In traditional Zen practice, we have a lot of what we call “forms.” Forms are the established ways we enact our practice with our bodies… they include the ways we move in the meditation hall, sit in the meditation posture, place our shoes outside the door, chant and offer incense, show respect for one another, and eat communal meals. Our forms include our rituals and ceremonies, the titles and names we use, and the rules, procedures, conduct, and paraphernalia we encounter in our particular religious practice.
Why do we have so many forms instead of just going with the flow and letting people do things the way they want to?
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Some Description of Form Before We Begin [1:16]
You Have a Relationship to Form Whether You Like It or Not [5:03]
Thinking “The Form Is the Key” [8:00]
“I’ll Do It Only Because You Make Me” [9:50]
Responding to Form with “Whatever” [11:56]
Forms as an Existential Lifeline [14:03]
Discovering There’s Nothing Special About Buddhist Forms [16:08]
Conforming Creates Harmonious Community [18:55]
Some Description of Form Before We Begin
Before I answer that question, a little more about form: We use the word “form” to refer collectively to all of these established ways, and one of the less common definitions of this term is “the manner or style of arranging and coordinating parts for a pleasing or effective result.” Some synonyms are behavior, procedure, rule, manner, method, and practice. The word is, not surprisingly, related to the word “formal,” which means “being in accordance with the usual requirements and customs,” “conventional,” or “marked by form or ceremony.” Some synonyms of “formal” are ceremonial, explicit, precise, proper, and solemn.
Now, not all Buddhist communities are strict about how you follow the forms, and not all forms are done in a dour, serious fashion. However, generally speaking, a form is meant to be enacted with a certain amount of careful attention and dignity. It’s also meant to be done with respect for the objects you handle, the living beings you encounter, the community you’re in, and the Buddhist tradition.
Some forms are traditional parts of Zen or Buddhism that are hundreds, or even thousands, of years old, and you would recognize them if you watched the practice of Buddhists in other countries and times. Other forms are adapted to the needs and practice space of a particular Sangha and will therefore vary – but you once you get familiar with Buddhist forms, you pretty much know the basics and can follow along even if the exact order and execution of things are unfamiliar.
In case you haven’t practiced with a Zen or Buddhist group before, or if you’ve only practiced with a secular, informal group, let me give you a brief description of the forms you would encounter when you arrive at my Zen center. (Keep in mind as I describe this that, as Zen centers go, we’re fairly small and informal.) When you first come in, you are careful not to let the door slam loudly behind, so as not to disturb others. You take off your shoes and place them side by side, lined up with any shoes already there, careful not to take up too much space, or take the most convenient spot, or put them where someone might trip on them. You note the donation box, which is traditionally kept near the door of a temple, and call to mind whether you have recently given any support to the Sangha.
As you enter the zendo, or meditation hall, you make a small, standing bow toward the altar at the front of the room. On it, there’s a Buddha statue, flowers, a candle, and an incense holder. You bow in respect for your own aspiration for awakening, and for the tradition. Then you choose a place to sit, and before settling down you make a standing bow to your seat, turn toward your right until you’re facing the rest of the room, and make another standing bow to the community. If the first group activity will be chanting, you sit down facing the center of the room. If the first thing is meditation, you sit facing the nearest wall.
Okay – it goes on from there, but you get the picture!
You Have a Relationship to Form Whether You Like It or Not
If you practice Zen or Buddhism you have a relationship to “form” whether you like it or not. (We tend to refer to all the forms collectively in the singular, “form.”) You might manage to avoid form if you practice entirely on your own, or in a rare community that has gotten rid of all forms (think a rock on the altar instead of a Buddha statue, or no altar at all). However, in a community setting it’s pretty much impossible to get rid of all forms, because you’re going to have to make some decision about the physical ways you do things together – and voila, forms! Even if you are ambivalent about form and engage in it simply because it is part of the whole practice package, and even if you generally try to avoid form, you still have a relationship with it.
For most of us, our relationship to form changes over time and occasionally makes big evolutionary leaps. In my case, I converted to Zen from religious non-conformism and spent many years devouring the details of the forms in an effort to perfect them. Then, even though I became a monk, I began to think the forms were stupid, pointless, and a big cramp in my style. Rather ironically, then, I was put in the position of shuso, the person assigned to maintain the forms in the whole Sangha. I knew that whenever I approached someone to correct or instruct them about a form, they could see me as a glowing bodhisattva, a bigoted tyrant, a nit-picky irritant, or simply as a fixture of their practice environment, like the hot water pot or the bell calling them to zazen. To face these possibilities calmly, I relied on a growing confidence in the wisdom of our Buddhist forms.
I want to roughly describe a series of different relationships to form, based on my own experience and my observations of others. I don’t mean to suggest this is an exhaustive list, or that the different relationships always unfold in this order. However, I hope these descriptions might be useful for understanding and accepting the viewpoints of others, and for reminding us that our own viewpoints are subject to change. Whatever category or categories you might fall into, engage that relationship wholeheartedly: explore it, question it, feel it, accept it, and do not compare it to others. The most important thing I have learned is that the form works its own magic on us, below the level of our conscious minds.
