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Practice Basics

Formal Zen practice is for many people an experience quite unlike any they've ever had before.  Here, one can't just observe; from the beginning, one is engaged, and a newcomer can feel overwhelmed by the various sounds and movements that go along with our common practice.  Every person who has ever practiced here has felt the same way at the beginning, and we've all made our share of missteps along the way.

Here you will find descriptions of the elements of our practice.  Although there are some do's and dont's, these are not so much "rules" as "marks of good form."  They allow for the smoothest flow of people with the least amount of disruption.  The also help us stay on task with respect to the reason we are all here: to practice zazen with the utmost diligence.  In the end, they become ways in which we can loosen the grip of our likes and dislikes as we simply practice.


1. Do your best to arrive at the center about 10 minutes before the start of a sitting (things like traffic, etc., happen, of course).
2. (Optional) Change into a sitting robe.  Look for a robe that fits properly (hem should be 4-6 inches above the floor). Head to zendo.
3. Make a bow toward the altar whenever you enter (or leave) the zendo or Buddha Hall.
4. Gather what support cushions you need, take a place, and begin zazen.
5. When you move through the zendo, when you head down to the dokusan line, or when proceeding to the Buddha Hall for teisho or chanting, keep your hands in a kinhin position; do not walk with your arms at your sides.
6. There is no need to bow at your mat when you take your place.
7. Married couples, persons in a relationship, etc., should not sit next to one another in the zendo or Buddha Hall.
8. Do not verbally respond to instructions from the monitor or turn to look at the monitor when instructions are being given in the zendo.
9. "No moving" means no moving; we all experience pain or an itch, achy knees or sore rears.
10. If you need to sneeze or cough, do it into the sleeve of your robe.
11. Respond immediately to bells or other instruction.  For example, when you hear the bell calling the dokusan line, get up immediately and head down.  When you hear the bell ending the round, get up immediately and stand ready for kinhin.
12. If you find one or both of your legs is so asleep you can't stand, stay in your place on the mat and wait until you are able to stand.  Then, join the kinhin line as it makes its way past you.

Kyosaku (Encouragement Stick)

The kyosaku, or encouragement stick, is used during regular sitting periods at the request of the individual meditator.  If you wish the use of the kyosaku, place your hands palm-to-palm at face level as you hear the monitor approaching.  Keep them there until the monitor touches your shoulder with the stick.  At that point, drop your hands to your lap.  The monitor will then strike you twice on each shoulder.  After the kyosaku has been used, raise your hands again palm-to-palm briefly as a sign of gratitude before returning them to your sitting position.

Posture Change

Halfway through the round the bell will sounds with a deadbeat immediately after.  This is the signal that you may change posture.  Make whatever adjustments you need in short order, and return to your practice.


Kinhin is walking meditation.  The same degree of focus and attentiveness with which one does zazen should be maintained while doing kinhin.  Eyes should be kept lowered.  Focus on the practice, not on the woodwork, what's in the room off to the side, etc.

When the bell sounds indicating the end of the round, get up off your mat and turn toward the middle of the zendo with hands palm-to-palm.  When the next bell sounds, make a standing bow before turning to your left and beginning kinhin.

During kinhin the hands are kept clasped at the base of the sternum (or thereabouts).  The left hand makes the fist; the other hand covers it.

Kinhin is done as a group activity in a continuous line.  The monitor sets the pace.  Try to maintain the initial spacing between you and the person in front of you, neither bunching up nor stringing out.  Gaps opened up as people drop out of the line can be left open.  If you find, though, that you are more than 10 feet behind the person in front of you, catch up and keep pace.

When you leave the kinhin line to use the restroom or get a drink and are then returning to the line, enter the line wherever it is wherever you are.  If you are coming up the stairs, just enter right in; if you are coming out of the kitchenette, just enter right in; if you are coming out of the 2nd floor bathroom, just enter right in.  THEN, once you get to the han area (the alcove to the left upon reentering the zendo), step out of the line and wait until your place comes around.  At that point signal that you are entering and proceed apace.

