Ritually rich, in and out of order

As was requested, I will try to say something about the forms and rituals of this practice. Before that question came up this morning, I had been writing in a new notebook. It has lines on the pages, unlike my previous notebook. Sometimes my notebooks have lines and sometimes they don’t. Writing with the lines and writing without lines are very different experiences. As a writer, I know that different pens and paper, like different places and moments, offer different experiences. The experience of writing with lines, I realized, can be likened to the experience of practicing with the forms and rituals here in retreat: The orderly offers an entry to the disorderly freedom of letting go.

This morning while I was writing, I realized that I could rely on the lines. I can count on the lines for support, and I’m therefore free to use the space that is between the lines without limits. Each letter, each individual letter that I put on the page, is joined with another letter and forms a word, and then each word joins with the other words and forms a sentence, and each sentence joins with another sentence and makes a paragraph, and the paragraphs fill a page, and the pages fill the book. The same thing is true of when we come together here as individuals.

We can say that there are two aspects of our being. We can also say “two aspects of reality.” One aspect reflects “diversity” – this is the “separate” aspect of being, the individual aspect, or what we can think of as the discontinuous being. It is separate, cut up, orderly, different from the being of another. The other aspect of our being is the unity aspect, the oneness or non-separated, disorderly, continuous aspect. Both aspects are inherent in everything and in each of us; we do not have to create or attain them. That’s how we are; those are the two essential aspects of our being.

When we come here as individuals, we bring our individual/separate beings with all our different characteristics – the way we look, dress, think, our desires, our dislikes, our different positions in society, our different positions here, different ages, all this difference – and we become as one. We ultimately have only our differences in common. The experience of that oneness, that continuous being, is facilitated by the rituals and the forms, like the lines on the page facilitate that experience of the words and phrases coming together without my having to think about where I am going to put the words and how many lines I will have on any page and how wide the lines should be; it’s already established.

The same is true for the rituals and the forms here. The rituals and the forms here are very particular, but rituals in any tradition serve the same purpose. What I am saying of this very particular Zen practice is also true of a ritual in an office. It serves the same purpose. The individual workers in the office come together through some sort of ritual and join as one, as a team. The same in sports; we have certain rules and rituals and they serve to bring together separated, disparate, discontinuous parts into a continuous whole. And in those different situations the rituals serve that purpose… However, in those cases the emphasis is not put on the experience of oneness but on the result. The team will come together as one so that they can score more goals; the workers will come together as one to produce a better product. In this Zen context, and in most spiritual or religious contexts, the emphasis is not on attaining a goal or some “thing,” something material; it’s on the very experience of oneness, of something nonmaterial. What is “produced” is secondary – peace of mind, relaxation, etc. The goal is not to score goals, but just to experience what is: one.

In some Zen retreats most everyone would be wearing the same kind of clothing – dark robes. Originally that came from a monastic practice in which people entered a monastery, became monks, and gave up all their clothing and positions, shaved their heads, were given some other pieces of clothing and that’s all they had. This was part of the ritual of abandoning the fixation on the personal/ separated/individual in order to experience the impersonal, the non-separated, the one, the limitless universe. In my case, I am not a monk or nun. If I wear a black robe, however, it serves the same purpose. It’s just a form that is put on as a reminder for myself, and it can also serve as a reminder for others, of the impersonal. There is this person with a personal life, with a name, identity, situation, nationality, family, different qualities, age, and there is the other aspect of this being, which is impersonal. The impersonal is embodied as the personal. Today I may choose to put on the robe as a reminder of that. It helps me to let go of the personal, to let go of my attachment to that personal aspect – my usual, personal attire.

Like everyone, I’m very attached to that personal aspect. I’m very attached to my age, my children, my work – whether I like my work or not, I have a very personal opinion about it. I have a very personal opinion about my children; I love them, and I probably have a stronger opinion about my children than I do about your children, because I don’t have the same relationship with your children as I have with mine. It doesn’t mean I don’t like your children, but my personal connection is stronger with my children.

So I put on a robe as a reminder. It helps me experience the impersonal. The same goes for all of the rituals, such as bowing for example. Each time I bow it’s an opportunity to let go of my attachment to the personal. It’s an opportunity to give myself the possibility to experience this impersonal aspect of my being, of each being, of reality. It allows me to move from my discontinuous being, with its particular affinities, desires, stories, order, to this continuous being that is limitless, vast, open, disordered. It allows me to let go of my limits and abandon myself to the limitless. I’m not saying that every time I bow that is my experience but that is how I approach the bow. That is a meaning, if you will, of bowing.

