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Conformity and Freedom

            If you practice Zen, you have a relationship to what is often referred to as “the forms” or sometimes just “form.”  The forms are the rules, procedures, conduct, traditions and paraphernalia we encounter in our particular religious practice.  Even if you are ambivalent toward form and engage in it simply because it is part of the package and generally try to avoid thinking about it too much, you still have a relationship with it. 

            For most of us, our relationship to form changes over time and occasionally makes big evolutionary leaps.  In my case, I converted to Zen from religious non-conformism and spent many years devouring the details of the forms in an effort to perfect them.  Then, even though I had become a monk, I began to think the forms were stupid, pointless, and a big cramp in my style.  Rather ironically, then, I was put in the position of shuso, the one who helps to maintain the container of form for the whole sangha.  I knew that whenever I approached someone to correct or instruct them about a form, they could see me as a glowing bodhisattva, a bigoted tyrant, a nit-picky irritant, or simply as a fixture of their practice environment, like the hot water pot or the bell calling them to zazen.  To face these possibilities calmly, I have not relied on confidence in myself.  Rather, I have relied on a growing confidence in the wisdom of these forms. 

            I want to roughly describe a series of different relationships to form, based on my own experience and my observations of others.  I don’t mean to suggest this is an exhaustive list, or that the different relationships always unfold in this order.  However, I hope these descriptions might be useful for understanding and accepting the viewpoints of others, and for reminding us that our own viewpoints are subject to change.  Whatever category or categories you might fall into, engage that relationship wholeheartedly: explore it, question it, feel it, accept it, and do not compare it to others.  The most important thing I have learned is that the form works its own magic on us, below the level of our conscious minds. 

            First, new practitioners of Zen often engage the form as if The Form Is the Key.  At some level we hope that if only we can bow in all the right places at all the right times (gracefully and reverently, but also without any ego involved), finally fold our oryoki cloth in a perfect rectangle, finally zing the teacher with our understanding in sanzen with just the right mix of deference and attitude, the reward of Zen will be ours!  This big, complicated, puzzling, frustrating spiritual practice will yield to our efforts (we hope).  Sometimes we see the teachers or fellow practitioners that inspire us performing some simple action like putting their shoes straight and our heart almost breaks.  We had no idea there could be so much subtlety to placing one’s shoes, or that we could be so very far from embodying our own ideals.

            Later, such practitioners have either given up Zen because they felt they could never master all those forms, or they have come close to mastering them and realized they still don’t have It.  Eventually, no matter how difficult you find it to learn forms, you can move through a Zen environment performing complicated and graceful maneuvers (that look really good to newcomers) and still feel dead inside.  You can practice diligently long enough to earn a fancy name or vestment, yet still feel like these are pasted on over your anguish.

            Then we arrive at a rather tense relationship with form: I’ll Do It Only Because You Make Me.  Many people start here, and never go through a honeymoon with form.  Here we can feel a bit like our deepest longing is being held hostage.  Some aspects of Zen have changed our lives or touched us so deeply that we know we must keep coming back.  But then our teachers and seniors insist that we engage in certain activities, and surround ourselves with various paraphernalia, that may be meaningless to us at best and repulsive to us at worst.  We are constantly on our guard against being bamboozled into something that compromises our integrity, independence, values or self-image.  It can be extremely difficult for some of us to participate, for example, in a ceremony if we suspect it is getting everyone all worked up emotionally to the point that they are losing their better judgment.  Some people absolutely cannot practice where the kyosaku (“encouragement” stick) is used to strike people during meditation, even when it is totally voluntary, because of the suggestion of violence, punishment or intolerance.  Others are repulsed by the system of ordinations, wagessas, rakusus, and kesas, seeing it as being ripe for abuse by egotistical competitive types.

            This can be a very difficult relationship to have with form, and many people stop practicing Zen because of it.  Some of us strive to find ways to practice only those parts of Zen that seem pure, or fundamental, or at least acceptable to ourselves.  We dream about how wonderful practice must be at centers where no-one gets ordained, or we only feel comfortable meditating if there is a beautiful rock on the altar instead of one of those troubling, baggage-laden (usually male) Buddha images.  Or we participate at a traditional center, but duck out right before the irritating or aversive form is about to start.

            If we decide to stick it out, though, we may arrive at yet another relationship with form, perhaps best called, Whatever.  This is the “whatever” that is said with a small shrug.  It is not tuning everything out, nor is it a bleak indifference.  It is more good-natured than that.  We can say this about the forms when we begin to notice how impermanent and ephemeral our small selves are, how often we are wrong, how limited is our view, how profoundly we change over time.  Then we start to take ourselves less seriously.  It is not that we shrug and say, “Ah, violence?  Who cares?”  It’s more like we shrug at ourselves.  When our inner champion for social justice is on her soapbox, crying out against the patriarchy we are helping to perpetuate, we smile gently at her and say, “Hmm.  You may have a point there.  But is this really about justice, or is it about you?  What are you so afraid of?”  Because we are holding ourselves more lightly, we can start to take the risk of experimenting.  Reciting the lineage of male dharma ancestors one more time is not likely to forfeit all the gains women have made, so what happens if we do it wholeheartedly, just once?

