How do I find out what’s going on at the Center in any particular week?
You’ll find an up-to-date calendar on the Center’s website. And also, a quarterly paper calendar of ZC activities is available to all members a month or two before the beginning of each quarter that you can post at home.
My schedule makes it hard for me to attend the morning and evening sittings at the Center. Can one ever sit there during the day?
Definitely. The zendo is yours to sit in every day and at any time. A couple of times a week someone is in there cleaning for about half an hour, but otherwise it’s begging to be used. A noon-12:30 informal sitting is part of the residents’ schedule (Tuesday-Saturday), and you can join that, too.
What should I do if I come to the Center for a sitting and the front door is locked?
Go around the building (via the parking lot), through the garden, and enter through the back door keypad, where the covered walkway begins. You’ll need to be a full member before learning the combination to the back door.
If you come during the Center’s working hours, when the front door is also kept locked, just ring the doorbell and someone will let you in.
What if I arrive after a sitting has already started?
If you would like to join the sitting late, wait in the Link (the main entrance area, with the slate floor), where you can sit on one of the benches and do zazen until you hear the inkin bell (the small bell used in the zendo to begin and end the rounds of sitting). Depending on the particular sitting, that bell will signal either the beginning of kinhin (walking meditation) or just a change of posture. If it indicates a kinhin, you will have time to go downstairs and put on a robe if you wish. Then come right up to the zendo and, when kinhin ends, enter and take an empty seat.
If the bell indicates just a change of posture, go straight to the zendo entrance, enter discretely, and take a seat (it’s okay to join the sitting in your street clothes). Please don’t go downstairs to change into your robe except during a kinhin.
If robes aren’t required for sitting at the Center, why does almost everyone wear one? There’s the bother of changing into and out of them, and then eventually the expense of buying one’s own robe.
Because they’re loose and ample, they really are comfortable for sitting. It’s also helpful psychologically to doff one’s public attire before settling in for meditation; the change of clothes can make it a little easier to shed one’s mental preoccupations (removing shoes upon entering the building creates a similar shift, inviting us to leave behind the “dusts of the world”). One other thing—the more people who wear robes, the more everyone is freed up from fashion concerns in the zendo.
If I do wear regular clothes for sitting, are there any restrictions?
It’s best to avoid eye-catching colors or styles. Sitting is challenging enough without extra visual distractions. Bright colors, including white socks, aren’t to be worn in the zendo, since they tend to snag people’s attention, as will a lot of bare skin. You’ll be least conspicuous in clothes that offer good coverage in dark, subdued colors—which brings us back to the popularity of robes. They simplify the whole matter.
What makes Tuesday night “Beginners’ Night” at the Center?
The rounds of sitting are just twenty-five minutes long rather than the thirty-five minutes at the other evening sittings. During the sitting you can go to Private Instruction (see below). The sitting is followed by a chanting service, and then by refreshments in the dining room for those who might want to meet other members. Beginners’ Night is a kind of sampler plate of Center activities.
Can you tell me more about the intent and use of the stick that is used in the zendo?
Most people find that the stick can be an aid to zazen if accepted wholeheartedly. Its main purpose is to liberate energy that would otherwise remain dormant, energy that is vital for achieving the one-pointed concentration essential for full absorption in zazen. The stick may help to rouse a sleepy sitter, enliven a weary one, or spur on a strong one, but it is never used punitively. The monitors who use the stick do so only after thorough training, and, except in sesshin, will only use it at your request. A fuller history and explanation of the use of the stick is available at https://www.rzc.org/sesshins-meditation-retreats/sesshin-information/use-of-the-stick/
What is the bib-like thing that some people wear with their sitting robes?
It is called a rakusu (“ROCK-soo”), and is a traditional Zen Buddhist vestment dating back to ninth-century China. Anyone who has been a member of the Rochester Zen Center for at least a year, has taken part in a Jukai (taking the precepts) ceremony, and is formally a student of either Roshi or Sensei may receive one from their teacher.
There are variations among Zen centers in the significance of rakusu colors. At ours, the first rakusu one receives is brown. Senior members of the Center who join the Three Jewels Order will at that time receive a black rakusu. Anyone wearing a rakusu that is a color other than black or brown is a fully authorized teacher.
What types of feedback can I expect?
Most beginners will find themselves helped by a postural adjustment or two, and can also expect an occasional correction in how they do things in the zendo. Zen emphasizes the importance of posture and carriage because of the effect these have on the mind. It also recognizes the value when practicing with others of having standard “forms” that everyone follows–an etiquette of sorts–that enables each practitioner to apply himself or herself most effectively. Group practice is supportive and fortifying to the extent that each person can adapt to the uniform style followed at any particular Zen center. There are some variations in these forms among different centers, but most of those followed here are fairly standard in Western as well as Asian Zen.
Many of us feel abashed when we’re corrected, but getting timely feedback can be extremely helpful. It takes some time to pick up all the rules that apply to the zendo (and to the Zen Center in general). And old hands at the Center (recalling their own early days as members) actually expect newcomers to be confused and to need to have some things explained, or be reminded of the rules of etiquette. Our teachers, the Head of Zendo, or senior students generally make such corrections.
