Zen and Form

Zen practice is typically associated with two main characteristics. Emphasis on seated meditation, Zazen, and the exacting particularity of form.

From the outside this particularity around form can seem pedantic or obsessive, but there is definite purpose behind this emphasis. It is training, not just in the forms themselves, handed down from teacher to student, or master to disciple, but as a way of practice that takes us beyond self-centricity. Fulfilling form is a way of practicing the final line of the Bodhisattva vow, “Buddha’s Way is unsurpassed, I vow to embody it fully.” Form is the way of practicing embodiment, or intimacy with activity where the blinding-ness of self-importance is long left behind.


Zen Forms change as the practice of Zen settles into new cultures and encounters peoples differing capacities and sympathies for those previous forms. The important matter isn’t so much the form that has carried the practice so far (although form expresses the heart, and is where the heart can give complete expression), but the purpose of those forms in enriching the practice of Zen for the people and culture that take it up. However, without fully engaging with those previous forms to weigh their value and the wisdom of their practice, judging what to keep and what to let go of becomes an expression of fixed points of view.


When we really get down to it, what must be retained as form for the practice of Zen? Shunryu Suzuki, in responding to that question, rather minimally said, “Posture.” That uprightness of posture that is as Suzuki put it, “The best posture for meeting the difficulties we encounter in life.” But that beautiful uprightness of zazen posture need not the only reference to posture either. There is also the posture of conduct. How we deport ourselves in the world. The Zen Buddhist Precepts themselves support being ‘upright’; that is being straightforward, trustworthy and clear, true to the Dharma.


At the heart of Zen is trust. Hakuin Zenji, the great reviver of the Rinzai school in the 18th C, termed it ‘Faith’ in his triptych of Faith, Doubt and Perseverance. Faith in Teaching, practice, ones original essence; Doubt, the built up force of unknowing that begins as curiosity and gathers in the deep inquiry of koan study; Perseverance speaks for itself but it recognizes that practice is functional, doing it has results.


In Zen, to properly engage the practice we must have faith in the practice, trust it. When we practice we are not supporting the critical thinking faculty, this would be supporting distraction. We are instead simply doing the practice itself. In doing this it’s not that we specifically suspend critical thinking and assessment, we let everything, thinking and distractions of environment alone and simply focus on doing the practice, keeping to the meditation object, for the time we are practicing. This is the way true intimacy can be cultivated.


As we drop more deeply into Zen practice, our ability to trust what is current and be able to allow it completely becomes vital. This doesn’t remove or neuter thought and logic but isn’t constrained by these elements. We don’t think in order to experience, we think to improve the value of our experience, but all too often thinking simply dominates actual current experience. This typically develops both a disconnectedness from our current state but also a sort of mistrust of the current actuality.


Allowing what is current isn’t to indulge in not acting or responding immediately or appropriately either. When we are functionally current we act freely with complete response because the current is equally freely allowed, completely as it is. This is how we engage fully with what is current, to engage completely with body and mind, practicing ‘body and mind fallen away’, to use Dogen’s terminology. We engage as part of what is happening, not as separate and affected. And it all starts in Zen practice quite concretely with working with Form.

In the various Zen Forms, whether it be bowing, chanting, walking, Dokusan or Teisho formalities, the actual form of what goes on is important. It has a purpose. It is a practice.

Zen form provides a restricted container. It is specifically proscribed, has particular limits and boundaries, which constrain the form and make it precise. Because it is precise there is definite way of doing the form, of being accurate, of filling out the form with our actions, with our body. Because the form has specific constraints that we can fill out or engage with totally we can practice to completely fill that action, that moment and become intimate with the event that is that form.


An example is bowing, which can be quite a challenge for people, especially facing it fir the first few times. A bow is a physical movement that can be done very particularly and carefully. To fully be there with the bow, or fully inhabit the bow is to be so ‘full of bow’ there is no space at all for anything that could be self-consciousness.


Further than this we learn to trust our own act of bowing, so that there is no need to check our experience of it, leaving our practice falling into intimacy, naturally and freely. We begin warm to the act itself, beginning to embody it with a deeper and more reverent attitude for the path of intimacy that Zen practice uncovers. Even more if we are completely intimate as bow, there is only bow. The propped up experience of self or me bowing, falls away and the bow bows. Intimacy brings forth the entire universe as this very bow, completely clear of any ideas of these matters at all.


Sutras and their chanting are an educational tool, familiarizing us with the texts and sayings of old but there is another purpose for us. Sutras as chanting, are a gateway to an experience of intimacy. Sutra chanting is an opportunity, a tool to allow us to transcend the old conceptions of self and other. Trying to transcend self centeredness can never transcend self centeredness. It takes a practice of becoming intimate beyond our ideas and references of self and other, a practice of being intimate with the voice of chant, the ear of chant, the body of chant.


With Sutra Chanting, the experience changes territory somewhat from a bow and there are different landmarks along the way, but it is based in intimacy, that unbordered state that gestates within the full participation of everything we have, practicing with your complete body and mind. Everything that you come as, your entirety, goes into that chant, that syllable of voice that is the current moment of “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva practicing deep Prajna Paramita…”


We are organic; we have form; we are participatory.

To be clear beyond the certainties of our thinking and views, we engage fully through being inimitably current to what is. In Zen training Form is the practice means for nurturing this territory.



© Glenn Wallis

Dunedin summer 2015


this doc can be downloaded from the ‘Talks’ catagory




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