Through regular practice you will naturally develop familiarity with zendo etiquette, so don’t get caught up in what you should be doing now or what happens next. As you gain familiarity with zendo activity, there will always be other students to observe and follow.
Also, realize that the framework of practice (etiquette and ceremony) is not the source of any understanding. Rather, it simply provides the necessary structure to be able to observe yourself in increasingly complex relationships – sitting, drinking tea, chanting, standing, walking, bowing, etc. Sitting is observing, and sitting in a zendo has the added benefit of allowing you to observe yourself in a more dynamic setting.
Entering the Zendo, Taking Your Seat
Enter the zendo with hands in gassho. Step in left foot first, bow into the zendo, and with hands still in gassho, proceed to a seat. Facing into the room, bow, remove shoes (placing them on the floor directly under the tan) and turn to your left to take your seat.
In assuming the zazen posture, sit with an erect, aligned spine and raised sternum. The legs may be in full lotus, half lotus, Burmese style or seiza, but the knees should be in contact with the zabuton. The mouth is closed and the eyes are open, resting on the floor. The left hand rests in the right palm, with the thumbs lightly touching, forming an open oval. The thumbs should be at the level of the navel, with the back edge of the hands in contact with the lower abdomen.
Zazen starts on the striking of three bells. Refrain from voluntary movement or sounds during zazen. Zazen ends with a single bell. Kinhin or rest kinhin is signaled by striking the wooden clappers either once or twice.
Kinhin is the interval between zazen periods. For walking kinhin, at the sound of a single clapper strike, bow, put on your shoes, and stand with hands in gassho. At the sound of the next clapper strike, bow, and with hands in sassho leave the zendo. Walk clockwise beneath the zendo portal as a group and in step.
During walking kinhin students may use the rest rooms or leave the Zen center. On leaving the kinhin line, step out of line and bow toward the person behind you. On returning to the kinhin line, stand with hands in gassho as the line approaches and enter at your “place” in the line, bowing toward the person you step in front of as you re-enter the line. As you get back in step with the line, return your hands to sassho.
At the sound of the single clapper strike, place hands in gassho. With hands in gassho, enter the zendo without bowing, proceed to your seat, and at the sound of the single bell, bow and sit. When entering the zendo as part of a group, such as returning from kinhin, the Jikijitsu bows for the group.
Rest Kinhin is signaled by two strikes of the clapper. Rest kinhin occurs as a brief interlude to formal zazen and as an alternative to walking kinhin. A rest kinhin preparatory to zazen or chanting may be used to adjust posture. During a rest kinhin between periods, continue sitting in zazen posture, stand with hands in sassho or sit on the edge of the tan, hands forming a mudra.
Rest kinhin ends with a single clap. If standing or sitting on the edge of the tan, stand up with hands in gassho at the single strike of the clapper, bow at the single bell and be seated. If seated in zazen posture, no movement is required.
Chanting in the mornings (choka) starts with the striking of the large gong, during which the sutra book is retrieved from under the zabuton. The regular morning chanting begins with the Heart Sutra and goes to the end of the sutra book. For closing services in the evenings, retrieve the sutra book when the Jikijitsu begins striking the small bell after offering incense. Only the Kozen Daito is chanted in the evenings.
Bowing after Chanting
Great Bows occur after chanting. On the striking of one bell followed by two bells in quick succession, bow with hands in gassho. As the roll-down sound of the bell progresses, place a support cushion on the floor in front of you and stand in gassho. After the roll-down, at the striking of the single bell, perform a full prostration, forehead touching the support cushion on the floor, and hands with palms upturned raised above the ears, parallel to the ground. Hands are held elevated while the bell sound reverberates, then lowered and reversed so that both palms briefly rest on the bowing mat. At the silencing of the bell, stand quickly, hands in gassho. Two bells signal the third and last prostration. Upon standing, retrieve the support cushion, arrange the seating area, and stand in gassho as the bell is slowly struck three times. Bow with the group on the third bell.
The Tea Ceremony
Tea (sarei) is served morning and evening. At morning service, when the bell is struck once in response to two clapper strikes, bow and retrieve a tea cup and napkin, placing the napkin on the front of the zabuton. For the evening period, retrieve a tea cup and napkin when the Jikijitsu announces “sarei.” Hold the tea cup in one hand and signal by raising the other hand when sufficient tea has been poured. Take some tea at the first serving; on the second serving tea may be declined by bowing. Do not put the cup and napkin away until the second serving has been offered.
Leaving the Zendo
On leaving the zendo at the end of a sitting, straighten up your zabuton and fluff the zafu. Bow into the room and leave directly, hands in sassho. Leave no traces.
The sitting area should be ready for the next student. If tea was served, take your tea cup and napkin to the shoji room to be washed.
Entering or Leaving at Odd Times
On entering or leaving during rest kinhins, or before a zazen period starts, bow to the shoji.
Questions? Feel free to ask any of the zendo officers or more experienced students about etiquette and practice before or after formal practice periods. During formal practice, you can consult the Shoji during kinhin periods.