What does it mean when my posture is adjusted?
During a sitting, part of the responsibility of the monitors (and teachers) is to keep an eye on postures, since sitters may not even be aware of leaning, slumping, etc. It’s actually quite difficult to know your own sitting position. By adjusting the posture, hands, or head position, the monitor is trying to help the student sit more effectively–and without unnecessary pain.
When should I go to dokusan or Private Instruction?
Zen has always been a mentor-based tradition, and it is useful to talk to those who are further along on the path. It is good to go periodically, and just knowing that you are going to go can really boost your efforts.
If you don’t feel the need to go, then don’t go. If you’re not sure whether to go, then even if you think you have nothing in particular to say, go for it. Something may come up in the process of your going, or the teacher or one of the other instructors may have something helpful to say to you. You don’t need a reason to go.
Whom do I go to with different questions I may have?
Questions closely related to practice should generally be directed to Roshi or Sensei or one of the zendo monitors. Day-to-day operational questions are best directed to one of the Heads of Zendo, currently Trueman Taylor (at Arnold Park) and Donna Kowal (at Chapin Mill). Scott Jennings, the Business Manager, can handle questions about financial matters. Finally, any of the members of the Board of Trustees can be asked questions or given comments about overall fiscal policy. Feel free to get the names and phone numbers of the Trustees from the Center receptionist.
What is the structure for making decisions at the Zen Center?
Roshi and Sensei are the overall Co-Directors of the Center, but they focus mainly on spiritual and teaching matters. They are assisted in this, as needed, by the Heads of Zendo.
Our teachers, the Heads of Zendo, and the Business Manager oversee day-to-day operations of the Center. Each functional area of the Center (kitchen, housekeeping, etc.) has a supervisor who reports to the Heads of Zendo.
The Board of Trustees has the financial responsibility for the Center, approving the annual budget, and making long-term planning and policy decisions.
Can I continue to practice my family religion and still practice Zen?
Sure! Zen points to our Original Mind, which existed before religion was even conceived. Moreover, the practice of zazen itself is without content, and by developing concentration and purifying the mind it goes to the core of prayer and of all spiritual work.
Why do we burn incense and have offerings on the altar?
As in many other traditions, incense is burned in Zen as a way to maintain an atmosphere conducive to the sensitive work of meditation and prayer. (Before the advent of clocks, it was used to time meditation periods as well.) Because some few people are slightly allergic to incense, however, at the Center we use it quite sparingly.
Like incense, the flowers and fruit presented on altars may be seen as offerings to those who over the eons have realized the highest truth–“buddhas”–and served as guides to others. Offering flowers, fruit, vegetables, and other goods is a way to express in concrete form the gratitude and respect we come to feel toward these ancestors. On another level, the Buddha or other devotional figure on the altar represents our own highest potential, so making offerings strengthens our sense of identification with our True Self, or Buddha Nature.
What is the difference between dokusan and Private Instruction?
Although both terms refer to a one-to-one teaching encounter in private, dokusan (“DOAK-sahn”) is given at this center only by Roshi and Sensei, and is open only to those who have become members of the Center. Dokusan is geared to matters of practice in the narrow sense of the word (e.g., zazen), but personal issues closely related to one’s sitting practice are also okay to bring up. Dokusan encounters are usually quite brief.
Private Instruction is given by a senior student, and its parameters are a little broader than those of dokusan; depending on how many others wish to go that evening, Private Instruction may offer the time to get into counseling-like territory, though still only briefly. Private Instruction, like dokusan, also covers points about posture and breathing and other basic instruction in Zen practice, especially for those who have not formally become students of Roshi or Sensei.
What do the terms “Roshi” and “Sensei” mean?
Both are Japanese words which, for lack of any better, English terms, are used as titles by most Zen teachers even in the West. “Roshi” (“ROE-shi”–lit., “venerable teacher”) is usually reserved for a senior teacher. “Sensei” (“SEN-say”) is the more common title for a Zen teacher, and in Japan it may be used for a mentor in any field, from martial arts to flower arranging. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to which title is to be used for which teachers, and some Zen teachers may keep the title “sensei” throughout their careers.
Where do I leave applications or checks when no one is around?
All monetary contributions should be left in one place only: the wooden box that stands in the Portico (the small passage area just beyond the Link as you head towards the zendo.) The same goes for membership applications.
The box is emptied every morning; anything that goes there will get to the right place.
How can I get more engaged with the Center?
One great way to build your connection to the Sangha is to volunteer. No matter how much or little time you have to spare, there’s a volunteer opportunity for you – everything from baking sesshin cookies to gardening, woodworking, dusting, flower arranging, and the endless construction and maintenance chores required to keep both Arnold Park and Chapin Mill up and running. Keep in mind that some volunteer activities can be done remotely, such as research and writing projects or online Sangha programs, so don’t let geography get in the way of offering help. Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your availability and any particular skills or interests that might support the Center’s needs.