If someone is signaling to enter the kinhin line, make sure you accommodate the person by opening up some space between yourself and the person in front of you.

The bell signaling the end of kinhin sounds while we are still walking.  When you hear it, continue to your place, then stop and face the middle of the zendo.  When the bell sounds again, take your seat to begin zazen.


Dokusan is offered by the teacher in the context of formal rounds of zazen.  The monitor announces the beginning of dokusan by indicating which group may go down first.  Groups are called by zendo seating location ("north group," etc.), by status ("members who can't come during the week," "visitors," etc.) or by number ("everyone," "anyone else").  The monitor then proceeds downstairs.

When the monitor rings the dokusan line bell, the first group called proceeds down the front stairs.  The first person down goes directly to the dokusan room, closing the hallway door on the way.  The other persons that their place in the dokusan line.  While in the dokusan line, practice continues as if one were in the zendo.

When the person in the dokusan room is finished, the teacher rings the teacher's bell, the person leaves the dokusan room and heads back to the zendo via the back stairs (at this time one may use the basement restroom or get water in the 2nd floor kitchenette).

When the person at the head of the dokusan line hears the teacher's bell, s/he strikes the dokusan bell twice, rises, and then proceeds through the hallway door to the dokusan room, closing the hallway door on the way.  Hit the bell firmly enough to be heard by the teacher and monitor without being jarring.  Those still in the dokusan line move forward once place.


Daisan is structurally similar to dokusan in terms of procedure, but it is offered by a senior student, not the teacher, and the matters taken up relate to practice concerns and not to koan work or the confirmation of insight. 

Dokusan/Daisan Protocol

Upon entering the dokusan room, you first close the door behind you. Then you walk to a spot directly in front of the teacher (or person giving daisan) and do a standing bow in greeting. If you are not a formal student of the teacher, or if this is daisan, then you simply take a seat and matters can begin. If this is dokusan, and you are a formal student of the teacher, then make a prostration toward the teacher (using the student mat) before taking your seat.
When the teacher (or person giving daisan) signals the end of the interview by ringing the hand bell, give a bow (hands palm to palm), then rise and clear any cushions you may have used off to the sides of the student mat. Then step back to where you made your first standing bow on entering the room, and offer another standing bow. You’re now free to return to the zendo, leaving the dokusan room door open behind you.


Teisho is a living presentation of the Buddhadharma.  The same degree of focus and attentiveness with which one does zazen should be maintained while listening to the teisho.  Focus on your practice primarily, and focus on the teisho secondarily.

Keep the vision lowered.  Do not look about the room.  Do not look at the altar.  Do not look at the teacher.  Teisho is not a public lecture.

Because of its length, it is permissible to change posture during teisho.  It is also permissible to bring the knees up and clasp them with the arms.  Such changes should be done sparingly (once or twice during the teisho), preceded each time by a small gassho.


Chanting is a continuation of our zazen, now with use of the voice.  The same degree of focus and attentiveness with which one does zazen should be maintained while chanting.

If you need a chant book, hold it slightly below eye level so that the head is held erect and facing forward.  The chant book may be held as you please for every chant except "The Ancestral Line."  "The Ancestral Line" is our expression of gratitude to those who have worked tirelessly to pass the Dharma down through the ages.  When we chant it, our hands are held palm-to-palm out of respect.  If you need the chant book, hold the book open with the thumbs and keep the hands in the palm-to-palm position for the duration of the chant.

Chant books, since they contain sutras, are never to touch the ground.  Make sure they stay in your hand or on a mat.

Chanting is most effective when one drops one's self-consciousness about one's voice and throws oneself into the chanting.  Do your best to maintain tone, but don't worry if you can't.  (As you will quickly discover, many in the sangha are tone-deaf.)  Keep pace with the mokugyo, and do not drag. As chanting is not a performance, modulate your volume and pitch to accord with the chant leader's.

