The meaning of rituals
The meaning of our rituals
Why do we do ceremonies? What is the meaning of the
Teisho of Yuno Rech at the Gendronnière on Wednesday,
August 27, 2008.
The rationale of this teisho is a conversation I
overheard this morning after the gen mai, which alerted me to the fact that
some of you were a bit irritated by discovering once again some changes in our
rituals. For some, this will go so far as to introduce doubts in their minds
about the meaning of their practice and their participation. I thought it was
important enough to talk about it right away.
I will speak at several levels: firstly about the
importance or necessity of ceremonies, of recitation or even the study of the
sutras. And secondly, in a more practical vein, I shall discuss the reason why,
in the last four to five years, you have been witness to periodic changes in
the ritual, here at the Gendronnière or even in the various sanghas. First I
will try to clarify what is the need for change, if any, or the meaning of it,
if there is one. Then I will answer your questions.
THE NEED FOR CEREMONIES.
To begin with, concerning the need for ceremonies or
recitation of the sutras, I would say that my position is exactly the same as
Nyojo reported by Dogen in the Hokyoki. When questioned by Dogen, Nyojo said,
‘the essence Zen is the practice of zazen, body and spirit completely stripped,
shin jin datsu raku’.
Nyojo then adds: ‘it is not necessary to burn incense,
to pay homage to Shakyamuni Buddha, the patriarchs, etc., or recite the
nembutsu (which was in vogue at the time of Dogen and Nyojo: “Namu Amida Butsu”
which is repeated like a mantra). It is also not necessary to do penance and
repent, nor to read or recite the sutras. Only sit in zazen, with one mind:
In the following mondo, Dogen asks, ‘but what does
shin jin datsu raku mean? ’.
So Nyojo insists by saying: ‘shin jin datsu raku’ is
zazen: when you do zazen with one mind, that is to say, totally focused,
absorbed in the practice of zazen, you are freed from the five desires and you
eliminate the five obstacles. That is to say that you are truly awake,
liberated. This is the very meaning of Buddha’s teaching, as he transmitted it:
to free oneself from the causes of suffering and thus be able to awaken to the
reality as it is. This is clearly the essence of Zen that was transmitted from
Nyojo to Dogen, and from Dogen to all the masters of transmission up to Kodo
Sawaki, Master Deshimaru and ourselves.
I think we have no doubt about it. In any case, I do
So from that point of view then, we can say that zazen
is the essence, we could just do zazen only: there is no need for ceremonies or
even to study, sing or recite sutras.
To continue in this line of argument, I will refer to
a famous mondo between a monk and Master Gensha.
The monk asked Gensha: ‘Are the Three Vehicles – the
first being the listeners Vehicle, shravaka of those who are awakened through
the study of the Four Noble Truths; the second being that of Pratyeka Buddha
awake solitary, usually awake by understanding emptiness, through the
understanding of the Twelve Innen, the Twelve Causes interdependent; the third
is that of the bodhisattva vehicle whose fundamental practice and source of
enlightenment is the practice of Paramita – so do these three vehicles, asks
the monk, and the Twelve Kinds of Scripture – because all teachings Buddha were
listed, this resulted in a ranking of the sutra scriptures and in twelve
categories, Twelve Kinds of scripture – then do it all, is that it is not
necessary? And what about the sense of Western Bodhidharma coming? ’
And Gensha confirms: ‘The Three Vehicles and the
Twelve kinds of Scriptures are not needed. ’
In other words, studying the sutras and all the
Buddha’s teachings is not necessary.
The last question of the monk is explained by the fact
that long ago the opinion, particularly in the Zen school and especially the
Rinzai Zen, that the coming of Bodhidharma from India to China introduced a
service of Dharma deeper than the various aspects of Buddha’s teaching
presented by the Three Vehicles and the Twelve Kinds of Scripture, which
includes all sutras.
