Recently I’ve been re-learning how to be doshi, the priest who leads service at a zen temple. Re-learning because when I practice on my own, I don’t do service. And because the forms of service vary from temple to temple. So the ones I learned at Tassajara and at my teacher’s temple, Sanshinji, are different from those at my current temple.
I remember a class at San Francisco Zen Center, where students often discussed “the forms” and how much they mattered — when and how we bow, ring a bell, chant certain verses. The visiting speaker was a bishop of the Pure Land school. When someone asked about the forms — i.e., do we really have to do these things the way they supposedly did them in Japan in the 13th century? — he said, “Well, first you have to remember that someone made all this up.”
Somehow this simple and obvious statement triggered an explosion in my mind that still reverberates today. Like many other students, I’d been trying very hard to get the forms “right,” while wondering why exactly it mattered to do so. I’d noticed senior teachers flash angry looks at students who rang the bell at the wrong time or in the wrong way, and I felt their reaction said more about the teacher’s practice than their student’s, that an error so small could disturb their equanimity. Yet I didn’t want to be the student who disturbed it, either.
Linda Ruth Cutts, leading a practice period at Tassajara, said: “Please don’t use the practice of zen to reinforce your pre-existing psychological conditioning.” In other words, if you’re a perfectionist, don’t use the forms as a weapon to beat yourself.
Even more fundamentally, don’t use the practice for anything at all. As soon as you use it, you lose it. This is the meaning of Dogen’s “no gaining idea” and “just sit”. An agenda beyond the action itself corrupts the action. The zen understanding of a pure act is something done for its own sake alone. Precious few of our actions are taken in this spirit, although we would enjoy our lives more if they were.
Because we do most things to get (or avoid) something, it’s natural to bring this gaining (or escaping) mind to spiritual practice. But the whole point of practice is to free oneself of this mind. So it’s ironic to find myself on the cushion spending zazen in a state of high anxiety about the service that will follow, and whether I will do things “right”.
This “right” is problematic in itself. First, because someone just made these things up a long time ago. Second, because people have interpreted them differently since then. I learned to do this Sunday service from a disciple of the temple’s abbot, and I took careful notes.
The next time, I watched the abbot himself do the service, and some things were different from what his disciple did. So I changed my notes. A week later, I watched the abbot do the service again, and he did a few things differently from the week before. What to do now? Change my notes again? Ask the teacher which time he was “right” and which “wrong”? Not appealing.
Some people view zen forms as a kind of mindfulness exercise, because they force you to pay attention. But the question is, what are you paying attention to? To how you look or sound as you do them? To what other people might be thinking? To the expression on your teacher’s face? To your karmic need to do things “perfectly” so you can justify your existence on this planet?
All these concerns are centered on yourself as a performer, which makes what you’re doing a performance. But spiritual practice shouldn’t be a performance. Neither should life. It could be an offering, whole-hearted and heartfelt. A gift with no room for how you look or what you think people think. A gift that really has nothing to do with you at all, but is a pure action, done for itself, in devotion to something, maybe these things: the truth (dharma), the realization of the truth (buddha), and the intimate and infinite interdependence of all things (sangha).
As zen priest Leonard Cohen sang:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything;
That’s how the light gets in.