Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice

Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice

Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice

Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice


When books about Zen Buddhism began appearing in Western languages just over a half-century ago, there was no interest whatsoever in the role of ritual in Zen. Indeed, what attracted Western readers' interest was the Zen rejection of ritual. The famous 'Beat Zen' writers were delighted by the Zen emphasis on spontaneity as opposed to planned, repetitious action, and wrote inspirationally about the demythologized, anti-ritualized spirit of Zen. Quotes from the great Zen masters supported this understanding of Zen, and led to the fervor that fueled the opening of Zen centers throughout the West.

Once Western practitioners in these centers began to practice Zen seriously, however, they discovered that zazen - Zen meditation - is a ritualized practice supported by centuries-old ritual practices of East Asia. Although initially in tension with the popular anti-ritual image of ancient Zen masters, interest in Zen ritual has increased along with awareness of its fundamental role in the spirit of Zen. Eventually, Zen practitioners would form the idea of no-mind, or the open and awakened state of mind in which ingrained habits of thinking give way to more receptive, direct forms of experience. This notion provides a perspective from which ritual could gain enormous respect as a vehicle to spiritual awakening, and thus this volume seeks to emphasize the significance of ritual in Zen practice.

Containing 9 articles by prominent scholars about a variety of topics, including Zen rituals kinhin and zazen, this volume covers rituals from the early Chan period to modern Japan. Each chapter covers key developments that occurred in the Linji/Rinzai and Caodon/ Soto schools of China and Japan, describing how Zen rituals mold the lives and characters of its practitioners, shaping them in accordance with the ideal of Zen awakening. This volume is a significant step towards placing these practices in a larger historical and analytical perspective.


Dale S. Wright

Role of Ritual in Zen

Approaching the grand entrance to Eiheiji, one of Japan’s premier Zen Buddhist temples, I am both excited and intimidated. I understand that once I enter this gate, every moment of my life for the next three days will be subsumed under the disciplinary structures of Zen ritual. Although I have already trained in the ritual procedures of the Sōtō school, this is the head temple of its founder, the renowned master Dōgen, and I realize how exacting and demanding their adherence to proper ritual will be. Upon entrance, along with a handful of other lay people who have accepted the challenge of this brief meditation retreat, I am given specific instructions on how to conduct myself through virtually every moment of my stay. The details seem endless and excruciatingly difficult to master—how, exactly, to enter the meditation hall, to address the teacher, to bow, to hold one’s bowl while engaging in mealtime rituals, and on and on. Where best to draw the mental line between actual Zen ritual and other procedural routines of the Zen monastery baffles me. But virtually all life in a Zen monastery is predetermined, scripted, and taken out of the domain of human choice. Some of these routinized life activities stand out from others as explicit religious ritual by virtue of their obvious sanctity, by their relation to the founding myths or stories of the Zen tradition, and more. But all the routines of the Zen setting appear to be treated as essential to the life . . .

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