The same goes for the schedule. We establish a schedule, someone rings bells at designated times, our sitting time is 40 minutes, we have meals at a certain time and work at another, every day, day after day. Again, this is so we can let go of our attachment to our personal views nd sticking points: “I want to sit longer” or “I don’t want to sit this long” or “I like this position” or “I don’t like this position.” It doesn’t mean we don’t have those opinions – we do, everyone has an opinion about it — sometimes we share the same opinion, other times we don’t. Because there is the schedule, because there is this ritual, we have the possibility of not sticking to that opinion, of being free of it. We still have it, perhaps, but we are not limited by it. We have the opportunity to experience something else. We just give ourselves to that ritual: “Ok, this is what I do now.”

The same applies to eating. We have an idea of what we want for breakfast. Personally, I would not eat porridge and fruit for breakfast if I were making my own breakfast. I accept to free myself of that attachment to what I want for breakfast and when I want it, and when I want to wake up, and I give myself to the schedule. The time to get up is 6:30. I’m free! I don’t have to be limited by my idea that I want to sleep until 10:00. Or that I want bread with jam for breakfast, or even that I want my tea, my favorite tea. I drop it. And it’s so liberating to drop it, to not be fixed by this small picture I have of what and when breakfast is.

The same applies to being served (and to serving). I drop my idea of how I should put food in my bowl, when I want it in my bowl, how much I want. I can ask for more, but because it’s in this ritual context, it’s no longer about this personal me; I’m joining with all of the others and I have fewer demands. I’m freed of “I need much more food – now!” or, “I want another kind of food,’’ or “I want to get up from the table now” or “I don’t want to get up from the table.” I just get up when it’s time to get up, and thus I’m free from these attachments.

We don’t really understand the rituals, right? We don’t understand why we eat like that. We don’t understand why we have this schedule. We don’t understand why we bow. We don’t understand why we chant things. Here, we don’t do much. The only one who says anything is at night; at the very end, someone says something to us. If I were in a different context, in a retreat in France, for example, there would be chanting because the context is more appropriate for it. Here it’s not – now. It might be tomorrow, I don’t know. Today it’s not.

But we don’t “understand’’ any of it – the rituals – and that’s the point and also the nature of the rituals. In this discontinuous aspect of life and being, in this separated, isolated aspect, everything is “coherent’’ and in order, everything has its clear specificity. We can identify differences, we can understand the words, we can explain why things are the way they — “we do this because of that.” But when we accept to drop our attachment to the personal aspect and abandon ourselves to the ritual, we “enter’’ the incomprehensible, the irrational, the incoherent, the disorderly. We are thus liberated from the obligation to “know,” to make sense, to be coherent, to be in order, and we discover this other aspect.

It’s like light and dark. Last night, after the final sitting, I returned to my room. It was dark, I couldn’t distinguish the bed, the chair, the windows; I could see nothing. I flipped the light switch on and suddenly everything was clear, I could see the differences, where each and every thing was in its place. That experience before, of the darkness, has a beauty in itself that we can appreciate if we are not focused solely on – that is, attached to — the idea of having the light on and knowing exactly what and where everything is.

Rituals of all sorts provide an opportunity to experience this impersonal, “continuous,” incoherent and inexplicable beauty of life. It is like having the lines on the page: When I have those lines on the page, I can just write, without thinking where “I” will put the next line. I’m free to just let the words flow, to join that disorderly flow of the words.

Rituals may appear very strict, when in fact that is not the point. Sometimes rituals are stricter than at other times. In the Zen tradition, for example, it depends on context and how the one leading the group embodies the ritual.

The question was asked this morning, “Will you correct our posture?” I answered, “No, because there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ posture – there is nothing to ‘correct’.” There is posture, true. And what is important is not making “the posture” exactly one right way as opposed to a wrong way. What is important is maintaining your posture, maintaining that ritual, which aims to provide a stable form in which to sit. But the ritual only has meaning if it functions in a context. What is the intention of the ritual? What is its function? The point is not to have rituals just to have rituals. Within each context — each situation, time, place, people, whatever the situation is – the ritual adapts to it with the same intention: being the lines upon which each of us can write as one, without being stuck to our personal, separated, different, fragmented words.

