Fifteen years ago, I felt unsettled after reading a transcription of a talk given by one of my Zen teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson. The piece was entitled “A Ceremony for the Encouragement of Zazen”.
I felt fine about Tenshin Roshi expressing the common Zen teaching that full liberation (and “oneness with the universe”) is not something that we can simply capture or do through our own intentions or efforts, but that we can align with our true place in the cosmos by sitting meditation (called “zazen” in Japanese Zen). What this piece said that I had not heard before, and disliked reading, was the idea that the true meaning of meditation is only realized within the context of a “ceremony”.
What I understood Reb to be saying is, cosmic truth and spiritual freedom are inside of and all around us all of the time, like radio or TV waves are, but we tune into those frequencies through the ceremonial action of formal zazen, just as a radio or TV has us tune in and have the experience of those mediums. Performing the ceremony, he seemed to be saying, is a key aspect to our proper harmonization.
[You can read the whole piece here, if desired – please note that, in his exposition, the word “zazen” sometimes has its usual meaning of “seated meditation practice”, but, more often, Reb seems to use it to mean something more like “awakened, fully healthy, liberated consciousness” or “the deepest spiritual truth”.]
As I said, when I first read Reb’s words, I found them confronting, upsetting, and difficult to accept. I respected Tenshin Roshi and considered him to be one of my teachers, and so I wanted to take everything he taught seriously. But the idea that meditation only happens when one performs a specific “ceremony” was one I had a difficult time accepting.
[Tenshin Roshi officiates a Zen ceremony]
My vipassana teacher Shinzen Young teaches that effective meditation is a combination of three factors: (1) concentration of our minds on whatever it is that we are experiencing, (2) a clear, detailed awareness of the rich and deep details of whatever we are experiencing, and (3) a balanced, calm, equanimous, non-reactive, matter-of-fact attitude towards all of it as well. Meditation practice, in this formulation, is a matter of experiencing as much of these three aspects of mind as we are able to generate in any and all situations that we are in during the day – from formal, traditional cross-legged meditation in a room full of monks (complete with chanting and bowing before and afterwards), to informal situations like driving a car, folding laundry, and doing dishes (or even while working at a computer or having a conversation). So, I rebelled against Reb’s idea of “meditation as ceremony”, because I believed that achieving meditative states of mind can and should be done any time, and does not depend of bowing a certain number of times or lighting the right incense before sitting down, or holding one’s hands in any particular shape.
When I was living in Zen monasteries here in America, my fellow (American) monks and I would dismiss some of the formal, complicated, and ritual actions that we were asked to do as “Japanese, not Buddhist”. In other words, we would conclude, Japan is a highly ritualized, highly formal culture, and Japanese Zen Buddhism reflects this formality – and because of this, certain ornate traditional practices in Japanese-lineage Zen monasteries seemed to us to be training us to be more like traditional formal Japanese people, and, we felt, were not necessary, or even helpful, towards the actual core Buddhist goal of spiritual development and liberation.
After reading Tenshin Roshi’s unusual teachings and feeling upset, I eventually felt better by concluding that they were in the category of “Japanese, not Buddhist”, and therefore I could safely ignore them. I knew from my years of studying with Reb that he is a diligent and thorough student of traditional Zen forms, and an unusually ceremonially-oriented guy; I had often watched him complete flawless execution of complicated traditional rituals while wearing perfectly crisp traditional Zen robes. I also knew that he adhered to many Japanese Zen formal traditions that other more informal American teachers had dispensed with. I thought to myself, if he wants to make a big Japanese ritual out of meditating, great, he can do that, that’s his trip – it’s not for me.
