I’ve learned something important since I started leading the Zen group at the Rime Center.
I’ve been reading about Zen philosophy and history for a long time. Studying this subject dominates my free time. I don’t know why, but I am one to get really excited about reading a Zen text, even reading the same ones over and over.
And I spend a lot of time writing about Zen philosophy too.
What I’ve learned though, in leading a Zen group is this: you can learn a lot about the philosophy from reading books and discussing them. You can learn how to meditate that way too.
But there is more to Zen practice. It doesn’t begin and end with study, even really diligent study.
The truth is, as far as I know, you can’t really learn the rituals through reading. Someone has to show you. You might not get the bows right, or the chanting.
For example: I know the correct way the attendant offers incense to the teacher at a Zen retreat. I know that only because I served in that role. Maezen showed it to me three times before I did it. “All training is on the job,” she said. There is a great benefit to both learning by watching and learning by doing. She didn’t give me some text to read to learn how to do the ritual correctly. She showed me.
I’m going to tell you what I did wrong.
Wooden clappers are used during kinhin, walking meditation. They are two small, simple pieces of wood. I knew we were supposed to use them and I didn’t have them on the first meeting of the Rime Center Zen Group. So, we had to do kinhin without them that first time. And it was weird. It did feel like something was missing.
I used two children’s wooden blocks instead. They don’t look fancy, but that’s okay. It’s the sound that matters. Spending $50 for wooden clappers reminds me of spending $500 on a fancy Buddhist robe…even though the Buddha himself probably wore rags. Many people in the Zen community are encouraged to do this and it makes me uncomfortable.
Anyway, these clappers are supposed to be used during kinhin, so I wanted to use them. It’s a ritual.
And I didn’t do it right.
The traditional practice is to clap them together at the beginning of kinhin, at the middle, and at the end.
I just clapped them together over and over the whole time. I didn’t remember what the correct practice was so I messed it up. I had a vague idea that I was doing something wrong with the practice, but I couldn’t quite remember what it was.
After the practice was over, one of my friends came up to me and reminded me. When she mentioned it, I remembered the correct practice immediately.
And I was full of embarrassment, of course.
But this is a community effort and at some level we are making it up as we go along.
Next time I’ll do better.
And I’ll remember that all training is on the job.
We meet at Monday nights at 7pm at the Rime Buddhist Center in the Crossroads District in Kansas City, Missouri.
Come train with us.