Friday, October 12, 2012


This morning I got yet another of those out-of-the-blue notes from someone interested in practicing Zen Buddhism. Ian's note was diffident in the way that all uncertain queries are. There were several questions ending with:

Sorry for my ignorance, I've only been to one Zendo before in my life but I want to start practicing so I wanted to ask about the etiquette and stuff like that.

Etiquette. Yes, there is an etiquette to Zen practice. Some might say there is enough etiquette to choke a horse.

"Etiquette" is defined by an Internet dictionary as:

-- a set of rules for behaving correctly in social situations
-- a set of rules about behavior for people in a particular profession

Etiquette: Forks go on the left, knives on the right; a Muslim eats with his right hand and wipes with his left; fellow golfers don't talk when a woman is teeing off; in army language school, they taught us the proper way to kiss a woman's hand; a minister is unlikely to explode from the pulpit, "Fuckin' A!;" and yes, formal Zen practice has its etiquette ... bowing, being quiet, keeping cushions neat and clean, wearing clothes that aren't loud, etc.

But what is etiquette for?

The ordinary understanding of etiquette, I think, is to do something (and refrain from doing others) as a means of not getting ostracized from one group or another. A social contract that seems to make life less lonely. A means of assuring coherence and intention of a particular gathering. Also, having learned one etiquette or another, etiquette can be a powerful defense mechanism -- allowing the operator to dissimulate with aplomb. But generally, etiquette makes some sense: No one who wants to play baseball shows up with a hockey stick.

And it's the same, apparently, for Zen practice. Leave your hockey stick at home.

But where ordinary etiquette is largely based on what is forcibly held in check for whatever reason, the etiquette of Zen practice strikes me as having a wider reach. Yes, we are all as quiet as we may be in the zendo, but it is not so much on behalf of some social contract as it is a choice we choose to make while at the same time acknowledging all the other possibilities. We are both the minister who doesn't say "Fuckin' A!" and the minister who is at home with the fact that s/he might. Etiquette in this sense is just a freely-exercised choice that has no motive and expects no reward. Zen practice may look polite and people may be on their best behavior in one sense, but in a more important sense ... well, Fuckin' A!

Zen practice is a choice.

Zen is not.

Fuckin' A!

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