Berkeley Zen Center

Practicing With Form

The following essay by Sojun appeared in 1987 in the journal Udumbara, a publication of Minnesota Zen Center. It was revised for the newsletter.

This lecture is reprinted from the August 2002 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

Thanks for your request to make a response to the articles in Udumbara concerning practice forms or formal practice. In your letter, you specifically asked for my response to Shoten-sensei's remark about zen practice beginning and ending with imitation. So I will say something about my own experience with my teacher, Suzuki-roshi.

When I first came to the zendo the practice forms were foreign to me, but at the same time I respected them and wished to do them properly. It wasn't long before I realized that the teaching was right there within the forms. More properly, the forms took on meaning according to my willingness to enter into them wholeheartedly. It seemed to me that the meaning of the Heart Sutra was directly connected to the wholeheartedness with which I was chanting it. But even though I enjoyed the forms, I realized that there is another side; daily life in the world, which is not formal in the zendo sense, but nevertheless has its own forms which are very strict. Suzuki-roshi taught us that we should be able to freely enter the forms of either side with the same spirit. We often hear that there is no special form of zen. But in order to recognize something it has to have a form. In the zendo there is a recognizable form of zen practice. You can hear it, see it, touch it, smell it, taste it and think about it. But those forms are only the forms of zen when we enter them with the proper spirit and bring them to life. Only then can we call it "Zen Practice." But since there is no special form of "Zen Practice," we can use all the forms we encounter; enter into them and bring them to life as forms of practice. On one side the practice is formalized and recognizable and invites us to enter. And on the other, we are challenged to use the forms we encounter as forms of practice. Suzuki-roshi said that our practice of Genjokoan is bound up with the awareness of our life in the world as it is extended from zazen.

So in a sense we are always involved in "formal practice;" in coursing through the emptiness of all forms.

I really enjoyed imitating Suzuki-roshi. I always tried to do things the way he did them, in much the same way that I followed the forms in the zendo. I found myself talking like him, and my movements took on some of his characteristics. This was true of many of his disciples and I see it in the disciples of other teachers as well. It just seemed like a natural way to do things. Studying with him was like an apprenticeship. Suzuki-roshi himself said once that imitating the teacher is a very common practice. He said that sometimes you can't tell the student from the teacher. The student walks in the teacher's footsteps. The object, of course, is that after the student fully absorbs the teacher, the student becomes fully him or her self and develops in his or her own way.

The great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie absorbed and played Roy Eldridge note for note, then went on to develop his own unique style. This is to internalize the teaching and the teacher and on that foundation to find your own way, your own voice. Sometimes it is said that the student should surpass the teacher. I have yet to see that happen, but I will say at least that the student should become his own person. The danger is that the student will stick to imitating the teacher without finding her self. So sometimes the teacher must push the student out on his own. Whenever I came to Suzuki-roshi with a question or problem he would inevitably turn it into a koan for me: "Oh, I'm sorry, you came with a question and I've given you another problem." Then he would laugh. The connection was established and I was turned out on my own. I think it was the laugh that allowed me to see my problem in a much bigger context.

I loved Suzuki-roshi, so I didn't mind imitating him. But someone else might find a good teacher and not be drawn in the same way. It can be difficult for a woman to imitate a male teacher and vice versa. Not impossible, though and also not necessary.

I think that through our association with Suzuki-roshi, we his students learned through his manner not only his way, but the unspoken character of the many past ancestors, and that there is something in that which cannot be learned in any other way. To study with Suzuki-roshi was to study him and also his way of doing things which had been passed from generation to generation.

He said, "I'm not such a good zen master, but I have my own pace. If you want to walk faster than I do, please go ahead of me." I have never felt that I could come up to his stature. But the most valuable experience for me was that he allowed me to enter his world and at the same time encouraged me to find my own way.

So even though Suzuki-roshi is gone, I still continue to learn his teaching from that depth of intimacy which provided me with confidence to go on by myself.

Although there is always a lot of pressure to develop our own "American Way," Suzuki-roshi always warned us not to be too hasty. He felt that an "American Way" would naturally develop if we continued to absorb the practice as it has been given to us. He felt that there was a lot of ego in our desire to have it our own way. And he felt some lack of respect and acknowledgement on our part towards the compassionate ancestors who contributed so much toward the development of the practice.

Suzuki-roshi's own practice was always very simple and seemingly informal in the midst of formality. The formal practice we got from him was just the bare bones. I met a Tendai abbot who said that he felt Suzuki-roshi had given us the most simplified forms so that everyone could do it. He said that in Japan the Soto School has the most elaborate and ornate kind of chanting of all the schools, and that Suzuki-roshi gave us only the Heart Sutra to chant in a monotone. All the other chants and forms were given to us by Tatsugami-roshi when he introduced the monastic practice to Tassajara in 1970.

My observation is, that even though our practice has been for lay people as well as monastics, the forms are always monastic or semi-monastic. What is basically lacking are forms which validate and make recognizable our lay life. I am a priest, but the people with whom I practice are mostly lay people. I can identify with both sides, and indeed live a life which includes both sides. I am as much at home at a Tassajara practice period as I am practicing with my family in the city. But many students live their lives involved with the world, and there is a real need to develop forms which help us to recognize and appreciate the "lotus in muddy water."

The ideal is to have uprightness and mindfulness within our informality, and find some ease and settled-ness within our formal practice. This is something we learn through zazen. And through zazen we become one with our teachers and the dharma and little by little find our own way.

Last revised August 14, 2002. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
Comments about this site to