It can be confusing to come into the zendo for the first time and encounter the many forms we use. When you come to an event for the first time, watch what others do during the service and follow along, or quietly ask your neighbor for direction. Someone new comes to almost every Dharma Rain event, so we always expect some people to be unfamiliar with these forms.
We use forms as a way to move together as a group and also to learn about ourselves as we observe how we respond to the forms. Both of these functions are part of the implicit teaching of Zen practice. The best way to become familiar with the forms is to participate and engage with them. If questions arise, you can ask the shuso, a Teacher, or a senior student for guidance.
It may be helpful to come to one of our regular introductory workshops for detailed instruction in the meaning and use of our zendo forms or our Soto Zen style of meditation (zazen).
Our basic forms are described below. You will encounter many of these regularly when you attend services and events at Dharma Rain.
Bowing – The bowing forms show willingness with the body. They are a physical form of acceptance — a “yes.”
- Gassho – Gassho is a way to greet people and to show respect. To make gassho, place palms together with fingertips upright at chin-level. This symbolizes the unification of opposites, the bringing together of mind and heart.
- Standing bow – Always make a standing bow upon entering or exiting the zendo. A standing bow may be made as a greeting. To perform a standing bow, place your hands in gassho and bow at the waist.
- Full bow – Full bows are performed during service. To make a full bow, lower your body to your knees and bend forward until your elbows and forehead touch the ground. Then keeping your elbows on the ground, raise your open hands slightly above your head next to your ears. If you are uncomfortable performing a full prostration, you can modify it by simply kneeling, or performing a standing bow, or standing in gassho.
Chanting – Chanting is a listening practice. During service or ceremonies, the sutras or scriptures are chanted in unison. The aim is to harmonize your voice in pitch and volume with those around you while following the lead of the precentor.
- Hold the chant book at chest level with the thumbs and pinky fingers on the inside of the chant book and the other fingers on the outside. This posture is equivalent to gassho and shows respect for the sutra.
- When not using the chant book, close it and set it on your zabuton (sitting mat) next to you. Never place it on the floor in front of you.
Walking meditation (Kinhin) – Kinhin is a way to practice maintaining the serene and still mind of zazen even while moving. It is often performed between periods of zazen. In the Soto Zen tradition, it is done very slowly — each step is less than one foot-length long — and is synchronized with the breath.
During kinhin, hands are held in shashu. In shashu, you place your left hand in a fist just above your navel and tuck your thumb into your hand. Then wrap your right hand around your left hand. Starting with your left foot, inhale slowly as you raise your foot, exhale slowly as you lower it, and begin to inhale as you raise the other foot. With your eyes resting on a point about five feet ahead of you, follow the person in front of you, keeping the same distance from them as when as you started and making square corners when turning.
Sanzen – Sanzen is a one-on-one meeting with a Priest or Lay Teacher. It may be a formal interview with a Teacher on a Sunday or weekday morning or during sesshin. Or it may be an informal meeting privately arranged with the Teacher.
- Formal sanzen is part of our morning practice and is also offered once or twice a day during sesshin. You bring a single question or statement to a Teacher that reflects your practice at the present moment. It should be brief, honed down to the essential nub.
Ask yourself what the most recurring or most urgent theme or question in your practice right now. Your question or statement does not have to be formally phrased but should be succinct to allow time for others. The interview usually consists of a short conversation. You may ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. The Teacher will indicate the end of the interview by ringing a bell.
When sanzen is offered during a Sunday morning service, you will sign up on a list in the entryway before the service if you would like to go to sanzen. No signup is necessary on weekdays or during sesshin. The jisha will announce when sanzen is available during a zazen period.
Formal sanzen during Sunday morning service is similar to other times when formal sanzen is offered. If you have questions about the form, ask the jisha for instruction.
Formal sanzen is available for all, so if you wish to go to sanzen, please sign up. Sometimes the line is long, so if you are turned away due to lack of time, return the next week and ask the jisha to put you toward the front of the line, or schedule an informal sanzen with a Teacher during the week. If you have an urgent question, let the jisha know. S/he may be able to put you further up in the line.
