Empty Field is always glad to see newcomers to the zendo. We have a special Beginners Instruction meeting on the last Sunday of each month; if you have never been to a zendo, we strongly encourage you to register for beginner instruction, as that will give you practical information about sitting posture and zendo etiquette, as well as general insights into Zen practice and Empty Field.
That said, we’d like to share a little about what we do, and why.
A note about clothing: Much of our practice is about awareness. We ask that you practice awareness around clothing when you prepare to come to the zendo, and choose attire that is subdued in both color and style.
The first thing to note is that each activity in the zendo is intended to bring awareness to everyday movements that we might ordinarily not think about — the lighting of incense, bowing, sitting, and walking are wonderful opportunities to “wake up” to what is happening Here and Now. In that sense, “practice” can be performed in any time and place, doing anything from mowing the grass to turning down the bed at night to typing an email to playing games with a child. The zendo simply offers us a chance to move mindfully from one activity to the next while in a concentrated state of awareness.
Secondly, and just as importantly, the minimal ceremony of the zendo is not sacrosanct. If the group bows and you forget to, that’s fine. The ceremony is about mindfulness, not about getting things “right.” No one will judge “mistakes” in our activities together.
What We Do
Before entering the zendo, we remove our shoes, placing them near the doorway. We then enter the zendo and take a seat or place our cushions with the others, leaving the middle of the room unobstructed.
Beginning. The meeting opens first with an offering of incense. This is not a religious gesture, but one of respect to the Buddha’s teachings and to the sangha (community) which is about to practice meditation. The scent reminds us to quiet our minds in preparation and to take note of Here and Now.
Sitting Meditation. The bell will then be rung three times, signaling that the first 25 minute silent zazen (sitting meditation) session is beginning. When we sit, we are as still as possible. Our posture is upright — alert but relaxed. The posture and silence are intended to enable awareness. While many of us follow the breath (or do some variation of breath awareness), you can meditate in whatever silent manner is most comfortable for you.
At the end of the 25 minutes, the bell will be rung twice. We remain motionless until the second ring, at which we bow from our sitting position. Like the offering of incense, bowing is a gesture of respect for the practice and for the sangha.
When the practice leader stands from her cushion, the sangha stands. We put our hands in gassho (palm-to-palm in front of the chest).
Walking Meditation. Then we are ready for kinhin (walking meditation). The kinhin leader carries two wooden clappers that are used to signal our next activities. At the first clap, the sangha bows once, then everyone prepares to get into position for walking meditation. We have found the best position is one arm’s length behind the person in front of you.
At the second clap, we bow again. At this point, we move our hands from gassho to shashu (make a fist with the left hand, cover it with the right hand, and hold at the navel) and then begin walking. Walking meditation is about becoming aware of one’s body and movement. We often walk without thinking about it at all, but we use this practice to reacquaint ourselves with the mechanics of feet, ankles, shins, knees, thighs, and buttocks. Keeping pace and an appropriate distance from the person in front of us is also a mindfulness practice. Kinhin lasts roughly 10 minutes.
The kinhin leader will signal the end of the walking meditation with another clap of the sticks. We put our hands back into gassho position, then return to stand in front of our chairs or cushions. Once everyone is in position, a final clap signals a bow, and then we sit, ready for our second zazen meditation period.
Sitting Meditation. Again, three bells signals the beginning of zazen. At the end of the third sitting period, the meditation ends with a communal chant of The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows.
Break. Our rest practice gives us an opportunity to practice silent mindfulness while engaged in everyday activities such as getting a drink of water or using the restroom.
Reading and Discussion. After our 5-minute break, a zendo participant will read from whatever text the sangha is reading together. After about 10 minutes of reading, we have an open discussion in which those who wish to share their thoughts and impressions on what was heard are free to speak. There is no “cross talk” or commenting on others’ statements. If you have a question, you are free to ask it, and the practice leader or others may respond to share their experience or to recommend a book or web site they have found helpful.
Closing. The Kokyo (chant leader) will then chant the Evening Gatha. At the final clap, we bow with hands in gassho, then disperse for home, where many of us attempt to remain mindful and “present” in our daily activities.
At some point after the reading, we pass a basket for donations. All donations go toward supporting the zendo for items such as rent and supplies, and into a fund that enables us to host the semi-annual meditation retreats. Donations are voluntary, and you may give as much or as little as you see fit or as your situation allows.
A Few Words About Sitting
Stillness. Sitting meditation in the Zen tradition is one of stillness. But the human body is still human, and we can experience stiffness or cramps during zazen. We are encouraged to use the pain as an opportunity to become more present. Sometimes, simply giving the pain our full attention can soften its edges and make continuing easier. However, should the pain become excruciating, or if you have a physical condition that precludes continuing, please move to make yourself comfortable. Sitting meditation is not intended to be an endurance sport.
Emotion. Some participants, especially those new to silent meditation, may find that emotions arise during zazen or kinhin. These might be emotions of happiness, sadness, or anything in between. In some cases, an unrecognized or unacknowledged grief may well to the surface. Oftentimes, our act of silence and following the breath simply stills the mind long enough to allow these formerly unexpressed emotions to come forth. This is perfectly normal and others will not judge it as inappropriate.
Taking the experience home. Most of the activities in the zendo can be done at home at little or no expense. Simply remaining mindful of each moment is quite a challenge in itself — most of us find the act of “waking up” out of our own thoughts into the Here and Now to be an ongoing process. Many of us meditate regularly at home — at the same time in the morning or evening, or both. Consistency is more important than quantity; it is better to meditate 5 minutes each day than to meditate 35 minutes once a week. Our practice together, as a sangha, helps remind us to awaken, to be mindful, and to cultivate an at-home meditation schedule that contributes to our ability to be present in our lives.