It also said that the special transmission
Mahakashyapa Buddha outside of the Scriptures, with the famous silent mondo
where Buddha simply twirled a flower between his fingers and smiled when
Mahakashyapa. In the transmission of Zen, this fact is considered the origin of
what is called the transmission i shin den shin, direct transmission beyond
words, beyond the sutra, heart to heart, mind to mind. And the coming of
Bodhidharma in China, about a millennium after transmission Mahakashyapa
Buddha, was the renewal of the transmission i shin den shin and confirmed the
superiority of this transmission beyond scriptures, in silence. In the case of
course Bodhidharma, the transmission is made through the silent practice of
zazen facing the wall, and Eka has just received prostrate in sanpai as
Mahakashyapa had simply smiled seeing the gesture of turning the flower.
CEREMONIES WHICH ARE NOT NECESSARY… BUT USEFUL AND
So there is this view that if we understand the
meaning of this i shin den shin transmission, everything else is not necessary.
One can even also wonder if zazen is still necessary. And Dogen, who addresses
this question confirms the view of Gensha saying that, indeed, when the Dharma
wheel turns, it’s the rotation of what is not necessary. At the same time, in
this rotation of the wheel of Dharma, we find all the teachings of Buddha. And
Dogen insists that ‘not necessary’ does not mean we cannot use them, and that
we should discard them. Conversely, we can say that in fact, it is because it
is not needed, that they can be used freely. The essence of Buddha Dharma, is
to achieve this dimension where nothing is required, which means the mushotoku
dimension, the dimension in which there is no need to add something to reality
as it is being actualized from moment to moment, especially in the practice of
It is not because it is not necessary that we will not
practice the rituals. This non-necessity gives us the freedom to do only zazen
and nothing else. But that does not mean we will do zazen all day and nothing
else; it does not mean it is not useful or meaningful to express what is
achieved in the practice of zazen, particularly through the ceremonies, and through
all the gestures of everyday life, the gyoji, and in so doing find the
expression of what is realized in zazen, in the sutras and through all the
teachings of the Twelve Scriptures.
In other words, ceremonies, sutras, are expressions of
what is contained, involved in the practice of zazen, in the realization of
zazen. This is Dotoku, the expression of the Way. Realizing this is one thing,
expressing it is another. And both are, I would not say necessary, but
Precisely in the Dotoku of the Shobogenzo,
Dogen says, ‘When the Way is realized, it is expressed spontaneously. ’
And, of course, it can be expressed not only in the
ceremonies but throughout the course of action in everyday life. So in that
case, what is the point of the ceremonies themselves?
I believe that the ceremonies are not necessary but
useful, as soon as there is a gathering of a community of practitioners of the
Way. They help to harmonize the community: we meet regularly to sing, recite
the sutras. Through this recitation, learning to sing not only with the mouth
but with the ears; and in so doing, to listen, to harmonize with others.
Moreover, the meaning of all that we sing is completely connected to the
practice of zazen: the Hannya Shingyo, the Sandokai are completely the
expression of the essence of the experience of zazen. I will not dwell on it:
it would take several sesshin kusen, which have already been made to explain
In this particular case, the rituals can be helpful.
But they can be a cause of confusion if they occupy too much space, take too
much importance in the gyoji; or if they end up virtually replacing zazen as is
the case in some Japanese temples. In order to have more time for rituals, the
duration of zazen is significantly reduced, or else ceremonies are performed
for the lay practitioners, who make fuse for this, and we reserve the practice
of zazen for the monks.
It is this kind of deviation that can completely
distort both the meaning of the ceremonies and the sense of what is truly the
essence of Zen. So what about the meaning of the ceremonies? What about the
fact, in particular, that several things are recited during a ceremony?
It is precisely because we have been attending
Japanese masters, doing sesshin in Japan or doing ango here that we understand
better and better the meaning of the ritual, and this in turn has led us
periodically to make small changes to try to be more accurate in what we do.
It must be said, to better understand the context,
that Master Deshimaru when he came to Europe in 1967, had only been ordained as
a monk for a year. He had a long practice of zazen but as a lay practitioner;
he went to sesshins with Master Kodo Sawaki, but he had little experience of
life in temples. So he created… Moreover, he had no specific plans to introduce
a Zen ritual because he thought it was not at all suited to the European
mentality – I think he was right, so he started very simply. First he recited
the Hannya Shingyo, then after he added the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva, etc.
At the end, when he died, we were basically singing
the Hannya Shingyo three times and then the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva, Eko
and the Ji Ho San Shi.
