Friday, November 4, 2011

Zen Choir Boys

Guild of Craftsmen

When you first walk into a zendo to do a couple of rounds of zazen, it feels like not much happens, other than in your mind of course, which is going to be about as Zen as a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide, if it's anything like mine. Yet there's a surprising amoung of choreography going on there. In fact, everybody there has a role to play, even if that role is "only" to sit still between the bells, get up, walk, sit down, bow, and chant according to them.

I'm only really realizing how much ceremony there is now, since I agreed to be something of a Zen choir boy and help that choreography happen. I got to ring bells yesterday, for the first time. I screwed up the final complicated bit, naturally, but nobody was hurt, so it was no big deal. I'll try again next week. If they'll bear with me, I figure I'll eventually learn it.

Ringing a bell is much more interesting than I expected. It's not at all easy to get anything like a pure sound out of it, and even more difficult to get more or less the same loudness, say, three times in a row, even when you're not at all nervous. A bell does exactly what you make it do; the sound is very revealing of the way you hit it. Hesitation or tension makes it sound broken. And you cannot, indeed, un-ring a bell. On the other hand, a nice, good, clean Ting! is very rewarding.

Here's how it works at our zendo. This is the basic no-frills Thursday zazen—three rounds of a half an hour each, with kinhin (walking meditation) between them. On Sundays there's also recitation, and sometimes there are more complicated rituals. On retreats, when the teacher is present, there's yet more.

First, the roles. The full complement consists of two stick guys, one bell guy, one wood board guy, and one incense guy. Or girl, natch; in fact, the other new stick guy is, in fact, a woman. As are about half our sangha leaders and one of the two teachers, for that matter, and the membership too. But I digress.

The first stick guy is in charge, and basically promises to show up. If he can't make it, he can make arrangements for someone else to fill in. He gets other people to perform the other roles. If there aren't enough people able to play some or all of these roles, there are always fallbacks; if there's only the first stick guy, then he'll do any of the other jobs that he can, including ringing the bells.

The stick guys and the bell guy sit along the wall of the zendo opposite the altar. The others can sit wherever they like. Everybody starts out facing the wall, or a partition screen clad with burlap.

About five minutes before the zazen starts, the bell guy gets up, opens the zendo door facing the altar, and sounds the big bell. Three strikes, about eight seconds between them. Then he dims the lights and locks the front door, and returns to his spot.

When the stick guys hear the big bell sound, they turn around to face the zendo instead of the wall. The first stick guy makes a sign to the second stick guy about which round or rounds he's supposed to go around with the stick. Normally it's the second round, but sometimes not. More about that later. This is also the signal to get yourself into the zendo, if you're not already there. You're supposed to bow at the door, when exiting or leaving, or at least raise your hands in gassho (like this _/|\_).

The altar guy gets up, walks up to the altar, puts his hands in gassho and bows to the Buddha. Then he picks up a (long) stick of incense, lays it across the cup with ashes in it that's on the altar, picks up a box of matches from the right of the altar, strikes a match, and lights the stick of incense (the left-facing end, if he's right-handed). Then he puts out the match by pulling it through the air vertically, and puts it in a little clay pot next to where he took the matchbox, and also returns the matchbox to its place. Then he picks up the burning stick of incense and extinguishes the flame on it the same way as the match, and sticks it in the cup with the ashes in it. Then he puts the hands in gassho again, bows, and returns to his place. Oh, and, through the whole thing, he's supposed to be facing the altar, and if one hand is free, that's held in gassho too.

Two or three minutes later, the first stick guy gives a signal to the board guy, who beats a series of knocks on a wooden board, called a han, with a wooden mallet. The board hangs outside the side door of the zendo. The pattern is like this:

  X x x        X x        X x        X x    (repeat until things have quieted down)    X x x [X]

The big X's are louder claps, the little ones softer ones, and the [X] is a really loud one. This is the last moment you can get to your place in the zendo, but normally everybody's already arrived after they hear the big bell.

When the bell guy hears the board guy start beating the series, he picks up a pair of rounded hardwood sticks from a little cushion to his right, and holds them pressed together. When he hears the [X], he bangs them together, which makes a really sharp, loud "crack." Then he puts them down and picks up a bell on a stick, called an inkhin, and waits. The board guy puts the mallet back where it belongs, walks to the zendo door, closes it, walks to wherever he's sitting, and sits down. When the bell guy hears him do that, he sounds the bell-on-a-stick with a little brass stick that hangs from its handle, three times, about 10 seconds between each strike. After the third "ting" has faded, he puts the bell down on the cushion to the right, with the brass stick laying across the padding on the bell that's there for this purpose.

Then we sit.