            In a particularly open and quiet moment, we may come to see the forms as an Existential Lifeline.  Just for a moment, we see what is right in front of us as if we were seeing it for the first time – fresh, without filters, without judgment.  If our eyes happen to rest at that moment on a sunset or a stoplight or a coffee mug, we may have a very interesting experience.  If we happen to be sitting, or bowing, or chanting, or putting on our wagessa, or caring for an altar, or reading a scripture, or facing a teacher, we may receive a piece of the transmission from our dharma ancestors.  It is almost like they have left their initials carved into the rock next to particularly stunning, remote waterfall.  The message is: we were here, isn’t this place amazing?  Then all of the forms appear to serve one purpose, and that is merely to call our attention to the wonder of our existence.  In themselves, the forms are indeed empty and many of them are utterly arbitrary, but they are also profound and precious.

            It is probably this aspect of the form with attracts us to begin with.  Many of us grew up without being exposed to the practice of taking care without any underlying motive.  Sure, we knew how to take care of something expensive, or how to take care when we were about to take a big test.  But to carefully place our shoes straight or eat mindfully so our silverware doesn’t bang noisily against our bowls?  Personally, when I first encountered Zen, I found the concept completely radical.  The reverence and appreciation these Zen people seemed to have for their lives!  I wondered, “How do I get some of that?” 

            Later, even the stoplight and the coffee mug may begin speak the dharma of the ancestors to us.  Everything becomes (at least in some moments) rich and luminous and poignantly precious.  Putting on our coat becomes as reverent and important an activity as putting on our robes.  Having dinner with a difficult relative becomes as engaging as a koan.  Learning to dance reveals as much about ourselves as reflecting on the precepts. 

            Ironically, although it is often Zen practice that has allowed us to experience life this way, this is also one of the times when we are most likely to give it up, or at least find ourselves drawn further and further away from it.  Our response to form becomes It Is All The Same.  Everything is dharma, everything is practice, so why limit ourselves to a prescribed set of acceptable behaviors?  Why spend our vacation time staring at a wall, when we can explore the dharma through passionate sex?  Why continue to perform the same stale rituals over and over, when there is a world full of spiritual traditions out there to explore?  Many of the people in the world who describe themselves as Zen Buddhists, but do not affiliate themselves with any group or particular lineage, preach the dharma of “it is all the same.”

            When we recognize the truth of sameness, when we gain faith that everything, in a sense, is holy, we may also experience a fair amount of anger towards our spiritual traditions and advisors.  It can seem as if they have tricked us by convincing us there was something inherently lacking or defiled about the world or about ourselves.  Perhaps they just wanted to recruit more followers, or perhaps they are much less wise than we thought, but they have distracted us for too long with all their forms and ideals.  Now we have discovered the inherent purity of ourselves and of all things, and no one is going to put us back in that prison of shame!

            Once again, though, if we still stay with the form, our relationship to it can shift in a very significant way.  We may notice that our spiritual advisors were not imprisoning us in shame.  We were imprisoning ourselves.  Having discovered that there is nothing inherently lacking in ourselves or in the world, we have liberated ourselves from ourselves.  If there is anyone that needs to be carefully watched lest they capture us again, it is ourselves. 

            Yet, even when proximity to the form is no longer threatening, there remains an important question: why would we bother to keep holding the form after it no longer seems to serve any purpose for us personally?  Why would we continue to enter into the formal spaces, which often just cramp our styles?  This was a critically important question for me, as a monk.  I realized that as a religious non-conformist, my personal definition of “conform” was “to give up one’s intelligence and will; to lack creativity; to huddle together like sheep out of fear.”  I was shocked to look up the word and find it meant “to act in accord or harmony with a standard or norm.”  What was I missing here?

            When our view broadens, we create space for regarding form as The Creation of Sangha.  This is about conforming with each other so that we create something in common and move in harmony together.  In order to create anything together, we have to compromise with each other.  Each of us has to sacrifice some of our independence, willfulness, personality and flavor not because those things are bad, but because we value and want to support our common endeavor.  Imagine what it would be like if the temple was simply open on Sundays for several hours for “spiritual practice,” and no other forms were applied.  Imagine people coming into the zendo, doing fast or slow walking meditation here and there, bowing in the corners, doing yoga, coming and going, perhaps carrying on conversations and strumming on guitars.  Perhaps that sounds like heaven on earth to you, but ask yourself how supported you would feel in your spiritual practice, especially when the going got hard.  Would you be able to meditate as deeply if the person next to you was doing Chi Gong, or reading a book of poetry?

            Every sangha and its attendant forms is an imperfect package.  Some of its forms may be deep, beautiful and meaningful, and some of its forms may be anachronistic, awkward and inefficient.  When we have invested deeply in the sangha over time, we may be able to negotiate to change some of them.  Most of the time, though, we simply engage in the forms because that is the way we do things when we are together.  In one sense, the more standardized the form, the more inclusive is the group.  It is a very moving experience to go to Japan and see Zen Buddhists straightening their shoes, bowing, and sitting zazen just like we do.  We belong to the same group. 

            Over the long haul, do you believe the sangha is important, to you and to others?  If so, then support it.  Every time you straighten your shoes, you are addressing the sangha: “I value being a part of this community.”  When you come to sit with others, even though your practice at home is strong, you are saying, “This community has been of great benefit to me, and I want it to continue for my sake and for the sake of others.”  Especially when you compromise something of yourself by following a form, you are saying, “Though my community is imperfect, it is doing the Buddha work.”

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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