Zendo Etiquette


The zendo is the focus of most Zen centers and there are customary forms governing behavior there. Observing these rules keeps us from colliding with each other and helps us with our practice. This brochure acquaints you with the forms observed in the Cedar Rapids zendo and offers some thoughts on their practice aspects. Every Zen center has variations on these forms. Knowing our ways will surely help in practicing elsewhere, but there will be differences also.

These forms are guides for practice. Forgetting or making mistakes is not an occasion for shame or embarrassment; it’s a chance to learn more about ourselves and our world. It’s not perfection that counts – it’s effort and attitude.

Points to remember

· Be on time Arrive around ten minutes before zazen begins and take a seat in the zendo.
Not hurrying preserves the quiet and helps us and everyone around us to settle into zazen more easily.

· Shoes Shoes go on the lower shelves beside or behind the door. If you need to sit to remove shoes, there’s a chair in the entryway. If possible, don’t wear socks in the zendo.
This helps keep the floor clean. Also, we symbolically leave the outside behind. Going barefoot in the zendo connects us with practice in the Buddha’s time. It’s also easier to sit crosslegged without socks.

· Clothing and such Wear loose, non-revealing clothing in inconspicuous designs and colors. Avoid distracting jewelry and scents. Put your watch in your pocket and turn off your cell phone.
By not distracting others or ourselves with sights, smells or sounds that arouse curiosity or attachment, we create peace and harmony.

· Silence Avoid speaking in the zendo. Chatter and conversation disrupt our awareness and our grounding in the present moment, and it distracts others. There is plenty of time for talk later.

· Entering and exiting the zendo Use the side of the doorway beside the shelves. On entering or exiting, bow in gassho. If you need a sutra book, take one from the shelves as you go in.
Entering at the side shows respect for the Buddha, the practice and all things, including ourselves. Bowing in gassho is a sign of greeting and respect.

· Finding a seat With hands in shashu, walk around the room behind the zabutons to find a seat..
Avoid passing in front of the Buddha’s altar. Also avoid coming from opposite directions and running into each other.

· Sitting down Upon finding a place to sit, bow in gassho once toward the wall, turn and bow in gassho once to the seat across the zendo. Then sit on the zafu and begin zazen. Three rings on the zazen bell mark the formal start of zazen.

When we bow, we are paying our respects to our practice, our wall, our situation, our sitting companions, and all beings.

· Ending zazen The end of zazen is signaled by sounding the zazen bell. Two rings announce the beginning of kinhin. One ring indicates that zazen is over and dharma talk or service is about to begin. Get up slowly, fluff up your zafu, bow in gassho toward your seat, turn clockwise and do the same toward the seat across the way. Bells are usually signals about what to do. The two bows are done whenever we arrive at or leave the zafu.

· Kinhin After bowing, turn to your left and stand in shashu. When the inkin rings, begin kinhin. When the zazen bell sounds three times, bow in shashu and walk at a normal pace back to your zafu, bow and sit down. During kinhin it’s OK to walk in front of the altar. If you must enter or leave the zendo, do so during kinhin. In walking, you’ll find yourself balancing between harmonizing your breath with your steps and keeping a good distance between yourself and the people in front of and behind you. This is good practice.

· Service Pay attention to the ringing of the inkin.
There’s often confusion about when to stand and when to sit. The inkin is used for “directions to the assembly.” When it’s rung twice in rapid succession, it’s saying that if you’re sitting you need to stand, and if you’re standing you need to sit. A rolldown (rings following the pattern of a ball bouncing, getting faster and faster) signals that a series of full prostrations is about to begin.

· Pay attention Observe others around you and follow their actions. Avoid watching the doshi and the doan – they often do different things from everyone else.

Many smaller details have not been addressed here. Watch and follow others and ask questions later. For example: Is there a reason everyone enters our zendo starting with their left foot, or is it just an amazing coincidence? By asking such questions we further refine our practice.

In Closing . . .

There is more to zendo rules than keeping things orderly. Our struggle with them provides an opportunity to practice and to observe our egos in a safe environment. In everyday life we find ourselves feeling embarrassed or awkward. Often, because we don’t feel safe we can be defensive, go into denial, or try to escape and avoid the issue. But in the zendo we don’t escape. We remain in the awkward situation. Maintaining our awareness, it is harder to go into denial. There is no excuse making either, because, for starters, we’re maintaining silence! Instead, we get a chance to observe ourselves in confusion (“Some people are getting up now but some aren’t…so what am I supposed to do?”) and our embarrassment (“Everyone just did that right except me.”) and our worry (“Am I going to totally mortify myself again today?”) and to let all of that go and just be here in the present moment. When we don’t try to escape from our mistakes but remain right there in the zendo, we grow stronger. As we come to the zendo more often, we begin to notice that EVERYONE makes mistakes with the zendo rules, even the teacher on occasion. Suddenly our concern and confusion, which is centered on ourselves, expands to compassion for others and, in addition, for ourselves.