One of my dharma “sisters’’ was given the dharma name Joie Partagée, or Shared Joy, by our teacher. Although it exists in the Tibetan tradition, this notion of “shared joy” predates Buddhism, and it’s part of the very ancient Indian Vedantic tradition. Today, this name is appropriate for this woman because that’s what she does: She tells jokes. She can be very funny. This name really is appropriate for her because she shares her joy; it’s contagious. It’s as if we all catch her joy, as if we had caught her cold or flu. Not all the time, of course, but this is one of her qualities. It is as if we were each individual beings and with her stories, her jokes, her presence sometimes, she makes us laugh, she makes us joyous and that is the string that links us all together as one. At that moment, when we are laughing, when we are smiling, we are not separated. We are one. The laughter expands us from the small personal to the limitless impersonal. Humor does this, laughter does this.

Not only humor does it, fear can do it as well, any sort of powerful emotion. Anything that is erotic – not what we normally thing as erotic – does that as well. Not only in a sexual context. Think of eroticism as something that takes you away from the strictly personal, the usual order, and allows you to experience the expansiveness of unity and disorder. It might be a work of art. It might be an exceptional sports moment – the experience of an extraordinary soccer goal scored by Zidane. Or it can be watching Roger Federer hit the ball so perfectly it takes your breath away in tennis. It transcends the personal — it’s a collective “WOW.”

Ritual gives us access to the experience of that impersonal aspect. And we can say in the case of Joie Partagée that there is a ritual in the telling of the joke. There is setting it up, telling the story, “There is a guy… who did this…” and then, there’s something in the story that maybe is confusing and suddenly there’s “WOW” – the “punch line,” we say in English – and that’s part of the ritual of the joke telling. If any of those aspects are not respected the joke doesn’t work. If you tell the end line first, forget it! It doesn’t work. We don’t know how it will evolve from the first line, “There was a man in the street…” to whatever happens in the last. It’s totally irrational. We give ourselves to the unknown, the incoherence of it – there is something delicious in letting go as someone tells a joke, awaiting the common laughter – and we arrive at this shared joy. Like I said before, the laughter is the wild string that joins us like beads in a necklace. We are one in that moment.

The first time I came to a retreat like this, I didn’t know what was going on. No one told me anything. I came because I loved to sit but I had just been sitting by myself, I didn’t know anyone who sat and I wanted to share sitting with other people, to know other people who did this, too. That’s all I knew. So I came to a retreat and there were all these rituals, bowing, and chanting. Everyone was wearing black robes and I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts. I had no idea what was going on. It was very strange. At night, after the last sitting of the first day, suddenly in the darkness I heard a voice saying something about life and death, about opportunities being lost, about awakening and not squandering your life. The voice was so direct, I thought that it was coming right at me out of the darkness. As is common in some Zen schools, everyone was facing the wall, so I couldn’t see what was happening, who was talking, what the other people were doing. I had no clue. And the bells were ringing and people started bowing… I was plunged into the unknown: “What is going on?!?”

There was something powerful in my desire to sit and something in the confusion that was attractive. There was something I liked in this confusion, this not knowing, although it was frightening and I resisted it, as well. But something appealed to me and so I stayed. I should also say that I had a very strong attraction and connection to the teacher. I couldn’t explain that, either; I just liked to hear what she said and I liked to be with her, to watch her, but I couldn’t really explain why. It didn’t matter. I was willing to drop explanations.

If the schedule said we do this at this time, I did it. If this is what we said at this time, I said it. It didn’t matter what I was saying; I just said it. I trusted the ritual; I trusted that something was happening through that. Of course there were moments when I didn’t know what I was doing, or I thought it was stupid, or I hated it or felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t do it. But if I didn’t think about it so much I could just experience it. And the more I didn’t think about it the more I experienced “just this.” The more I thought about it, the more I was separated; the less I thought about it, the more I was not separated, which was what I wanted. I had wanted to feel one, I had wanted to not be isolated. That’s why I had come to the group: to not be isolated in a very concrete way.

Whenever we talk or think about dualities (personal/impersonal, fixed/not fixed, light/dark, coherent/incoherent), we tend to see the differences as opposites. Therefore, our divisive mind thinks, “If it is one, then it is not two.’’ Or if it’s this one, then it’s not the other. And we have difficulty holding both positions, as it were, although in fact they are both always present, these two aspects, personal and impersonal. For me, in my very “personal” process, my “personal” interpretation and understanding and manifestation of these teachings, I express both the impersonal and the personal, being a woman in the 21st century with 2 children, earning my living, living in a house with my husband and family, without abandoning my Zen practice. In fact, I could not abandon my practice – my life is my practice. The personal and the impersonal are always expressed.

