On Entering the Zendo


By Rafe Martin©

Some words on the ritual of entering the zendo and taking our seat

The practice of Zen is a practice of attention. Ultimately this means becoming conscious of the nature of our own self. Seeing through habitual self-centeredness, we find renewed connection with all things, animate and inanimate. To help us with this, Zen offers small rituals, moments or seconds of dropping self-involvement to become more fully present. One such is that of entering the zendo, which includes re-entering after dokusan. When we enter or reenter the zendo (except when doing so in a group) the ritual is to pause for an instant on the threshold and bow. We are re-entering the non-dual realm of Manjusri Bodhisattva of Great Prajna Wisdom, the place where the work of practice-realization has its home. So, we pause honor and acknowledge this important connection. In so doing, we link ourselves not only to Manjushri, patron of all zendos, but to all our Dharma ancestors, the countless men and women who came before us going all the way back to the Buddha, whose efforts and realization made our own practice-realization possible today. It is empowering.

Drawing on our Soto roots, Diamond Sangha adds that after bowing on entering the zendo and, arms in kinhin posture, walking to our mat, we bow to our place – seat or mat – and then turn and bow to the sangha. This little ritual affirms that this spot where we sit in zazen is the center of the universe, the Bodhi mandala. It is our place beneath the Bodhi tree where, like the Buddha, we will do the work of waking up. So we honor it. We turn and bow to the sangha because, unlike the Buddha, we are not alone in this but have the support of others – of a sangha – the form created by the Buddha to help us in our efforts to actualize the Way.

Such little ritual moments can be overdone or, conversely, become thoughtless formality. In essence, we don’t need to make an overly deep bow, full of emotion. Instead, whatever is going on in our heads or in our practice, we simply pause at the zendo threshold hands in gassho, bend in a bow, straighten, and step in. That’s it. We walk to our set, bow, then turn and bow facing out from our seat. Simple as this all is, it adds depth to our practice and brings with it the added richness and power of a living tradition.