[Tenshin Reb Anderson and a senior student]
The idea of “meditation as a ceremony” seemed to me to be just one more ancient Buddhist teaching that, as I initially encountered it, seemed out-of-date and dead, overly theoretical and dry, religious-y, or otherwise irrelevant to my life. To be honest, there are a few traditional Buddhist teachings that still seem that way to me (for example, the meditation instruction to break down all experience as “fire element”, “air element”, “water element”, or “earth element”). Almost all traditional teachings that I have initially dismissed as irrelevant, however (for example, the complicated and abstract doctrine of the chain of dependent coarising, or the value of doing dirty work like raking or gardening while wearing our try-to-keep-them-clean monastic robes), I have eventually come to see differently. I have realized that most of these teachings were far from pointless or out-of-date, and that my initial discomfort with them was more because I had simply lacked the maturity to fully understand them. With time, I now have come to see them as vibrantly, intensely relevant and helpful to my life and to my spiritual development
In this vein, now, years later, I have come to see the wisdom and value in Tenshin Roshi’s teaching of meditation as a ceremony, an idea that, again, I initially disagreed with and dismissed. While I do think the meditative mind can and ideally is a state of mind that we can cultivate for all of the activities of our entire day (without any formal practices, settings, or preliminaries), I have also come to see the importance of creating a ceremonial ritual around our formal sitting practice.
A central theme to the writings of the renowned early twentieth century mythologist and religious historian Mercea Eliade was the polarity between the sacred and the profane; he explained that religious activity gives structure and orientation to human life by ceremonially evoking a sense of the true sacred reality in the midst of daily, undirected profane existence. He explained that transformational religious practice (of which Buddhist meditation is an example) is like an alchemical crucible, a structured container inside of which an initial (more “profane”) substance is sealed in, a process of transformation occurs, and then a different, more refined and pure (and more “sacred”) substance emerges. Ceremony and ritual are what create the structure of the crucible of religious transformation.
We all know that we have different times of the day for different activities – working, sleeping, eating, socializing and loving, exercising, showering, and more – and that we behave quite differently in each of those different contexts. We also speak in different ways to our coworkers, love partners, buddies, strangers on the street, and grandmothers. As the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible famously says, “To everything there is a season, and a specific time to every purpose under Heaven.” So, perhaps it is appropriate to take time in our life to formally bow and chant and then ceremonially sit upright and still, while allowing for the fact that this level of formality and artificiality is not something that we aim for during the rest of our day.
Also, experience shows that regularly engaging in a formal ceremony of meditation in which we create a formal ritualized setting and sit in an unusual, upright posture cooperates nicely, rather than clashing, with also having a context of mindfulness as we go about all of the various activities of our daily life. And just as great enlightened beings like Ramana Maharshi have taught that we can both experience ourselves “being one with everything” and also wait until traffic comes to a stop before walking across a crosswalk, so we can also believe in the sacredness of each person, each thing, and each moment, while still regularly engaging in a ceremonial meditation practice that specifically cultivates a heightened immediate sense of sacredness.
Some people object to the idea of formality in their meditation practice, wanting meditation to be as informal, immediate, and “natural” as possible. However, it may help to consider that the most natural and pure form of meditation practice is to simply be an enlightened, liberated person, and to have one’s psyche continuously naturally and effortlessly groove with the vibrations of pure being. If that lofty state does not yet describe us, and if we gain value from any intentional, structured meditation practice (counting breaths, noting body sensations, repeating a mantra, noticing and letting go of thoughts, affirmations and other forms of recollection, or even simply trying to follow some self-improvement suggestion we read in a self-help book or read in a magazine), then it may help to keep in mind that our intentional practice is as removed from natural purity (and also as necessary for growth and development) as practicing scales is to improvising music.
So, the general advice for formal meditation periods is to not just plop down and start. As we begin our sits, we can instead create a sense of care, respect, and veneration by having a little ritual of preparation.
Traditional aids to set the proper mood and provide encouragement include a darkened room with a candle, lighting incense, reading scripture or something else inspirational, chanting, or ringing a bell to start and end your sessions. These are of course optional practices, and I do not myself do them when meditating at home. Many people, however, find that one or more such traditional practices help to drop into meditative consciousness more rapidly.
Another ritual aid is to have a spot in the house reserved for the activity of sitting meditation. As I wrote in another blog post, “It helps to set a regular, standard daily time for formal meditation practice. It we sit at the same time each day, getting clear starts to become a part of our body’s circadian rhythms, something we can slip into comparatively easily and without thinking about it. This is similar to how we might shower before work or brush our teeth after dinner as a matter of habit. If we set a regular daily time, we start to meditate independent of our preferences and opinions, and no matter what the lawyers of our mind argue as to whether we have other things to do. For similar reasons, a supportive regular framework for inner transformation is also created by sitting meditation in the same location each day, and by performing uniform little rituals of bowing, chanting, and the like before and after our daily sitting.”
