Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1: Making Visible the Invisible
Just as in the arts of painting, poetry, music, and dance, in Zen liturgy we manifest that which is known to us intuitively in the form of a visible, tangible reality. In this way, liturgy tends to make palpable the common experience of a group. There is, however, very little explanation of liturgy generally available. It is rare to see a substantive work on the subject in Buddhism or any of the other major religions. At best, we’re given an explanation of the form, usually with little or no insight as to how the liturgy really functions or what it means. Indeed, liturgy is a very difficult subject to talk about because it is so fundamentally experiential. Talking about it tends to move us further and further from the heart of the matter.
In the religious life of many Americans, liturgy is experienced as little more than a collection of meaningless gestures and rituals. Because it doesn’t fit into our scientific reference system, our tendency may be to reject it outright. We seem, in fact, to be a culture with distinctly polarized reactions to liturgy. While at the one end there are those who become very attached to the forms, at the other extreme are those who adamantly reject everything even remotely resembling religious ritual. Yet, in actuality, whether we realize it or not, we are immersed in secular ritual all the time. Liturgy is a constant reaffirmation of the experience of a group of people. From the United States Senate to the Marine Corps to baseball fans enjoying a game at the stadium, there is a liturgical identification between the participants and the events they are involved in.
Ritualistic behavior is an integral part of all life—not only the life of human beings, but every kind of life, from bees, wolves, cats, birds, insects, and worms right down to bacteria. Ritual is simply an inherent aspect of social interaction. Part of the problem we have with liturgy in this country comes about because we like to consider ourselves an essentially secular culture while, in fact, there is a theistic supposition underlying the way most of us understand how the universe works. This becomes obvious in how difficult it is for most Americans to recognize sacred ritual or liturgy that does not address a divine being. Put most simply, the question we have to deal with in nontheistic Zen liturgy is, “What is the ritual about if the Buddha is not a god?” In Zen the question of a divine being is not central and, instead, the emphasis is on the ground of being, the Buddha nature, which is not separate from the nature of the self.
All of Zen’s rites and rituals are constantly pointing to the same place, to the realization of no separation between the self and the ten thousand things. Zen liturgy is upaya, skillful means. Like zazen and all the other areas of training, it functions as a way of uncovering the truth which is the life of each one of us. Zen study, face-to-face teaching, work practice, academic study, art practice, body practice, the Precepts all point to the same place: the nature of the self. Skillful means are necessary because each one of us, just as we are, is already perfect and complete. We lack nothing. What we seek is exactly where we stand. But knowing this doesn’t do anything; it is not a matter of knowing. It has to be realized as the functioning of our lives. And for practice to function, for liturgy to function, it must first be wholeheartedly engaged. Practice is always with the whole body and mind. Just imitating the honchos, aping the form—“monkey see, monkey do”—is a dead end. It is like binding oneself without a rope.
The first morning service at the monastery each day is dedicated to Shakyamuni Buddha and expresses our identification with him. Shakyamuni Buddha is not dead—a hall full of buddhas identifies with him. But what does “Buddha” mean? What does “enlightenment” mean? Is enlightenment something that you get or that is given to you? Of course not. This is why we say that there are no Zen teachers and there is nothing to teach, pointing again to the fact that we already have what we seek. This first daily service expresses that wisdom. It is an identification with what we already have—our Buddha nature, the intrinsic enlightenment of each one of us.
The service is also an expression of gratitude for the teachings of the historic Buddha, for the fact that after he realized himself, he didn’t just take off for some mountaintop retreat with the attitude, “Well, I got what I was seeking for the last eight years—to hell with everybody else!” Instead, he stayed in the world for forty-seven years, teaching the unteachable, so that this incredible Dharma could be transmitted mind-to-mind through successive generations from India to China to Japan, and now to America.