- Informal Sanzen – Informal sanzen is available to all Dharma Rain members with most of the transmitted Teachers. Informal sanzen is a one-on-one dharma meeting with a teacher outside the calendar-scheduled formal sanzen times. It tends to have a more open structure than formal sanzen. It may extend longer, may cover several practice questions, and may be a more inviting and comfortable setting than formal sanzen for some people.
Elements of a Sunday Service
On Sunday mornings, two periods of zazen (sitting meditation) alternate with a period of kinhin (walking mediation). Some people may choose to go to sanzen, a one-on-one meeting with a teacher, during zazen. Zazen is followed by Full Morning Service. After a short break for announcements, tea, and socializing, we take our seats again for a Dharma talk by a teacher or senior student.
The elements of the Sunday morning service are described in more detail below. Most services and ceremonies at Dharma Rain contain some of these elements of the Sunday morning service, with possible variations.
Entering the Zendo
When you enter the Sodo, a guestmaster will greet you. If this is your first time, the guestmaster will show you where to put your coat, shoes, and other belongings and give you a brief orientation. If you have been coming for awhile, you may want to sign up for sanzen, a formal meeting with a Teacher. The signup sheet is on the shelf in the entryway.
Before you enter the zendo (meditation hall), take a moment at the doorway to consider where you will go and how you will get there in a mindful way. If you are unfamiliar with the forms, it may be helpful to choose a seat within a row, rather than at either end of a row, so that you have someone on either side to follow as a guide.
Make gassho and bow as you step into the zendo. Walk in front of as few people as possible to get to your seat. If you cross in front of the altar, even at the back of the hall, make gassho and a short standing bow toward the altar to show respect as you pass.
Choose the least disruptive route and quietly come to a seat. Approach the seat from its “front,” which is toward the center of the room. Make gassho and bow toward your seat in gratitude for a place to sit. Then turn clockwise toward the center of the room and bow in greeting to the sangha (the others present). Then take your seat facing the wall.
The precentor will ring the large densho bell on the engawa (porch) of the temple as a signal that everyone should take their place in the zendo. When everyone is seated, the shuso performs kentan (rounds), ceremonially passing all the seats to see that everything is in order.
First meditation period
The precentor strikes a small (rin) gong slowly three times to indicate that the first period of zazen is starting.
Near the beginning of the first meditation period, the jisha will announce that sanzen is available, which Teachers are offering it, and where they will be (either in the sanzen room off the dining room or in the Founders’ Shrine, a small building behind the Sodo). If you have signed up for sanzen before entering the zendo, you will now rise and go to the dining room. The jishas will seat you in the gaitan (row of zabutons) for the Teacher you wish to meet. The order in which people are seated corresponds to the order of the signup list. The jisha can answer any questions you have about the form at that time.
Note: If you will need a chair in the sanzen room, tell the jisha before you take your place in the gaitan.
If you are seeing the Teacher in the sanzen room, you will know it is your turn when you hear the Teacher ring the bell from inside the sanzen room indicating the interview with the person before you is finished. If you are seeing the Teacher in the Founders’ Shrine, the jisha will let you know when it is time to go out.
When it is your turn, go to the bell outside the sanzen room or Founder’s Shrine and pause for a moment to center yourself. Then strike the bell with the striker to announce your wish to enter. (May I enter the room?) Wait for the Teacher to ring a bell in response. (Yes. Come in.)
Upon entering, close the door behind you. Perform a full bow to the altar. Sidestep in front of the teacher. Perform a standing bow. Take a seat on the empty zabuton in front of the Teacher and present your question or statement. You will then have a short conversation with the Teacher. When the conversation is finished, the Teacher rings a bell (Thank you. We’re done now.) Respond with a gassho. Stand and make a standing bow to the Teacher. Sidestep and make a standing bow to the altar. Exit the room and return to your seat in the sanzen line.
If you complete sanzen before the end of kinhin, you will return to the zendo at the beginning of the second zazen period (see Note under Kinhin below). The jisha will announce when it is time to get up and prepare to enter the zendo. If you complete sanzen after kinhin, you will reenter the zendo just before the service begins.
The presentor strikes a pair of wooden clappers together to indicate the end of the first period of zazen. When you hear the clappers struck, make gassho. Monastics and Lay Buddhists place their vestments (wagessas, rakusus, or kesas) on their heads. Then everyone slowly chants the Kesa Verse three times:
How great the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction
Wrapping ourselves in Buddha’s teaching
We free all living beings.