The Four Vows

                                                    All beings without number I vow to liberate
                                                    Endless blind passions I vow to uproot
                                                    Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate
                                                    The Great Way of Buddha I vow to attain

The Four Vows are chanted at the end of every sitting and every teisho.  They are a reminder of our resolve and aspiration in our practice.  Until you have memorized the Four Vows, hold your hands palm-to-palm for the duration of the chant and join in as you get to know the lines.


At the end of the Four Vows we do three prostrations.  For a prostration, drop to your knees, lean forward and touch your head to the ground while stretching the arms forward, hands outstretched and palms up.  Lift your palms briefly before dropping them and returning to a standing posture.  This act signifies the lowering of the ego before the recognition of one's own inherent Awakened Mind, which one raises above one's small self with the lifting of the palms.

At the end of the three prostrations make a standing bow to the altar, then square yourself with your mat and make a standing bow in place as a recognition of our collective effort together.

Evening Tea

Change out of your robe (if you were in one) before proceeding to the kitchen for tea after the evening rounds.  Residents may remain in their robes.


Kentan is done in the early morning weekday or sesshin rounds when all are facing away from the wall.  The teacher/monitor will make a circuit of the zendo.  As s/he approaches you, raise your hands palm-to-palm, and then drop them when s/he has passed.

Verse of the Kesa

                                                    Wondrous is the robe of liberation
                                                    A treasure beyond form and emptiness
                                                    Wearing it I will unfold Buddha's teaching
                                                    For the benefit of all sentient beings

Once a Sunday or weekday morning round has begun, there will be three strikes of the clappers.  During the strikes, take off your rakusu (if you have one), fold it and put it on your head and place your hands palm-to-palm.  If you have no rakusu, place your hands palm-to-palm.  All recite the Verse of the Kesa together.


Zazenkai, or "all-day sitting meditation," is held two or three times a year.  On a Zazenkai Sunday, the standard Sunday schedule is expanded from two hours to approximately seven, allowing for many more rounds of zazen, ample opportunity for dokusan, and lunch.  While many choose to stay the whole time, it is entirely possible to come for part of Zazenkai, as long as the core practice period between 8:00am and 10:00am is attended.

When planning on coming to a Zazenkai, either sign up on the attendance sheet set out the week beforehand at the Center or notify the Center by phone or email.

            7:00-8:00am            50 minute round with 10 minute kinhin
            8:00-9:00am            50 minute round (with dokusan) with 10 minute kinhin
            9:00-10:00am          Chanting service and teisho
            10:00-11:00am         50 minute round with 10 minute kinhin
            11:00-12:00               Lunch
            12:30-1:20pm           50 minute round (with dokusan) 


Here we use English unless there's good reason not to.  These are some of the non-English, practice-related words one will hear at the CZC:

    Daisan: One-on-one meeting with a senior student concerning one's practice and practice-related concerns

    Dokusan: One-on-one meeting with the teacher concerning one's practice, koan work, and the confirmation of insight

    Gassho: Hands held palm-to-palm, depending on the context accompanied by a bow

    Han: The wooden block that is struck before formal rounds, teisho or chanting

    Inkin Bell: The bell that is used to mark time and movement

    Kentan: Morning inspection/greeting of the zendo by the teacher/monitor

    Kesu: Metal bowl gongs used during chanting and other services

    Kinhin: Walking meditation

    Kyosaku: The flattened, wooden "encouragement" stick

    Mokugyo: Wooden "fish" drum used to keep time during chanting

    Rakusu: The abbreviated robe of the Buddha worn about the neck

    Teisho: The formal talk of a Zen teacher

    Umpan: Gong sounded for meals

    Zazen: Seated meditation

    Zendo: Meditation Hall