Issue 19;


Form and Ritual in Zen - (The opposite of swings and roundabouts)

By Gill Jackman

I find it very interesting that many people are put off by the rituals of Zen.  Apart, of course, from the bowing and the prostrations, there is the liturgy: a variety of repetitive chants which are reproduced even with a specific intonation that seems designed to drain the activity of all meaning.

To me, this is the point, and one to be welcomed.  Drawn to Zen, initially by the lack of words inherent in ‘just sitting’, I found this practice to be a valuable counterpoint to its opposite: evangelism.  To quote the great poet, Louis MacNeice, ‘Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God, come near me.’   Words terrify me and paradoxically, my work as a writer is about perfecting how to protect myself from people who think they know something and how to inhabit the world that means something to me, in my own, rather than borrowed, words.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.  Odd as it sounds, this has always meant something of great value to me.  I use the analogy of the counselling room to try and explain.  As a counsellor, I am more committed to form: the time, the place, the clear beginning and end, than I am the muddle of content that is to be sorted through.  If the form is present, (including the form of holding a particular attitude, empathy, encouragement) the content will take care of itself.  Without the form, we will not have the empty space needed to examine and sort through the content and the content will run away with itself.  For me, rituals and liturgy perform the same function, becoming so familiar, whether C of E or the Zendo morning service, that we are released from being bound up in thinking about them yet simultaneously, we are held in a form where, perhaps, for a moment we can just ‘be’.  If, instead of this, we were having breakfast or chatting over coffee, we would be too wrapped up in our immediate and unpredictable surroundings to let go of them.

So, for me, Zen form and ritual is the opposite of received wisdom. It mitigates against our becoming wrapped up in dogma and prevents fanatics from grabbing hold of their constructed world and stuffing it down my throat.  That my own emptiness is frequently filled with the garbage in my own head is another matter altogether.  That is the point and with enough ‘sitting’ (half an hour, no talking, chin up) my experience is that the Bodhisattva of compassion arises and reminds me, in the nicest possible way, that it’s all bullshit.

(Written in a hurry, in humility, Gill.)

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