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Daily rituals of a Zen temple

In September 2000 I had the unusual experience of a zazen retreat at the temple of Toke-in in Shizuoka, Japan. We were a group of English-speaking “pupils” (not necessarily Buddhist) under the guidance of Sensei Gudo Wafu Nishijima. Here I just want to share, not the meaning and purpose of Zen, but simply the intricate protocol that accompanies every practice and meal. The reason for such rituals was explained by this extract from the retreat's handout:

"Life in the temple should be simple and orderly. To this end, there are certain prescribed ways of doing things, certain rules for behaviour. Once we learn these simple rules and ways of doing things, our lives become more simple. There are fewer decisions to make. We just do things the way we did last time: we just follow the simple pattern again and again. This may seem a bit irritating at first, but after we become accustomed to the routine, it actually becomes very comfortable. We step into the flow of activity and ride with it. There is no need to fight against the current, no need to indulge in indisyncratic behaviour. We just do what needs to be done, moment by moment. Then we forget it. It is very simple."

Zazen protocol

Zazen or "sitting in meditation" is the principal practice of Zen Buddhism. First a word on the hand positions: shashu consists in making a fist with the left hand, thumb inside, and placing it against the chest back of the hand upwards; then the open right hand covers the left.The elbows must be in the same plane as the hands. This salute originates in China, where it is reversed (I'm not sure of the reasons for the reversal.)

The second hand position, called gassho, is the prayer position, palms joined at the level of the heart.

A Zazen session is announced by the striking of a wooden block. The Zendo (Zen room) is located at the back of the temple, to the right of the main hall. To access it, we step outside onto a wooden lattice where many pairs of slippers await. We wear the slippers and enter the outer area of the Zendo with the right foot first. Then we step into the inner area with the left foot first (so as to be near the pillar), bow with hands in shashu and walk around to our zafu (cushion for zazen). No shortcuts; the central block of zafus acts like a roundabout that must be taken counterclockwise ( at least this one, which is on the left of the entrance). We each bow to our zafu hands in gassho, then turn 180 degrees towards the right and bow again to fellow practitioners. Bringing the zafu near the edge of the raised platform we turn it around so that the white strip is facing away from us. We sit down, take off our slippers and store them under the platform, raise our legs and pivot to the right until facing the wall, so that the white strip has now rotated back into its proper position. The wooden platform should not be touched with the feet; priests used to take their meals on it so it must be kept clean.

We sway a bit left and right to settle before taking the correct posture (described below.) When bell sounds 3 times, the zazen period has started.

When the Sensei enters, he lights incense and, depending on the time of day, may perform prostrations. The he corrects the practitioners' posture before taking his own place on his zafu, set apart from the others by being placed on a purple mat, and by the fact that he faces the room, not the wall, while practicing. We're lucky not to be monks: their back posture is corrected by a sharp whack of the stick…

The correct posture is as follows:

- Legs can be in one of two postures: crossed-leg (full lotus) or half crossed-leg (half-lotus)
- The spine is erect so that the tip of the nose and the navel are in one perpendicular line (the chin needs to be slightly tucked in for that), with ears and shoulders in the same plane.
- The hands rest on the lap, fingers overlapping with thumbs joined at their tips, as if forming a "tunnel"for something to beam out of the navel area.
- Eyes are not closed but half shut, focused a meter or two ahead.
- The tongue rests against the roof of the mouth
- The breathing is done with the belly (abdominal breathing)

In my experience, I've noticed that facing the wall with eyes half closed really is helpful. Faced with a (literally) blank view, the mind finds nothing to stimulate it and slowly fades in silence while awareness remains.

"While practicing Zazen, intentional thinking is unnecessary. Don't worry about thoughts and images coming to your consciousness. Just enjoy the state of balanced body and mind in Zazen."

When the bell sounds again, we get off the same way we sat down, fluff up the zafu and make a line for the kinhin.
Kinhin is a period of twenty minutes of slow walking that serves as intermezzo to the mid-morning and afternoon Zazen practices. The latter are an hour long, divided in two periods of 30mn. In-between, kinhin serves to cure numbness of the legs and shake off sleepiness if necessary. During Kinhin we walk around the zafu platform, taking one step per breath, and each step covering only half a foot (speaking of the limb, not the unit). We walk around the room only 4 times in those 20 minutes… The back is still straight and the hands in shashu.

When the bell rings once, we return to the zafu for the second period, at the end of which we leave the zendo in reverse way we got in, after bowing to the ringer as well.

Meals protocol:

For each meal, two of us are in charge of preparing the tables and cushions before ringing the gong to call the others. The tables are set in a U, the Sensei being seated on his own at the head of the eating space.

Upon hearing the bell we all grab our o-ryoki and make for the dining room that has so quickly sprung up from the tatami mattresses – and that will vanish again after the meal. The o-ryoki is an “eating kit”consisting of three black bowls, large, medium and small, that fit into each other, two napkins and a pair of pointed chopsticks (Japanese chopsticks, or hashi, are pointed, while Chinese ones have more rounded ends). One napkin is folded and placed on top of the bowls along with the hashi, while the other is folded and tied around the o-ryoki to hold it all together.

Once we find a place at the tables, we stand there holding up our o-ryoki until the Sensei arrives. With bowed head and his own o-ryoki lifted high, he walks down the center of the room to his table and we all sit down after bowing.