Thinking “The Form Is the Key”
First, new practitioners of Zen often engage the form as if The Form Is the Key. At some level, we hope that if only we can bow in all the right places at all the right times (gracefully and reverently, but also without any ego involved), finally fold our formal meal cloth in a perfect rectangle, finally know exactly what’s happening and when, the reward of Zen will be ours! This big, complicated, puzzling, frustrating spiritual practice will yield to our efforts (we hope). Sometimes we see the teachers or fellow practitioners that inspire us performing some simple action like putting their shoes straight and our heart almost breaks. We had no idea there could be so much subtlety to placing one’s shoes, or that we could be so very far from embodying our own ideals.
Eventually, if you think the Form Is the Key, you either give up Zen because you’re sure you’re never going to master all those forms, or you come closer to mastering them and then realize: You still don’t have the spiritual goodies you hoped for. No matter how difficult you find it to learn, remember, and carry out the forms, you can eventually move through a Zen environment performing complicated and graceful maneuvers (and that’s how it will look to newcomers!) and still feel empty inside. You can practice diligently long enough to earn a fancy name or vestment, yet still feel like these are pasted on over your dissatisfaction or anguish.
“I’ll Do It Only Because You Make Me”
Then we arrive at a rather tense relationship with form: “I’ll Do It Only Because You Make Me.” Many people start here, and never go through a honeymoon with form. Here we can feel a bit like our deepest longing is being held hostage. Some aspects of Zen or Buddhism have changed our lives or touched us so deeply that we know we must keep coming back. Meditation, study, spending time with like-minded people – great!
But then our teachers and seniors insist that we engage in certain activities, and surround ourselves with various paraphernalia, that may be meaningless to us at best and repulsive to us at worst. We are constantly on our guard against being bamboozled into something that compromises our integrity, independence, values, or self-image. It can be extremely difficult for some of us to participate, for example, in a ceremony if we suspect it is getting everyone all worked up emotionally to the point that they are losing their better judgment. Some people are suspicious of the Zen system of taking vows, wearing religious vestments, receiving Dharma names, etc., seeing it as being ripe for abuse by egotistical competitive types or manipulative leaders.
“I’ll Do It Only Because You Make Me” can be a very difficult relationship to have with form, and many people stop practicing Zen and Buddhism because of it. Some people strive to find ways to practice only those parts of Zen that seem pure, or fundamental, or at least acceptable. We dream about how wonderful practice must be at centers where no one is called a monk or priest, or we only feel comfortable meditating if there is a beautiful rock on the altar instead of one of those troubling, baggage-laden (usually male) Buddha images. Or we participate at a traditional center, but duck out right before the irritating or aversive form is about to start.
Responding to Form with “Whatever”
At some point, we may arrive at yet another relationship with form, perhaps best called, “Whatever.” (Or you may start here!) This is the “whatever” that is said with a small shrug. It is not tuning everything out, nor is it a bleak indifference. It is more good-natured than that. We can say “whatever” about the forms when we begin to notice how impermanent and ephemeral our small selves are, how often we are wrong, how limited is our view, how profoundly we change over time. Then we start to take ourselves less seriously.
It is not that we shrug at things that are actually harmful and wrong and say, “Ah, who cares?” It’s more like we shrug at ourselves. For example, at one point, my inner champion for social justice was on her soapbox, crying out against the patriarchy we are helping to perpetuate by reciting the lineage of (all male) teachers from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha 2500 years ago to just the last generation or two. I chanted the lineage grudgingly, just waiting for it to be over. But one day I addressed my inner champion, “Hmm. You may have a point there. But is this really about justice, or is it about you? What are you so afraid of?”
Holding myself a little more lightly, giving my inner champion and skeptic a friendly shrug, I was able to experiment. Reciting the lineage of male Dharma ancestors one more time was not likely to forfeit all the gains women had made, so what happened if I did it wholeheartedly, just once? I can tell you it made the experience of chanting much more pleasant, and at a deeper level I learned something about acknowledging my opinions but not feeling compelled to dwell on them if they just make me miserable.
Forms as an Existential Lifeline
In a particularly open and quiet moment, we may come to see the forms as an Existential Lifeline. Just for a moment, we see what is right in front of us as if we were seeing it for the first time – fresh, without filters, without judgment. If our eyes happen to rest at that moment on a sunset or a stoplight or a coffee mug, we may have a very interesting experience. If we happen to be sitting, or bowing, or chanting, or putting on our wagessa, or caring for an altar, or reading a scripture, or facing a teacher, we may receive a piece of the transmission from our Dharma ancestors. It is almost like they have left their initials carved into the rock next to particularly stunning, remote waterfall. The message is: we were here, isn’t this place amazing? Then all of the forms appear to serve one purpose, and that is merely to call our attention to the wonder of our existence. In themselves, the forms are indeed empty and many of them are utterly arbitrary, but they are also profound and precious.