For example, today I am wearing a formal Zen robe AND I have long hair. Some people don’t think it’s O.K. to have hair in my position as a successor in the Zen tradition, or they might think it’s O.K., but not wild, long hair; it should be short hair. Or hair, O.K., but no earrings! It so happens that this is how I manifest the teachings today; as I said, and tomorrow it will be different because it is not today.

The last time I was in Portugal and this issue about the forms and the rituals came up, I did the same thing: I gave a talk on it. But I chose that day to come not wearing my robes. It seemed appropriate in that moment to manifest it without the robes. I was not sitting there naked, which would have been another way to embody the teaching, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate to express it that way at that moment. In another moment that might have been appropriate, but it was not in that moment.

If we fix ourselves in one place or the other, again, we are limiting ourselves. We can’t fix ourselves in either one, for then we will exclude the other. After all, this is simply a practice of including, not excluding. I am not saying, “I’ll exclude the personal so I can experience the impersonal,” or “I’ll exclude the impersonal so I can experience the personal,” which is usually what we do. If we come to a situation like this retreat and we say, “I don’t want to let go of my preference to sleep until noon…” or “I don’t like that schedule – I don’t want to sit now,” or “I don’t want to be silent,” or “I don’t like that food, I will go eat something else somewhere else,” that is clinging to the personal and excluding the impersonal. On the other hand, if we only acknowledge the impersonal – having no preferences, saying nothing matters — we are excluding the personal.

Each of us looks and feels differently, we are not all the same. And by not solidifying our personal aspect, we have a better chance to experience and share ourselves, others, all things, every moment. To share what is “personal,” we must offer it to the “impersonal.” Each of us laughs in a different way, but when we laugh as one, all of those individual laughs come together as one and it feels different than when we laugh alone.

Singing is the same way. If we sing by ourselves it is not the same thing as singing as a choir. And if enjoying the choir we hold to our way of singing, something won’t be right. We have to give up of what we think the song should go like in order to sing it as one, together.

Look around. You will see this oneness and diversity everywhere. In politics and government, for example, democracy is a popular political system today. And some democracies want to impose democracies on other countries. (I’m thinking of one democracy in particular that wants to impose its system on other countries.) The problem with democracy is that the preference of the most people is what prevails. Whatever the majority decides is what happens. It’s not necessarily what is best nor what’s “right” or what’s “just” or what’s “true.” It’s just what the greater number of people prefer. In such a system, what is dominant is an attachment to the personal, to personal preference. When all of those personal preferences come together, the decision is made accordingly.

The opposite – totalitarianism – is an attachment to the impersonal. There are no individuals, no preferences are recognized, no one is separate, everyone acts for the whole. This is what happens when there’s an attachment to the impersonal.

I can’t give you an example of a political system that would best include both aspects. I can’t because I don’t know. I’m not a politician and I don’t study political theory. But this is a concrete example. If you look around you will see these different aspects of reality expressing themselves in any number of ways — limited and unlimited, a fragment within the whole, the small and the vast…

The aspect of our being that is coherent and personal develops ritual as a way of experiencing the other aspect, we might say to experience the sacred. That’s all! It’s not any more complicated than that. Very quickly that aspect of being that is coherent, orderly and rational, however, starts making ritual more and more elaborate and complex, making it strict, forcing it on people — forcing democracy on people, for example. Then the point is lost. In some churches, Christ’s initial message has nothing to do with many of the rituals that are now practiced. Buddha’s initial message had nothing to do with wearing a black robe or not wearing a black robe! Christ was not Christian, and the Buddha was not Buddhist. The forms and rituals were developed as a way to experience what Christ and the Buddha experienced: the impersonal, the continuous, the inexplicable, the disorderly.

If we can focus not so much on the particulars of the ritual, dropping our attachment to understanding it and just experience it, something happens. This is when, as one, we can experience our continuous being, rather than the discontinuous, fragmented me. At every moment, each one of us is the whole and a fragment.

This aspect I’m talking about, this impersonal aspect, can never been seen. It can’t be seen like the personal aspect is seen. We can see how each individual looks differently but we can never “see” the impersonal aspect. By nature it is unseen. It can only be experienced and that is why we do this practice, that is why we sit: to experience our true being as it is, rather than reading about it, talking about it, seeing it, thinking it and understanding it. Our experience moment to moment can’t be read, taught, thought, seen, understood. It is out of order! It escapes our grasp endlessly, beautifully.