When I first encountered the many and detailed forms taught at a Zen training center, they rubbed me the wrong way. As a labor activist, I have spent years working to free myself and others from arbitrary rules established by the powers that be. Now I sat staring at a wall trying to count my breaths, while bells and gongs and drums signaled exactly what we should be doing at exactly the right time. There were forms for bowing, chanting, eating, serving, entering the bath house — every one looking like more rules, more infringements on my freedom. Only the clear moral authority of my teacher and the compassionate support of more experienced students kept me coming back to the forms, trying to get them right.
It was quite a while before the forms began to take on new meaning for me. As experience transformed them from lists of things to do into habits of muscle and mind, the forms
promoted greater ease around the basic activity of zazen. I was no longer thinking about what to do next; instead, the form carried me to what was next. Rather than me doing the form, the form
was now doing me. I had let go of “doing it right;” now I experienced my inevitable mistakes as just part of what was going on, rather than occasions for shame and self-reproach. Relieved of all
the striving, all the guilt, I found space within the form simply to be, in that very place and time.
It’s a whole new way to experience freedom — and an excellent foundation for my work in the ongoing struggle for justice and peace. That’s for another post…