My personal morning meditation ritual begins after I have taken care of first-thing-waking-up needs, and put on socks and a heavy hoodie over my pajama top. I then place my sitting cushion either on my bed (if the sun is not yet shining through my living room window) or in the corner of my living room (if it is). I grab my timer, a blanket to put over my legs, and a roll of toilet paper in case my nose runs, and place these items next to my cushion. As is traditional in Zen, I then bow to my cushion, as a gesture of respect to it, and I bow out to the world, to acknowledge that my sitting is in service of the world’s positive evolution.
Once seated, I bring my attention to my posture – lifting up the crown of my head, balancing my head on my neck, leveling my chin with the ground, dropping my shoulders and relaxing my arms, broadening my chest, extending my spine, bringing my shoulder blades down my back, relaxing and opening my belly, and letting the joints of my lower body relax.
[La Postura de Meditación]
When I am upright and relaxed, I engage in a practice that was taught to me by my Zen teacher Ryushin Paul Haller: I take five intentional deep breaths to create an embodied sense of transition between normal everyday “profane” mind and the “scared” space of meditation in which my spiritual transformation occurs (actually, I take five breaths only if I am going to sit half an hour or longer – if my sitting will be shorter, I take fewer deep breaths).
During these hard breaths, I contract and lock the muscles of my belly and pelvic floor on the exhalation. This practice is known as mula bandha and uddiyana bandha locks in yoga, and was taught to me as a way to begin meditation by a Rinzai Zen priest. Often I enjoy the feeling of invigoration and also exotic unusualness that these locks bring to my ceremonial deep breaths. I would, however, advise against trying these locks unless you already know how to do them, or have someone to personally train you how to do them.
After the five abdomen-locked breaths, I then take two deep, fully relaxed breaths. On the inhalation of these, I breathe a feeling of allowing, love, and spaciousness into any tense, contracted, or numb spots that I notice in my body. On the exhalation, I visualize tension and deadness draining out of my body and down into the Earth. I do this practice at the suggestion of my teacher Gil Fronsdal, who recommends starting meditation in a relaxed state, so as to go deeper and farther from there, rather than approaching a meditation session trying to get relaxation out of it.
After my seven total deep breaths, I allow myself to start breathing in a natural and unforced manner. I then announce to myself, inside my head, what technique I will be doing for the commencing sitting period. Being overt about my intention in that way seems to create clarity of purpose, and also seems to correlate with me more actually doing the technique during my sitting period (as opposed to spacing out and/or thinking).
My final preparatory practice, which I have heard various teachers recommend, is to remind myself what my motivation is for meditating that day – for example, I may feel drawn to meditation because I want to chill out my chattering mind, because I want to unravel the tangles in my mind body and soul, because I want to attain spiritual clarity, because I want to have easier relationships, or simply because I have a commitment to formally meditate every day without missing any. Keeping the “benefits of meditation” fresh in mind in such a way, I find, helps meditation to have a richer, more alive feeling, and to generate a feeling of enthusiasm and motivation. My teacher Eijun Linda-Ruth Cutts used to say: “Let us renew our sacred vow every time we sit down to meditate.”
After those various preliminaries, I then begin whatever technique I have decided on for the day. Usually, about one to two minutes have passed since I hit “start” on my timer.
After my timer buzzes at the end of my meditation, I bow with my hands together in prayer, and I say (and feel) the traditional Buddhist benediction, “May all beings be happy.” When I lead group meditations, after I ring a bell to end the sit, I ask participants to join me in these two actions as well.
It is common for Buddhist meditators, both in the West and in Asia, to end a session of seated concentration or insight meditation with an extended session of loving-kindness/metta meditation. My teacher Gil Fronsdal also recommends sometimes taking the time after formal meditation for some brief writing and reflection on how the meditation went, how it was similar or different to other meditation sessions, what worked well, and what could be done more effectively.
I have found that engaging in ritualistically ceremonial actions like this at the beginning and end of my sessions of formal meditation helps, like the opening and closing ceremony of the Olympics, both to create more of a sense of richness for everything that happens in between, and to create more of a positive impact after the event is over.