Formal Zen practice in our tradition is done in three ways: bowing, chanting, and sitting meditation.
Traditionally, in China and Korea, only monastics engaged in Zen meditation, usually spending at least six months each year in retreat. Today, most Zen practitioners are ordinary men and women with jobs, families, and community obligations. Because few lay practitioners can dedicate themselves to full-time Zen meditation, modern Zen teaches the importance of “mind-sitting.”
Mind-sitting means keeping a not-moving mind in our everyday life situation. What are you doing right now? In each moment, just let go of your opinion, condition and situation. Then you become clear. When you are doing something, just do it. This is everyday Zen.
When we return to clarity in this moment, we can help ourselves and others. In the Kwan Um School of Zen, we call that great love, great compassion and the Great Bodhisattva Way. For all of us, the teaching of great love, great compassion and the Great Bodhisattva Way is very important. By doing Zen meditation to become clear, we can see our correct situation, our correct relationship and then act accordingly for the benefit of ourselves and all beings.
Why We Bow
By Zen Master Dae Bong
Bowing practice means that your body and your mind become one very quickly. Also, it is a very good way to take away lazy mind, desire mind and angry mind.
When you’re sleeping, your body’s laying in your bed, but your mind flies around and goes somewhere. Maybe you go to Las Vegas or you go to the ocean or you go to New York, or some monster is chasing you. Your body’s in bed, but your consciousness already went somewhere. When we wake up, many times, our consciousness and our body don’t quickly connect. So you wander around your house, and drink coffee, you bump into things.
Then slowly, slowly your consciousness and your body again come together. So that’s why, first thing in the morning, we do one hundred and eight bows. Through these one hundred and eight bows, your body and your consciousness become one very quickly. In this way, being clear and functioning clearly is possible.
We always bow one hundred and eight times. One hundred and eight is a number from Hinduism and Buddhism. That means there are one hundred and eight defilements in the mind. Or, sometimes they say one hundred and eight compartments in the mind. Each bow takes away one defilement, cleans one compartment in your mind. So our bowing practice is like a repentance ceremony every morning. In the daytime, in our sleep, our consciousness flies around somewhere. Also, we make something, we make many things in our consciousness. Then, we repent! So we do one hundred and eight bows; that’s already repenting our foolish thinking, taking away our foolish thinking.
Some people cannot sit. Sometimes due to health limitations or they have too much thinking, and if they sit, they cannot control their consciousness. Then, bowing is very good. Using your body in this way is very important.
The direction of bowing is very important. I want to put down my small I, see my true nature and help all beings. So, any kind of exercise can help your body and mind become one, but with just exercise, the direction is often not clear. Sometimes it’s for my health, sometimes it’s for my good looks, sometimes it’s to win a competition, but in Buddhism, everything’s direction is the same point – how to perceive my true nature and save all beings from suffering.
Our bowing takes away our karma mind, our thinking mind, and return to this moment very clearly, want to find my true nature and save all beings from suffering. This is why bowing practice is so important. If somebody has much anger, or much desire, or lazy mind, then every day, 300 bows, or 500 bows, even 1,000 bows, every day. Then their center will become very strong, they can control their karma, take away their karma, and become clear. This helps the practitioner and this world.
Why We Chant
By Zen Master Seung Sahn
One Sunday evening, after a Dharma talk at the International Zen Center of New York, a student asked Seung Sahn Soen-sa, “Why do you chant? Isn’t sitting Zen enough?”
Soen-sa said, “This is a very important matter. We bow together, chant together, eat together, sit together, and do many other things together here at the Zen Center. Why do we practice together?
