On first coming to the monastery and entering the zendo, people are sometimes surprised by the extent of ritual that surrounds taking your meditation seat. Especially if they’ve been meditating on their own, they may think, what’s the big deal?
Centuries of experience in Zen monasteries has led to the development of practices designed to cultivate clarity of mind. This is particularly true of zazen, seated meditation. Whether sitting formally with a group or alone, zazen begins with a series of simple but intentional actions. Performing them wholeheartedly, we prepare ourselves to enter what Master Dōgen called “The dharma gate of great ease and joy.” Daido Roshi, founder of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Mountains and Rivers Order, writes, “Each one of us is perfect and complete, lacking nothing, but unless we see that, it is of no value to us. The only way to see it is through the dharma gate of liberation: zazen. It is the gateway, the absolute heart of our practice.”
Details of practice vary somewhat from one temple or Zen center to another, but at Zen Mountain Monastery, the process of taking one’s seat for zazen begins as we enter the zendo, which we do deliberately, neither too formally nor too casually. In this way, we establish our intention to enter fully into practice. Stepping across the threshold at the back of the hall, we bring the hands together in gassho and bow toward the altar at the front of the room. This is a bow to the Buddha, but also to the entire room and everyone in it, a recognition that while we sit alone, we also sit together. When sitting at home, one bows to the space where one sits.
After entering the zendo, we place the hands in shashu (the left hand in a fist and the right hand covering it at waist level), and walk to our seat. Facing the zabuton and zafu, we place our hands together in gassho and bow to our seat, then turn, hands still in gassho, and bow across the zendo. This bow, too, acknowledges the presence of the entire sangha.
Why do we bow to our seat? Not every Zen tradition includes this detail, but in Soto Zen, we bow to our cushion because it is the seat of enlightenment. Dōgen writes in The Wholehearted Way, “When one displays the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment.” How can we not bow?
After bowing to our seat and to other practitioners, we take one of the traditional zazen postures (described in detail elsewhere on this website) and arrange our bodies and minds. If wearing a robe, one arranges it neatly, folding the hem so it does not extend beyond the mat. The zendo settles into silence, the inkin, or bell, is struck three times to signal the beginning of the sitting period, and we are left with nothing but ourselves. After a period of zazen, before kinhin (walking meditation) or before leaving the zendo, we bow again to our seat and again at the threshold. Regarding bowing, Dōgen quotes a poem by his teacher Rujing:
Both the bower and the bowed-to
are empty and serene by nature—
the way flows freely between them.