Some people in the West who are new to Zen are put off by the chanting and bowing.
Whenever a new student admitted this to one of my former teachers, he would simply say, “Good!”
Our chants, and the other liturgical and ritual elements of Zen practice, are very much part of the complete package. And, as we begin practice, many of us tend to bring the same this-that mind to these elements of practice that we bring to meditation and working with koans initially.
I encourage you simply to jump in. To be an instrument resonating with other instruments as we chant. To be motion as we bow.
As with meditation and koan practice, chanting and our ritual forms of practice are not really meant to be approached in a cognitive-analytical way. Dogen emphasized that zazen (meditation) is enlightenment. Same with the other forms.
This can be especially hard for Westerners to understand and accept, perhaps particularly for those of us raised in an Abrahamic religion. There’s so much emphasis on ideas and belief in our culture, and in these contemporary religions, especially. If one is a practicing Christian or Jew, one might mistakenly see a Zen chant like The Three Refuges as a declaration of an alternate set of beliefs or commitments; as something unorthodox, or at least in tension with one’s religious belief system. If one is an atheist, one might see the Zen chants, or bowing to an altar with a representation of the historical Buddha, as explicitly or explicitly an expression of allegiance to a religious belief system or to a god or messiah figure.
But, it’s not so. Zen is very different in this way. It operates on a plane that’s orthogonal to these sorts of considerations and concerns. Zen has and demands no particular beliefs.
On the other hand, attention and intention—heart—are central to Zen practice.
Actually, the whole association between religion and belief is a very Western, modern thing, and this is part of the reason those of us who come to Zen having practiced an Abrahamic religion can get tripped up by the Zen chants and rituals. In Catholicism, for instance, the idea of a creed—from the Latin “credo”—used to have a different meaning than it does today. “Credo” is likely to be translated today as “I believe,” but it used to mean something more like, “I give my heart to this.”
That’s what we’re doing in Zen: giving our heart to the practice. More as being and doing, than thinking and believing.
And coming to embrace our whole life as practice. Not believing that’s so. Living it as such. Coming to know this in our bones. Knowing to the point of forgetting.
How might this translate, say, into chanting The Three Refuges? Well, first and foremost, chant! If you need to put that critical-analytical part of yourself at ease as you do, you might think about the content of the chant this way:
“Buddha” is just our awakened nature; presence. “Taking refuge” in Buddha isn’t escapism or hiding in it, whatever that might mean. Quite the contrary. To say, “I take refuge in Buddha” today is to express my intention to opt-in to being awake and opt out of the myriad ways we tend to close ourselves to ourselves, to others, and to life.
“Dharma” means both the teachings of Zen, which are a gift that’s been passed on to us over the centuries by others like us, and all that is manifest. Ants, sticks, and grizzly bears. My cup of tea, the tire that’s just gone flat, and that approaching deadline at work. To take refuge in Dharma is to turn toward all that is, even the stuff from which I am inclined to turn away, whether intentionally or reflexively.
“Sangha” is our community of fellow Zen practitioners and, more generally, all beings. To take refuge in Sangha is to take part; to show up and claim my place. As Oscar Wilde said, “I’d might as well be myself. It seems everyone else is taken.”
As we chant and bow, we’re simply giving our hearts to this One Life we live. As we bow to Buddha, we bow to ourselves and one another—because we, too, are, indeed, Buddha. That is you and me on the altar. Extraordinarily ordinary.
I hope this provides a little encouragement if you’re finding it difficult to take up chanting and bowing as practice. And, if that is still your experience anyway, then, “Good!”