“Everybody has different karma. So all people have different situations, different conditions, and different opinions. One person is a monk, another is a student, another works in a factory; one person always keeps a clear mind, another is often troubled or dissatisfied; one person likes the women’s movement, another doesn’t. But everybody thinks, ‘My opinion is correct!’ Even Zen Masters are like this. Ten Zen Masters will have ten different ways of teaching, and each Zen Master will think that his way is the best. Americans have an American opinion; Orientals have an Oriental opinion. Different opinions result in different actions, which make different karma. So when you hold on to your own opinions, it is very difficult to control your karma, and your life will remain difficult. Your wrong opinions continue, so your bad karma continues. But at our Zen Centers, we live together and practice together, and all of us abide by the Temple Rules. People come to us with many strong likes and dislikes, and gradually cut them all off. Everybody bows together 108 times at five-thirty in the morning, everybody sits together, everybody eats together, everybody works together. Sometimes you don’t feel like bowing; but this is a temple rule so you bow. Sometimes you don’t want to chant, to sleep; but you chant. Sometimes you are tired and want to but you know that if you don’t come to sitting, people will wonder why; so you sit.
“When we eat, we eat in ritual style, with four bowls; and after we finish eating, we wash out the bowls with tea, using our index finger to clean them. The first few times we ate this way, nobody liked it. One person from the Cambridge Zen Center came to me very upset. ‘I can’t stand this way of eating! The tea gets full of garbage! I can’t drink it!’ I said to him, ‘Do you know the Heart Sutra?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Doesn’t it say that things are neither tainted nor pure?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why can’t you drink the tea?’ ‘Because it’s filthy” ” (Laughter from the audience.) “‘Why is it filthy? These crumbs are from the food that you already ate. If you think the tea is dirty, it is dirty. If you think it is clean, it is clean.’ He said, ‘You’re right. I will drink the tea.”‘ (Laughter.)
“So we live together and act together. Acting together means cutting off my opinions, cutting off my condition, cutting off my situation. Then we become empty mind. We return to white paper. Then our true opinion, our true condition, our true situation will appear. When we bow together and chant together and eat together, our minds become one mind. It is like on the sea. When the wind comes, there are many waves. When the wind dies down, the waves become smaller. When the wind stops, the water becomes a mirror, in which everything is reflected-mountains, trees, clouds. Our mind is the same. When we have many desires and many opinions, there are many big waves. But after we sit Zen and act together for some time, our opinions and desires disappear. The waves become smaller and smaller. Then our mind is like a clear mirror, and everything we see or hear or smell or taste or touch or think is the truth. Then it is very easy to understand other people’s minds. Their minds are reflected in my mind.
“So chanting is very important. At first you won’t understand. But after you chant regularly, you will understand. ‘Ah, chanting-very good feeling!’ It is the same with bowing 108 times. At first people don’t like this. Why do we bow? We are not bowing to Buddha, we are bowing to ourselves. Small I is bowing to Big I. Then Small I disappears and becomes Big I This is true bowing. So come practice with us. You will soon understand.”
The student bowed and said, “Thank you very much.”
Kong-ans (Ch.: kung-an, Jap.: koan, meaning “public case”) have their origin in the records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. An important part of kong-an practice is the private exchange between teacher and student wherein the teacher checks the student’s grasp of the point of the kong-an. Kong-ans are probably best known for the unusual, seemingly non-rational quality of their questions, language and dialogues, and are not meant to be studied, analyzed or approached conceptually. The kong-an is an experiential tool that helps us cut through our thinking so that we can just perceive and function clearly. It is an essential part of Zen practice.
Here’s a famous example:
A monk asked Joju, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joju answered “Mu.”
That’s the kong-an. Then there are questions connected with the kong-an, for example: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”
Sometimes the kong-an and the question are the same, for example: “The whole universe is on fire; through what kind of samadhi can you escape from being burned?”
Associated with kong-ans are short commentaries, sometimes in the form of poems.
Some kong-ans go back over 1500 years, others are created spontaneously by the teacher right there in the interview room.
Some Zen schools recommend using the kong-an as the single-pointed focus of meditation. This is not our style. Our kong-an practice has two functions: it helps us keep the correct direction of our practice—only don’t know—and it helps our wisdom to grow. The kong-an will often come up naturally during practice and in our life, so there is no need to make a special effort to hold it. Don’t worry about this. If we practice sincerely, the kong-an interview will take care of itself.
There is an interview room etiquette, involving bows and prostrations. The teacher will help you through it your first time, and as many times as you need afterward.
Further reading about kong-ans: