Our Zen Forms
When participating via the online zendo: the forms here are much simplified. The best approach is to (a) just watch someone else who seems to know what they're doing, and (b) don't worry about getting it right.
The forms are the etiquette of Zen practice. While they may appear complex and nit-picky, in time they free us from distraction so we can pay attention to what's happening in our heads. The forms are an opportunity to focus one's own practice and to support the practice of others, never a justification of judgement (self or other). Do not get caught up in memorizing the forms. Zen students are strongly advised to study their resistance to the forms. There is also a downloadable handout on our forms.
Movement in the Zendo
(for this list, the Zendo refers to a sitting room with an alter)
- Movement rules of thumb
- movement is clockwise
- movement is square, not cutting corners
- Do not pass between the altar and the bowing mat unless you are stopping for business at the altar
- Do not pass in front of people sitting in meditation if there is a path behind them instead (such as when going to practice discussion)
- Do not enter/exit the zendo through unofficial passages such as between cushions or partitions
- A "gassho" bow is performed with hands in prayer position. Bows are generally gassho unless specified otherwise.
- A "shashu" bow is performed with left hand in a fist at the navel and right hand wrapped around it. The congregation with the exception of the officiating priest stands upright with hands in shashu for most of duration of services.
- Bow just inside the door when entering or exiting the zendo
- Bow when passing in front of the altar
- EXCEPTION to the two forms above: when the sangha (community) moves into our out of the zendo together, we move as one body, not stopping to bow
- When arriving at your cushion, or when standing up after sitting, bow to your cushion and then turn away from it (clockwise) and bow to the sangha.
- When the person immediately adjacent to you bows to their cushion when you are sitting, bow in return (regardless of whether your are facing toward them or away)
- When someone bows immediately in front of you, bow in return. For example, return a bow to someone in a row three feet from yours whose bow is in front of you. This does not include people diagonal, or two rows away, or on the other side of the room.
- When the priests are placing their zagu cloths down before bowing, prepare for bowing yourself by standing with your hands in gassho (prayer posture).
- When at retreat and encountering another Zen student outside buildings, stop and bow when about 3 steps apart.
- When the sangha exits the zendo together, especially at retreat, the sangha moves as one body. Do not stop to remove your rakusu or okesa, or re-arrange your lay-out, and the tenken should not delay to extinguish the candles. Rather, individuals can re-enter the zendo afterward for this.
Kinhin (walking meditation)
the Tenken (timekeeper) clacks to start kinhin, everyone does a gassho
bow before walking meditation, or moving to
the toilet or elsewhere, or sitting back down during kinhin (such as those with difficulty walking).
- After others leave, those remaining in the walking circle for kinhin look around and spread out evenly in the circle, moving backward if necessary to get even spacing.
- Walk about one half step with each breath, but change stride length to maintain equal distance in front and behind you.
- After using the toilet, rejoin the walking meditation line with a small gassho bow. Those already in line do not return the bow.
- Upon the clack to stop kinhin, make a shashu bow, then immediately take one step forward, and continue briskly in the direction of travel back to your cushion. Do not bow to your cushion and away at this time. Those sitting for the duration of kinhin do not need to stand up again.
- The Tenken leads a gassho bow by everyone, and then sit down
- The practice schedule is considered an important form, one which is often the subject of resistance.
- Be at your cushion by the second roll-down of the han call to practice (the roll-down followed by two strikes). This is three and a half minutes before the posted start of sitting.
- If you arrive to the zendo after sitting has started, sit meditation in the lobby until the next kinhin.
- If you arrive after a service has started, perform three prostrations and then proceed to your place
- Caring for all beings means taking care of your own health. Where the forms are not healthy for you, it is appropriate to modify them in consultation with a teacher. For example, if doing full prostrations is exacerbates back problems, you and the teacher might decide for you to do standing bows instead, or to go down for the first prostration in a set of three but not come back up to standing until all three are done.
Hygiene and Carriage
- After standing up from sitting, quietly and quickly brush off the zabuton (flat mat) and fluff the zafu (pillow cushion)
- Dark plain colors are traditionally worn to reduce distraction for others.
- Avoid wearing perfumes or using scented body care products
- Please do not wear your shoes or a hat in the zendo (shoulders and knees are traditionally covered).
- When coughing or sneezing, bow down and bury your face deeply into the crook of your elbow to muffle sound and contain germs
- Avoid speech and other sounds
- Minimize movement while sitting. If you do need to move perform a gassho bow before moving, make the adjustment, bow again, return to stillness.
- During practice, keep your gaze downward, not engaging others
- It is acceptable and appropriate to make an opportunity to wash your hands before meals
- Strikes on the han begin ten minutes before practice. The pattern includes three roll-downs (strikes of increasing frequency) followed by timing hits.
- Three small bells indicates start of sitting meditation.
- Two small bells indicates end of sitting meditation followed by walking meditation.
- One small bell indicates end of sitting meditation followed by something else.
- One clack indicates the start or end of walking meditation.
- A roll-down of small bells indicates to prepare for prostrations.
- A roll-down of clacks indicates then end of work or informal period.
- During the large bells starting a chant service, two small bells indicates for everyone to sit down (formally, to sit seiza on their heels).
- During the dedication of merit at the end of a chant service, one small bell indicates for everyone to bow (or stop bowing). If there is no small bell during the dedication of merit, only the doshi priest at the bowing mat bows; everyone else stands with hands in shashu.
- Oryoki bowls, ceremonial garments (okesas and rakusus), sutras, and offering bowls are carried with two hands, never under another object, and at eye level when in the zendo.
Exception: ceremonial garments can also be tucked into the robe against the heart.
- When helping to arrange cushions, do so respectfully with two hands, not tossing or kicking them. Don't move cushions with your feet.
- Chant books while being used are held with two hands, thumbs and pinkies inside the book and the other fingers outside on the cover. Chant books are to be respected; avoid placing things on top of them. In some circumstances, they may be stored under the zabuton mat.
- Formal posture for resting is knees bent at chest with arms wrapped around them
- When laying down in the zendo, soles of feet should point away from the altar
- A separate page of oryoki eating forms is forthcoming.
- A separate page of forms for serving tea and food is forthcoming
Garments (rakusus and okesas)
- The rakusu or okesa represents Buddha's robe and is treated with respect and reverence.
- When beginning practice together mid-day or evening we do the robe chant individually and enter the zendo wearing rakusu/ okesa.
- When beginning practice together in the early morning we do the robe chant together. Carry the rakusu/okesa into the zendo and put it on together after we chant.
- Don't wear rakusu/okesa into the bathroom.
- When carrying the rakusu/okesa it should always be on top of the stack and held in both hands.
- When removing the rakusu/okesa either put it back in it's case or place it on an altar. Hanging it from the hooks besides the bathroom doors is also fine.