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Religion Library: Zen

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Julia Hardy

It is likely that there was an element of competition with Pure Land Buddhism at work in this process of providing a "short cut" to a better rebirth. While this new funeral structure made salvation much easier for lay people, the priest had the more difficult job of generating the spiritual power necessary to assure the enlightenment of the deceased.

Today most funerals in Japan are Buddhist, and all involve awarding a Buddhist name to the deceased. The family is given a tablet with that Buddhist name on it, which is often placed on a butsudan, or Buddhist altar in the home, before which a family member will burn incense and chant sutras. The ritual is regarded as effective in assuring a better situation in the afterlife, but its power is much diminished from those earlier ritual forms, and the association of the ritual structure with enlightenment is lost to most lay participants.

Buddhist monks must be trained, and these days some attend Buddhist colleges and universities. Many, even those who are not members of the sect, also go to Zen monasteries for training, the elements of which are highly ritualized. Training includes daily meditation sessions, as well as periodic intensive sessions, called sesshin ("gathering the mind"), which last a week or more, and are held five or six times a year. A sesshin involves long hours of sitting meditation, or zazen, sometimes as many as twenty hours a day. Meditation sessions are interspersed with walking meditation (kinhin), a daily lecture, and individual interviews with the master (dokusan, sanzen, or nyushitsu), as well as daily chores.

In Rinzai Zen monasteries, monks in training typically receive a koan upon which they are to concentrate constantly. During each meeting with the master, they will present possible responses to the koan, which will be either accepted or rejected. The master may berate them, mock them, call them names, or even strike them if they are unable to answer correctly. This is intended to intensify the desire to grasp the koan. Sometimes, when a koan is "passed," there will be a series of exchanges of jakugo, or "capping phrases," between monk and master, further signifying the monk's understanding of the koan. The monk will then be given a new koan to solve.

There are longer training periods, often for months at a time, for those monks who are most interested in spiritual development. Those who participate in this intensive training will study classical Buddhist and Zen texts, memorize long passages, and write frequent essays as well as poetry in classical Chinese, in both cases using the calligraphy brush to write.

Most do not go to the monastery for this level of training. They are there for a few years to prepare for positions as family priests, and may not approach their practice with the same level of dedication and rigor as those who are pursuing vocations as Zen scholars or meditation teachers. Critics of Suzuki and other popular works on Zen also point out that few monks or priests engage in the artistic practices that are so appealingly presented in these works. Zen artist-monks are exceptional individuals. Zen practice does not automatically lead to artistic excellence, and Zen painting and poetry are not part of the typical monastery's curriculum.

Study Questions:
1.      Contrast the Zen funeral as developed in the 11th, 13th, and 15th centuries.
2.     Why were common people ordained after dying?
3.     What types of training do monks receive at Zen monasteries?
4.     What is the role of art within the Zen monastery?


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