During the third chanting of the verse, those with vestments put them on. When the bell is struck again, all make gassho and bow.
When the precentor rings the bell again and announces kinhin, stand up in front of your zabuton (the side toward the center of the room) and make gassho. If you are sitting in a chair, move around the chair to the side nearest the center of the room.
When the precentor rings the inkin (a small gong), make gassho and bow. On the second ring of the inkin, if you are in the front row (nearest the center of the zendo), turn to the left. If you are in a middle row, turn to your right. If you are in a back row (next to the wall), turn to your left.
When the precentor rings the inkin a third time, begin walking slowly. If you are in one of the two rows closest to the wall, you will walk in a circle around the center row of zabutons. If you are in a center row, you will walk in a circle around the center space, crossing to the other side at each end.
At the end of kinhin, the precentor will ring the inkin once. Stop walking, make gassho, and bow. Place the hands in shashu again. On the second ring of the inkin, continue in the circle, walking at a normal pace, until you reach your seat. Remain standing, facing the center of the room. On the third ring, turn, bow to your cushion, and take your seat for the next meditation session.
Note: During kinhin, you may leave the zendo to use the restroom. Wait until the third ring of the inkin when the line begins to move. Then, if there is room, step to the side and walk out quietly. Please do not step over cushions to leave the line. If you don’t have enough room to pass the line, wait to reach the end of a row of cushions to leave. Do not reenter the zendo until the end of kinhin. Wait with others outside the zendo until the precentor rings the second bell signalling the end of kinhin and announces “zazen” before entering and returning to your seat.
Second meditation period
The precentor rings the small gong three times to begin the zazen period and twice to end it.
Full morning service
When the precentor announces Full Morning Service, stand. Make gassho and bow to your cushion, then bow in gassho toward the center of the room. Stand quietly with hands in shashu until the precentor starts the “ring down” on the inkin, to signal the first three of nine full bows.
To prepare for the first set of bows, turn in the direction of the altar and step slightly to the right or left so that you are not directly behind the person in front of you. In this way, the row is staggered with people alternating to the left or right, allowing room for people to overlap as they bow.
Make three full bows facing the altar. Turn to face the center, and make three full bows facing the people across the room from you. Finally, make three more full bows facing the altar. After the final bow, take your seat, facing the center of the room.
Note: If you have physical problems which prevent you from doing a full prostration, simply stand in place and bow at the waist, raising your hands from the elbows, palm facing upward.
The precentor announces the service including any changes in the regular program, such as a special service. Chant books are passed down each row.
On a typical Sunday, the same Full Morning Service is used, the only difference being that on alternate Sundays either the traditional line of Dharma ancestors or the line of women Dharma ancestors is chanted during the service. Some of the service is chanted only by the precentor, though most is chanted by the whole community together, as indicated in the chant book.
During Full Morning Service, you will make gassho at various times, such as when chanting the ancestral line or the “All Buddhas… .” If you are using a chant book, holding it as shown is equivalent to making gassho.
At the end of the service, precentor will begin another “ring down.” This is the signal to stand and do another nine full bows as described above.
After the final nine full bows, stand quietly with your hands in shashu for six more standing bows. The first three of these bows represent the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. On the first ring, turn toward the altar and bow in gassho. On the second ring, turn back to the center of the room and bow in gassho. On the third ring, bow in shashu again toward the center of the room. The Celebrant and jisha will leave the zendo.
During three more quick rings, the community bows in gassho to their left, then to their right, then to the center, as a way of showing respect to all beings.
Leaving the zendo
After the bows, remain standing at your seat. The celebrant will welcome visitors and the shuso will make announcements. After announcements, straighten your seat and pass chant books forward to be put away. You may then leave the zendo for a short break and refreshments.
When you hear the bell indicating the end of the break, return to the zendo and take a seat, turning to face the podium where the speaker will sit. The Taiko drum will be sounded as the speaker enters the hall. The Dharma talk ends with a question and answer period. When it is over, wait for the speaker to leave the hall before straightening your seat and leaving the zendo.