Village Zendo Home
July 09 Contents

CommitmentDharma Talk
Soji Zen CenterOur Philadelphia sister zendo
Zen at United ChurchZen Buddhism and Christianity
Zen on MainFour voices from Northampton
Star NurseryPracticing at a distance
On Liturgy:3 pieces on Zen form
Ordinary ZenPhotos
Tao Wu's Condolence CallA koan comic
Duet with DoubtVideo
Slot CanyonPhotos
A town with no temple bell
—What do the people do?


I can't imagine my life without ritual and liturgy. When I read Basho's poem, I feel a pang of sadness. What would it be like to live without a sense of ritual, liturgy, or the sacred?

A few weeks ago, Roshi announced that I would be the Liturgy Master here at the Zendo, a new position to oversee all of the training here. Since that announcement, I have been thinking about what these words mean. What images are evoked for you when you hear "liturgy" or "ritual"? For many, those words have a sour taste, and evoke distasteful images. For others, ritual may conjure images of calmness and community.


Ritual comes from the Latin, meaning "to observe rites." To observe the rites is to express mythological and archetypal themes, to express their message symbolically. Liturgy originally comes from the Greek word, litourgia, which means performing a public service or ceremony. I could talk about the liturgy of the trash collectors who ceaselessly move around the city in a prescribed way, taking care of us all. We could talk about the liturgy of how we all decide to come together as a community to quiet our minds.

Rituals can be dead if we do not imbue them with our whole body and mind. We each can experience the difference. When you bowed to your cushion today, were you there? Did you observe the rite? Or did you just go through the motion of bowing to the Buddha's seat, and then turning around and bowing to the community? For me, everything we do can be seen as a ritual. In the Zen tradition, we have countless mindfulness techniques to bring us into our bodies. We have ritual eating, walking, chanting, talking, sitting, exercise, and inquiry. How do we show up for them?

In the 1200's in Japan, the founder of our school of Soto Zen Buddhism, Eihei Dogen, teaching at his Eiheiji Monastery, found that the practice of ritual and liturgy had become dead: meaningless forms done by rote. To rekindle aliveness in the practice, he refocused and widened the understanding and practice of ritual and liturgy. His teaching was to use all our everyday activities as sacred. Our school places emphasis on the "Great Retreat." It is said that the "Small Retreat" is to go off in the mountains; the Great Retreat is to disappear in the capital.


Bodhidharma, the mythological founder of Zen Buddhism, said that ritual and liturgy are the expression of the whole mind. Is there a place where your mind can't express itself? Do you relegate it to a time a place? To do this is a form of deprivation from living your life.

In the hospital, I was working with a patient who said, "When I get out of this place, then I am going to change my life." "How?"I asked him. He said, "I'm going to start really paying attention in my life." "Why wait until you are somewhere else?" I asked. He was silent, and after a moment, he began to cry. After a few moments he said, "I've lived my whole life waiting for the right moment. This is what brought me here into this difficult place."

When I first began sitting, attention and care were what I did at the Zendo. My life outside was not imbued with a sense of ritual and liturgy. I practiced the one body in the zendo, and by the time I got to the coat room I let that go. I was waiting for the next zazen to pay attention. It wasn't until I faced myself through ongoing analysis and continued Zen practice that I saw how I split my life apart.

What does this mean to our everyday lives? What is your ritual of entering the 11th floor? Are you there? When do you arrive in your life? How do we learn to hear with our whole bodies? How do we learn to see with our whole bodies? It is the most challenging and difficult practice I know, and the most worthwhile.


We are asked to respond in life and what we can do is show up. The other day, I was having lunch one of our chaplaincy students. She was working with a patient who was actively dying, so, after our meeting, she walked several blocks to the hospital. She put on her hospital badge and arrived at the bedside. Ritual can allow us to be fully present if we use it as an act of enlivening our life. I needed to prepare a talk for today, so I did my writing ritual: prepare some tea, stretch, put on some music that I like, Joni Mitchell's Night Ride Home, and sit down and begin to write.

In Zen practice, we practice with a sense of faith. It is a faith that we can realize the Buddha mind. We can wake up fully, with every cell of our body, and it is up to us. Ritual helps us to remember that it is in each moment we live. Ritual is like the word re-member—to put back together. In our liturgy of our lives, we express our understanding through our movements, tenor and tone of our voice, how we think. These are all opportunities to be fresh and new in the moment.

Can you hear the temple bell in the town of your mind when answering an email or text, brushing your teeth, opening your mouth to speak, hearing someone say they are in pain? Is there some place in your life that isn't your practice? Are anger, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness not places for your practice? In the chaplaincy training and in Zen training, the path can be seen as stepping through the scrim of our life and fully participating. It can also be described as Dogen does, allowing the ten thousand things to advance into your life. What will you do?


Here at the Zendo, we have the opportunity to engage Zen practice. As Roshi has said, zazen is just one of the five expressions of Zen practice. The other four expressions are to study, to communicate, to act, and to care. After many years of practice, I have learned all the various formal service positions—from preparing the altar to ringing bells to officiating. This practice of engaging learning things that I had ideas that I was not "good at" has helped me to have a broader, more expansive sense of who this person called Koshin is. For example, I had an idea that I had no rhythm—so the drum was the position I resisted. It was at a zazenkai, when I was the meal drum, that I just gave myself to being with the drum.

Like the five expressions, practicing liturgy in a formal Zen way has allowed me to see my life more broadly. To practice liturgy is to act, to meditate, to express, to care. It has been a wonderful way for me to see that liturgy is not separate from holding someone as they die or tying up the recycling bag. This fall we will begin having formal training in liturgy and ritual, but you don't need to wait. You can just express your desire to learn something new.

The dedication to the chant invoking compassion reads: "The Buddha turns the Dharma Wheel, and so reality is shown in all its many forms." When life is flowing, every speck and ocean in life is realized as the teachings. Let's practice together wholeheartedly and not miss our lives.

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