My final blog on the Quakers included my complaint that the hour of silence—in which I found much of value—sometimes seemed difficult to me logistically because of the lack of worship rituals which could have helped to initiate the worshipper into a sacred time and space, mark important moments in the service, and bring it to a close.
My first session of Zen practice, which was sponsored by the Worcester Zen Center/Boundless Way Temple (but held at Worcester's First Unitarian Church) seemed as if it were designed to address precisely this issue.
I showed up for the Monday night 5:30 pm service early enough that one of the teachers came and gave me some basic instructions for how to “practice” (which is the term they use for meditation). He demonstrated the correct sitting position to me, the right way to hold my hands, and where to train my eyes. The room began to fill up as we talked, and eventually around two dozen people were sitting in two rows of chairs, facing one another, in a large, carpeted multi-purpose room.
The ceremony began very informally, as our teacher explained how we would begin. Booklets on our chairs contained a number of written chants. We began with one of those chants. The cadence was jarring to me at first—each word is drawn out slowly, and the final syllable of each line has a particular tone to it, so when you chant the phrases in order, they form a kind of musical expression. I still hadn't quite picked up the cadence by the time we finished. Then we recited a longer poem/song, and finished with a chance to speak the names of anyone to whom we wished to dedicate the service.
And then silence.
It definitely felt as if it was a silence that we had prepared for and earned, one that had been marked off as a period of solemnity. In that sense it seemed to me like an effective antidote to the problems I had with the Quaker service.
After twenty-five minutes, a woman rang a bell and we all stood up and followed her into a large room next door. She walked us around this room, in silence, three times, and then we returned to our seats.
It was during this part of the service that the unfamiliarity of the rituals began to strike me as both slightly awkward and slightly comic. Glancing around the room as we walked, I couldn't help but imagine myself coming in some side door and seeing a bunch of people walking around in circles in their socks, staring at the floor, and following a women with a bell. I think I would have laughed at the prospect of encountering a bunch of people who reminded me of the guy who gets his dog stoned in the movie Dude, Where's My Car?
But after we returned and I sat back down, we had another period of silence which began with a short talk by one of our teachers. His words were soothing, conducive to meditation, and struck me as quite relevant to some of the thinking I have been doing on this spiritual journey thus far. So the final minutes of silence passed easily and quickly.
When time was up, we recited three times each what my guidebook tells me are “The Four Bodhisattva Vows.” Again, we chanted them slowly, with a rhythm and cadence that I had mastered by the end.
Afterwards, just like the Quakers, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. And, just like the Quakers, there was a potluck supper downstairs. I had a child to pick up, so I scooted out without the potluck, but not before speaking briefly with the two teachers and letting them know that I would be hanging around for the next couple of months.
My first encounter with Zen Buddhism no doubt would have been much stranger if I had not already been doing silence and meditation on my own, and with the Quakers. Because I have been doing those things, it was familiar enough to me that I felt like I could jump right in and begin practicing.
Fortunately, though, I found plenty of it strange and unfamiliar—more than enough to draw me back next week, and to inspire me to learn more what we are “practicing” for.