A first change was made after his death because we
said: after all, you do not have to sing all the time Hannya Shingyo three
times; there are other sutras that can be sung, that are very significant in
our tradition. And then were added the Sandokai and alternately the Hokyozanmai
and the Daishin Darani. Then, instead of singing a relatively short Eko which
summarizes the lineage, we starting singing the complete Buddha Shakyamuni
lineage until Keizan, then Kodo Sawaki, Master Deshimaru and in my Sangha, Niwa
This was the first change. The goal was not to prolong
the ceremonies, but to vary a little, instead of singing the same thing all the
time. And for a long time in sesshins we sang in addition to the Hannya
Shingyo, either the Sandokai, the Hokyozanmai, or the Daishin Darani. We even
started singing the Kannon Gyo, always alternately. And alternatively also the
Another aspect is that each of these sutras is
dedicated to specific beings. This is an opportunity to deepen a little more
the meaning of the ritual.
Rituals in Zen are not accomplished for acquiring
merits and they are not necessary. They are really performed with a mushotoku
mind: we do not expect to gain anything by them, but are the expression of at
least three things, and sometimes more.
The first thing is expressed through the Hannya
Shingyo is truly the deepest dimension of the awakening of zazen: wisdom. The
sutra of the Hannya Shingyo is the expression of wisdom and compassion as
manifested when we practice zazen deeply.
Another important feeling expressed during the
ceremony is gratitude, that is to say, thanking Buddha for having opened the
path of practice as we continue zazen.
In temples in Japan where there is a series of sutras
sung in the morning ceremony, there is an eko after each sutra, because each
sutra is intended to express gratitude or another feeling toward some people.
The Hannya Shingyo is intended for Buddha and the
founders. This morning we raised the question of who were the four great
benefactors. As shown in the abbreviated eko, these benefactors are: Buddha,
Bodhidharma, Dogen and Keizan. These are usually the four founders to which we
express our gratitude by singing the Hannya Shingyo.
Then we express our gratitude to the entire lineage of
the Patriarchs, and sing either after the Hokyozanmai or the Sandokai. As far
as we are concerned, we usually stop there. For many it is already too much! So
we will not add anything else.
But in Japan traditionally a third sutra is sung for
parents, families and ancestors. It expresses once again gratitude for parents,
family, and ancestors. If our ancestors had not lived and had not given us
life, we would not be here practicing the Way. So naturally after zazen, we
thank our parents for allowing us, by giving us life, to practice the Way.
And there is a fourth category of people who might
have a sutra, sometimes in the form of a kito, dedicated to them, e.g. the
Daishin Darani. These are the sick and also the dead. In this case it is not
gratitude we express for the sick or the dead, but compassion.
So three feelings or spiritual values are expressed in
the ceremony: the actualization of wisdom, compassion and gratitude.
But why do ceremonies change? To put it simply,
because we understand better their meaning. And not, in my case, because we
should have more of them and longer ones. But I think we have to perform them
in the best possible manner and develop the meaning and coherence of what we do
in keeping with the meaning it has for us.
For those of you who are offended because ceremonies
often change, or even change all the time, I would insist that basically the
Buddha Way is the Way of mujo, impermanence. This is the way that teaches us to
harmonize with impermanence, to achieve a gentle, flexible mind, that does not
stagnate, nor crystallize on things that we believe we control, and which we
want to take as a support, without questioning them.
Obviously it’s annoying when one says, ‘I thought I
knew how to strike the small bell; and there is a change and we will have to
relearn again. ’ I understand very well that it is tiresome or even a source of
irritation. But we should keep things in perspective.
But you still have to understand that, accepting the
fact that there is change, is also part of practice and of enlightenment.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO SPECIFICALLY IN OUR DOJOS?
Now let us turn to more specific issues: you come to
the Gendronnière and you hope to go back with a clearer idea of what you are
going to practice in your dojo. This is normal: for this is like our head
temple here, where we come to enquire and train.
Each Godo each sangha probably has his way of seeing
things but for me, I think the practice in the Gendronnière comes closer and
closer to a temple practice. It is the place where one can get to know and
experience how the ritual is practiced in a temple. But in the dojos which are
in town, there is not much time for zazen in the morning and we cannot afford
to add more rituals. It’s not necessary.