About 15 minutes through the round, the stick guy who's doing the rounds for that time—the first stick guy for the first and third rounds, usually, the second stick guy for the second round and sometimes the third if the first stick guy is giving daisan—gets up and walks to the altar, and bows, hands in gassho. He then picks up a flat wooden stick laying across the altar, in front of the cup with the ashes and the incense. He bows and raises it above his head, straightens up, and turns it so he's gripping the thick end. This makes a slight wooden sliding sound. Then he walks around the zendo twice. Anyone who wants to be hit on the shoulders with a stick will raise his hands in gassho when he's passing. He lays the stick on a shoulder, and gives two sharp raps on both shoulders, diagonally, on the muscles between the spine and the shoulderblades. Then the guy being hit makes gassho again, and the stick guy bows while holding the stick over his head. When the two rounds are done, the stick guy returns to face the altar, bows with the stick held over the head again, then turns the stick around so the handle faces left (the Buddha's right hand, that is), and replaces it on the altar. He bows in gassho again, and returns to his spot.

About a half a minute before the end of the round, the bell guy picks up the bell and gets ready to sound it. Then he makes one "ting." Everybody who's able (sometimes you get pins and needles, and you can't) stands up, putting hands in gassho. He makes another "ting." Everybody bows, and starts walking in a circle around the zendo, hands clasped across the chest. The stick guys—or whoever they've asked to do this—open the windows for air.

After about six minutes of walking or so, when the bell guy reaches the middle of the zendo, he makes one "ting." When everybody reaches their spot, they stop there and wait until everybody's in place. Then the bell guy makes another "ting," and everybody sits down. Somebody closes the windows unless the stick guys already did, during the walking. The bell guy puts down the bell and picks up the hardwood sticks. After a bit he bangs them together to make that sharp "crack" again. He puts them down, finds a good sitting position, picks up the bell, and waits for things to quiet down a bit. Then, three "tings," with maybe a little longer interval than for the first round.

Rinse, repeat, twice. Except the end of the third round is a bit different. When the bell guy sees (from a watch or timer in front of him) that there's about three minutes until the end, he picks up the bell again. Then all hell breaks loose, at least if you're the bell guy for the first time ever.

First stick guy: "Four vows."
Bell guy: Ting!
First stick guy: "All beings
Everybody: (chanting) ...without number I vow to liberate"
Everybody: "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot"
Everybody: "Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate"
Everybody: "The great way of Buddha I vow to attain."
Bell guy: Ting! (turns to face the zendo around now)
Everybody: "All beings without number I vow to liberate"
Everybody: "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot"
Everybody: "Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate"
Everybody: "The great way of Buddha I vow to attain."
Bell guy: Ting!
Everybody: "All beings without number I vow to liberate"
Everybody: "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot"
Everybody: "Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate"
Bell guy: Ting!
Everybody: "The great way of Buddha I vow... to attain." (The last bit isn't chanted, just spoken in a diminuendo.)
Bell guy: Ting!.. Ti-Ting!... Ting...Ting...Ting..Ting..Ting.TingTingTingTinTinTiTiTitititi... (everybody except bell guy get up, if they're able.)
Bell guy: Ting... (everybody bows to the ground toward the altar, then raises hands, palms up.)
Bell guy: ...x (lays brass stick across the bell to cut the sound) (everybody stands up)
Bell guy: Ting... (everybody makes another bow to the ground)
Bell guy: ...x (everbody stands up)
Bell guy: Ting! (everybody bows to the ground)
Bell guy: Ting... (when first stick guys knees reach the floor)
Bell guy: ...x (everybody gets up)
Bell guy: Ting! (when first stick guy is about halfway up; then stands up; everybody faces the altar, hands in gassho)
Bell guy: Ting! (everybody bows toward the altar, then turns to face the centerline of the zendo, so the people on the left are facing the people on the right)
Bell guy: Ting... (everybody bows to each other)
Bell guy: ...x

We chant that in Finnish, natch. The English is from the Rochester Zen Center website; we're in the same lineage so we do this the same way, more or less. The cadence is different, and they used a bigger bell for their recording, though, probably one of the ones that look like kettles.

Then everybody straightens out the spot where they were sitting, and return all extra cushions to the shelf from where they came, and that's about it. Then there's tea, sometimes.

Before that, naturally, somebody had to make sure the altar is nicely decorated, that there are tea and biscuits, that the rent is paid, and so on and so forth. Quite a song and dance for staring at a wall for an hour and a half. But it makes it worth it, somehow. I don't think the specifics of the ritual matter all that much, but I think it's pretty important that there is a ritual. All that activity serves to create a space which wouldn't be there if we just showed up, sat there, and went home.

It also barely ever goes entirely, 100% according to plan.

Then again, starting my fifth decade on this planet by becoming a Zen choir boy wasn't entirely according to plan either.


  1. Recently I finally managed to create a document of the timekeeper duties, long after somebody asked me to do it.

    And now you do the same thing voluntarily!

  2. I wonder where that document is? I have the one from ZengÄrden, which is very good but in Swedish. Things like this seem to get lost in the wash sometimes. There's a certain website project like that too...

  3. I used to chafe at the formalities in the beginning, but have come to value the forms highly as an opportunity to practice meticulousness. It began with the thought of doing one thing simply at a time, and letting that circle of concentration expand.