On Form

One of the questions in the forefront of American Zen is about the exacting form we inherited from the Japanese Zen history. There is a wide range of response and a continuum of how strictly teachers hold the Japanese forms. Some follow exactly the Japanese forms in a strict manner. Some have thrown out what they think of as Japanese cultural form and yet, the problem is “what to retain?” Oddly, some kind of form emerges even within a “No Japanese form” sangha.

I am contemplating Katagiri Roshi’s admonition that “Zen IS the Form,” reminiscent of the heart sutra: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The form is the concrete expression of the teaching. It is what we have to give to the next generation other than a teaching based on the personality of the teacher. The form is also a physical expression of the teaching without words. Interestingly, many people have expressed to me that it was the structure of the form that held the center together when the Clouds in Water Sangha had no teacher. They upheld the structure of sesshin and kept other forms alive until a new teacher appeared.

So, what to do? Where is the middle way? What is throwing the baby out with the bathwater? In my particular case, I feel an overwhelming debt of appreciation to Katagiri Roshi and his Way. Having had a Japanese teacher, I feel more reluctant to “throw away” the form, out of respect and debt. He often said that my generation was the bridge generation between the Japanese form and what will become modern American Zen.

So in an effort to explore this difficult topic, I am going to try and pull out of myself what I have learned over the years about the form and how I feel about the tone of how I want to practice. How can we avoid the pitfalls of adhering too tightly to Japanese form as Americans or westerners?

What’s important to me about form (Particularly in sesshin):

  • What the form provides is a structure of safety in which you can allow your mental functions to let go. You can stop thinking and evaluating. In a highly choreographed form, you always know what to do next. You don’t have to think about it.
  • It teaches us the flow of the day or a structure for the experience of One Day at a Time. It teaches us about the rhythm of life.
  • It teaches us to become one body and to let go of our highly developed individual needs. This is very unusual for Americans and very important in the discovery of no-centralized self.
  • You learn the form by some basic verbal instruction but mostly by observation and copying.
  • One thing I would like to let go of is a militaristic feeling in Zen stemming from our association with the development of the Samurai Way and perhaps a more Rinzai approach. I am aiming for a softer relationship to form and a gentler feeling in the zendo. A more spacious feeling.
  • I never experienced Katagiri Roshi’s way as harsh or militant. His zendo seemed quiet and welcoming in general. Interestingly, I have very few memories of Katagiri criticizing anyone or correcting people.
  • I would like to see us have a general, fairly open, simple form that has enough structure to facility the flow of the events and the development of people moving as one body. Enough structure so that people can let go.
  • About precision and perfectionism:
    • In a mature practitioner, precision with the forms comes from their deep concentration and clarity. The more concentrated, the more subtle your precision can be. Precision is harmful, I feel, if it comes from an external, pressured environment that “forces” adherence to a strict way. People grow into precision as they become more settled and more familiar with the forms.
    • Precision can easily be usurped by the “manas” or our self-centered consciousness that wants to be the best, be more evolved, to be better than other practitioners. When precision becomes a project it has been taken over by ego-building consciousness.
    • Perfectionism is the devil in disguise. Outwardly, because of our highly choreographed form, a newcomer can interpret zen’s goal as being perfect in the form. This can become oppressive and obsessive. I would like to see a form coming out of our expression of generosity, inter-being, and spaciousness.
    • If you want to see the form grow in our sangha, be stricter with yourself and more tolerant of others.
  • Form is a way mindfulness can be expressed and enhanced. Are you present in what you are doing? Do you know where you are? Are you wholeheartedly doing the activity of the moment.
  • The liturgy is a devotional practice. Are you present to devotion? Are you part of the integrated group? Is your heart open when you: take refuge, in repentance, say your vows?
  • If you are the doan, please practice so that you become more and more familiar with what you are doing.
  • Are you present in bowing? In humility, can you put your frontal lobe down on the ground and offer whatever practice and effort you have made, to the larger good?
  • A few things that I am trying to soften that comes from what I perceive as our Japanese heritage is:
    • Too much concentration on detail and minutia
    • A very strong adherence to hierarchy
    • A tendency to think that over-working, and a constant stretching beyond our means, is good practice. Sometimes that is appropriate, but it is not a basis for a spiritual life.