On top of that, most people who come to Zen, often
come to it because they were disappointed with their original religion and find
it too ritualized, as Catholicism for instance. We come to Zen because we think
it’s simpler, it’s basically just sitting, just meditating. You do not come
there to spend a lot of time doing rituals, even if I do think that is a
minimum of rituals is a good thing.
If you feel that it’s more important to have a long
morning zazen and then just ring the bell and leave, or do sanpai and go, it is
possible. There is no obligation to do a ritual.
Similarly, if you create a new zazen group, with lots
of beginners that you do not want to bother with ceremonies at the end of
zazen, a quick strike of the bell, and it’s over. That’s enough, no need to do
But in general, for well-established dojos with a
sangha where there are already monks and nuns, you can sing, as we do in Nice
or during a weekend sesshin, the Kesa Sutra, followed by the Hannya Shingyo and
alternately either the Sandokai or the Hokyozanmai or the eko of the
Patriarchs, or the eko corresponding to what was sung, and the Ji Ho San Shi.
If you are in a hurry, you can do as Master Deshimaru did at the Paris Dojo
where we just sang a Hannya Shingyo, the Four Vows, the Shigu Sei, Eko and Ji
Ho San Shi.
Again, if you’re really in a hurry, you can do
nothing! No problem. It is the basis. If you understand that there is no need,
then you can freely practice and consider the ceremonies as a means among
others to express the realization of zazen, that is to say, gratitude,
compassion, wisdom, the ability to be attentive and to harmonize with others.
All this is expressed both in the samu, in the acts of daily life, the meals
taken together, the respect due to others in daily life, in public places,
toilets, the bar, the rooms, etc.
In fact the entire universe is a place where we can
express the realization of the Way which is not limited to a small ritual that
takes place in a dojo, a restricted space, cut off from the rest of the world.
It’s the same with the sutras. We talked about the
twelve kinds of scripture: all the sutras are absolutely not limited to the
writings and words of the Buddha. In fact, all phenomena are sutras. The herbs,
the trees, the lake, the sun, the moon, the stars, all the phenomena of daily
life, meals, work: all these are sutras. They actualize the ultimate truth.
And if, through the practice of zazen, we open
ourselves to the intuition of this reality, we can find it everywhere.
And ‘everywhere’ becomes a sutra and the opportunity
to express the awakening of zazen, beyond formalized rituals that take place in
That’s what I wanted to say.
As this is a subject a little ‘bright’, where now two,
three questions I want to answer, if it’s fast…
Q1: What bothers me actually in ceremonies is the
question of language.
A: Indeed, we are frequently criticized for singing in
Chinese, or Japanese. This is justified. But there are two reasons why this
singing in Chinese or Japanese s kept.
The first is that our Sangha is international. Here,
there are English, German, Italian, Flemish, Spanish speakers… If we began to
sing in French, a there are people who could not sing with us, because they do
not know the language. We can say that China is a little like our Latin, the
universal language but I do not exclude at all that in the dojos, you could try
to recite sutras in French. The problem is how to find the musicality, the
rhythm. There are people who worked on it, it’s not easy but it can be done.
There is an interesting idea that I have applied: instead of singing two sutras
you could try to read its translation before singing it. I remind you that the
translations of all the sutras we sing are available. Moreover, when you sing
you have no time to think, this is not the time for reflection but time for
expressing. It’s more important at this time to be in harmony with others to
sing with the hara, to be in with your expiration. And this is why syllables,
monosyllables in the sutras, as in the Hannya Shingyo: ’kan/ji/zai … ’ lend
themselves well to chant and sing with the hara, much better than French or
These are the reasons why we still continue to sing in
2 Q: You said just now that Master Deshimaru did not
want to introduce the ceremonies in Europe because he was afraid that there
would be a zen duality.
A: Yes, this happens in all cases in which a Zen
practice focuses on ceremonies to the point they are given as much importance,
if not more, than zazen. That is ritualized Zen.
—So Now, why there would be no fear there, that fear
to focus precisely the forms?
—This is a useful form fear: fear is not only a
negative emotion but is an emotion that alerts us to danger. So it’s good to
have fear, to be afraid of making mistakes, afraid of falling into forms of
perversion, it keeps our minds alert.
Tags: Roland Yuno Rech