door, the whole room becomes a sacred place. We walk with our hands together and the symmetry of this movement metamorphasizes as a symmetry in the brain. Arriving at the cushion, a simple bow of gratitude settles us into this one place. Turning clockwise, we bow to the people meditating and our gratitude for them begins to settle any differences we might have and thus we turn clockwise again and settle into meditation with them.
But why does clockwise matter?
We always turn clockwise for one very important reason: so we don’t need to think about it. This allows us to focus on the details and to perfect the forms, to repeat these actions over and over until they become reflexes. This sort of practice teaches us grace and grace feels nice. Maybe too nice. It is important to remember that there is no value in being good at the forms and no koan reports that a monk was so good at the forms that they became enlightened. Formbound is a word in Zen and it’s a pitfall because it leaves you in the same place that arguing with the forms does.
The main point of practicing the forms is that you don’t need to figure anything out. You enter the zendo and go to your seat. There’s nothing you need to think about…and yet we do. No one is judging you and yet judgements arise, ideas about good or bad, what others are thinking and what do we think about ourself. Whatever arises is extra and it is pure self and the forms are showing us where our work is. Bowing to the room, we notice that no one was looking and what was all that about anyway? So we sit down on the cushion and get back to work on letting go.
When the bell rings we have a sense that if we can trust our body and just let it move from its own understanding, we might be able to keep some of this stillness with us. This is a deep understanding and looking around the room we might notice that other people are in touch with this wisdom too. So, gently, we bring ourselves into alignment with each other. Gathering near the altar, we try to bring the voice, a source of constant trouble in our lives, into accord with this mindfulness we’ve got going. We try to forget about the words of the chant and just try to pull the sound from our bodies and express the wisdom that is already there. We notice that this is easier when other people are there and we move together.
So the forms are working now, we are moving through the world from a place of deeper wisdom and now we are ready to really learn the heart of Zen. We have a sense of what they meant by embodied practice. Naturally some questions arise and then we notice the brain is creating turbulence just by searching for words for the things we can’t quite express. How are we ever going to learn to let go of self?
Emulation. Non-self is untalkaboutable, so that leaves doing. Look around the room and find someone with something that you want to understand and do what they do. They are an expression of the Dharma so just align yourself with it. Pay attention, get lost in this moment, let go of the differences and just move with them. Mirror every subtlety you can. Become someone else for a change. And as you do, notice the feeling and the wisdom that arises. This is the deepest way you can know anyone. You can trust the ego, you will return to self in no time so there’s no real danger here - just clinging. Let go of that clinging and allow the dance, your movements, to originate from another source and your understanding to access a larger world. This is what we call freedom. Take a look around the room and notice that you are reading things on a very intimate level now and notice that you might appear contained and restrained from the outside but this is just because you are traveling the deeper connections.
The forms teach grace, simplicity, alignment with our life, taking care, and reverence. They provide a basic skillset for moving though live. In the zendo, we enact this practice as katas, a patterned series of stillness and movements that we repeat until they become reflexes. Taitsu Unno describes this training beautifully in “Somatic Realization of the Lotus Sutra.”
On the physical level, the mastery of kata or “form” is the crux of the training. A model is demonstrated by the teacher, and the burden of learning is on the student, who repeatedly observes and emulates the model until the kata is completely internalized. This results in a centered stance, ambidextrous movement, fluid performance, and supple body and mind. In the process of this mastery, internal psychological changes occur. The monotonous repetition of kata practice tests the student’s commitment, sincerity, willpower, emotional stability, and inner strength, but most importantly it reduces stubbornness, curbs willfulness, and eliminates bad habits of the body. With the investment in time and effort, psychophysical maturity takes place, ultimately leading to the complete mastery of kata, which insures maximum performance, artistry, and power. The highest achievement, however, is spiritual, which is the displacement of a rigid ego-self with a fluid, integrated self, which can break free of kata, so that there appears spontaneously the unique flowering of talent, individual creativity, and uncanny resonance with reality.
Fortunately, enacting the forms, like any practice, is just the beginning. The resistance that we often experience on entering the zendo does have some value and that is met when we leave the zendo and go forth into the world. Having internalized the elements of form, our creativity can meet life with the virtuosity it takes to create our own style. No one follows you home, and since we vow to support all beings, we are here to celebrate the vision that arises from a deeper you. Understanding form, you can create any form you want to express your vision. Your life can cease to be a doodle and you can get down to creating a work of art.