There are four poems to recite, in a vibrating voice rising from the belly, before we start eating. We start with the Verse to Open O-Ryoki:
Bu sho Kapira
Jo do Makada
Seppo Harana
Nyu metsu Kuchira
Nyorai o ryoki
Ga kon toku fu ten
Gan gu issai shu
To san rin ku nyaku

“Gautama Buddha was born in Kapira. Attaining the truth in Makada, he preached the teachings in Harana and died in Kuchira. Awakened Buddha, I have gotten the utensils for eating. Now I open them. I pray that all living beings will find the same. May those who eat meals, those who serve the meals, and the meals themselves be serene and undisturbed.”

Once done, we unfold our o-ryoki. The napkin is placed on the table in front of us, three of its corners tucked neatly under it while the further one remains flat to receive a fourth bowl as we will see. The three bowls should be disposed from left to right in decreasing size, the chopsticks in front of us pointing to the left.

Those of us who are of service today can begin serving. First comes the rice: the server brings it first to the Sensei, bows, then kneels to serve it, before moving on to the rest of us. There is a specific way of receiving the food. Suppose Peter is serving while Anne and I are seated at the same table (each table takes two people). When Peter approaches, both of us bow with our hands in gassho (prayer position), then Anne takes her bowl with the three fingers of the right hand to give it to him. Both of us wait with hands in gassho while Peter is serving the rice; after a couple of scoops Anne opens her right hand palm up and raises it slightly to indicate this is enough. She takes the bowl back and they bow to each other before Peter turns to me and the same happens. When he leaves our table, both Anne and I bow to him and wait for the next dish. The rice is served in the large bowl; next come the soup in the medium bowl and the (radish) pickles in the small bowl. This part of the meal never varies (except for the hard boiled egg in the morning), but we get a fourth, red bowl with a main dish that always varies.

Nobody touches the food yet. When the service is done, we recite the Five Reflections:
Hitsotsu ni wa ko no tasho o hakari kano raisho o hakaru.
Futatsu ni wa onore ga toku gyo no zen ketsu o hakatte kuni ozu.
Mitsu ni wa shin o fusegi toga o hana ruru koto wa tonto o shu to su.
Yotsu ni wa masa ni ryokaku o koto to suru wa gyo ko o ryozen ga tame nari.
Itsutsu ni wa jo do no tame no yueni ima kono jiki o uku.


“We reflect firstly upon the insufficiency of our effort in this life. We contemplate the effort which has gone into the preparation of this meal.
We reflect secondly upon our merit. We know that we are not deserving of this meal.
We reflect thirdly upon the sources of our mental illusions and mistakes. We must avoid greed, anger and ignorance.
We reflect fourthly upon the reasons for eating meals. It is to avoid becoming weak and thin.
Finally we reflect upon the ultimate reason for taking meals. It is only to attain the truth.”

We now hold up our rice bowl and say a poem In Praise of O-Ryoki:
Jo bun sam bo chu bun shi on
Ge gyu roku do kai do ku yo
Ikku idan I sai aku
Niku ishu I sai zen
Sanku ido sho shu jo
Kai gu jo Butsu Do


“Our meal is in three parts. The upper portion is for the three treasures: Bhudda, Dharma and Sangha. The middle portion is for the Four Honored Ones: our parents, our rulers, sentient beings and the universe itself. The lower portion is for the six kinds of beings, from the gods to the dwellers in hell. We serve meals to all equally. They are not for us alone. We eat the upper portion to cut the wrong, the middle portion to promote the good and the last to save all living beings. May all living beings attain the truth.”

And now, we can eat.

I don’t remember eating meat or even fish at the temple, but the food is delicious. However, it is highly recommended to eat as fast as you can. I quickly grasped what was at stake and how to make sure I finish every grain of rice before the Sensei puts down his hashi. Once he does that, we must all stop eating. Those who are not done and those who are still hungry have another chance, as we get second servings – with the same ceremonial as the first. The second time Sensei finishes though, the eating is done and it is time for tea.

The boiling tea is served in the large bowl – that’s right, where the rice was served! Now you understand why I was so intent on removing every grain of rice, which is what every Japanese would do anyway, and the reason for the very pointed chopsticks. The tea degreases the bowl and thus serves a practical purpose. I forgot to mention: when eating the pickles, it is critical to always leave one in the small bowl. This is why: after the tea, hot water is poured in the rice bowl to wash the o-ryoki. Grabbing the last pickle with the hashi, we use it as a sponge to clean the bowl. We then drink some of the water and pour the rest in the medium bowl, wipe it, drink a bit, pour it in the small bowl, wipe it, drink a bit, eat the pickle! The pickle has antibiotic properties that destroy germs, and for Japanese foods it is as efficient and more environment-friendly than dish soap – and it tastes better. Although the above may not sound appetizing, it really is nothing more than hot water with a hint of soup and pickle, and possibly some grains of white rice. The remaining drops of water are poured in a special bucket, as offering to the spirits.

Using the second napkin, we wipe the bowls dry (the red bowl is taken to be washed in the kitchen) and quickly reassemble the o-ryoki before the Poem of Returning Water:
Ga shi sem pa sui
Nyo ten kan ro mi
Se yo ki jin shu
Shitsu ryo toku bo man
On ma kura sai so waka


“This water which has been used to wash our O-Ryoki has a taste like the sweet rain of heaven. We offer it to countless gods and demons alike. May it serve all living beings and bring them perfect contentment.”
We then rise, bow as Sensei leave the place, and start folding the tables back and returning the cushions to the main room of the temple.

Although the eating part takes no longer than 7 to 10 mn, the whole meal takes exactly 45 mn every time. I calculated that we bow a minimum of 40 times during a meal, quite an experience!