It is probably this aspect of the form with attracts us to begin with. Many of us grew up without being exposed to the practice of taking care without any underlying motive. Sure, we knew how to take care of something expensive, or how to take care when we were about to take a big test. But to carefully place our shoes straight or eat mindfully so our silverware doesn’t bang noisily against our bowl? Personally, when I first started encountered Zen, I found the concept completely radical. The reverence and appreciation these Zen people seemed to have for their lives! I wondered, “How do I get some of that?”
Discovering There’s Nothing Special About Buddhist Forms
Later, even the stoplight and the coffee mug may begin speak the Dharma of the ancestors to us. Everything becomes (at least in some moments) rich and luminous and poignantly precious. Putting on our coat becomes as reverent and important an activity as putting on our meditation robe. Having dinner with a difficult relative becomes as engaging as a koan. Learning to dance reveals as much about ourselves as reflecting on the precepts.
Ironically, although it is often Zen practice that has allowed us to experience life this way, this is also one of the times when we are most likely to give it up, or at least find ourselves drawn further and further away from it. Our response to form becomes “It Is All the Same.” Everything is Dharma, everything is practice, so why limit ourselves to a prescribed set of acceptable behaviors? Why spend our vacation time staring at a wall, when we can explore the Dharma through passionate sex? Why continue to perform the same stale rituals over and over, when there is a world full of spiritual traditions out there to explore? Many of the people in the world who describe themselves as Zen Buddhists, but do not affiliate themselves with any group or particular lineage, preach the Dharma of “It Is All the Same.”
When we recognize the truth of sameness, when we gain faith that everything, in a sense, is holy, we may also experience some anger toward our spiritual traditions and advisors. It can seem as if they have tricked us by convincing us there was something inherently lacking or defiled about the world or about ourselves. Perhaps they just wanted to recruit more followers, or perhaps they are much less wise than we thought, but they have distracted us for too long with all their forms and ideals. Now we have discovered the inherent purity of ourselves and of all things, and no one is going to put us back in that prison of shame!
Once again, though, if we still stay with the form, our relationship to it can shift in a very significant way. We may notice that our spiritual advisors were not imprisoning us in shame. We were imprisoning ourselves. Having discovered that there is nothing inherently lacking in ourselves or in the world, we have liberated ourselves from ourselves. If there is anyone that needs to be carefully watched lest they capture us again, it is ourselves.
Conforming Creates Harmonious Community
When Buddhist forms are no longer exciting, annoying, tempting, threatening, or inspiring, why bother to keep holding the form after it no longer seems to serve any purpose for us personally? Why would we continue to enter into the formal spaces, which often just cramp our style? This was a critically important question for me, as a monk. I realized that before I got into Zen, when I identified as a non-conformist, my personal definition of “conform” was “to give up one’s intelligence and will; to lack creativity; to huddle together like sheep out of fear.” I was shocked to look up the word and find it meant “to act in accord or harmony with a standard or norm.” What was I missing here?
When our view broadens, we create space for regarding form as The Creation of Sangha. This is about conforming with each other so that we create something in common and move in harmony together. In order to create anything together, we have to compromise with each other. Each of us has to sacrifice some of our independence, willfulness, personality, and flavor – not because those things are bad, but because we value and want to support our common endeavor. Imagine what it would be like if the temple was simply open on Sundays for several hours for “spiritual practice,” and no other forms were applied. Imagine people coming into the zendo, doing fast or slow walking meditation here and there, bowing in the corners, doing yoga, coming and going, perhaps carrying on conversations and strumming on guitars. Perhaps that sounds like heaven on earth to you, but ask yourself how supported you would feel in your spiritual practice, especially when the going got hard. Would you be able to meditate as deeply if the person next to you was doing Chi Gong, or reading a book of poetry?
Every Sangha and its attendant forms is an imperfect package. Some of its forms may be deep, beautiful and meaningful, and some of its forms may be anachronistic, awkward and inefficient. When we have invested deeply in the Sangha over time, we may be able to negotiate to change some of them. Most of the time, though, we simply engage in the forms because that is the way we do things when we are together. In one sense, the more standardized the form, the more inclusive is the group. It is a very moving experience to go to Japan and see Zen Buddhists straightening their shoes, bowing, and sitting zazen just like we do. We belong to the same group.
Over the long haul, do you believe the Sangha is important, to you and to others? If so, then support it. Every time you straighten your shoes, you are addressing the Sangha: “I value being a part of this community.” When you come to sit with others, even though your practice at home is strong, you are saying, “This community has been of great benefit to me, and I want it to continue for my sake and for the sake of others.” Especially when you compromise something of yourself by following a form, you are saying, “Though my community is imperfect, it is doing the Buddha work.”
 form. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/form (accessed: May 26, 2017).
Gassho by John Robertson, Flickr Commons, Creative Commons License Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic