Centre Zen de la Main

By Evan Montpellier


1.0 Introduction

2.0 Institution
  2.1 Relationship to Rinzai-ji
  2.2 Myokyo's History and Centre Zen's Founding
  2.3 Practical Matters: Finances and Administration
  2.4 Community: Centre Residents and Membership Demographics
  2.5 Facilities

3.0 Ritual: Zazen
  3.1 Ritual Space: The Zendo
  3.2 Ritual Specialists: the Jikijitsu and the Shoji
  3.3 Ritual Process: Friday Evening Zazen

4.0 Doctrine and Beliefs

5.0 The Future: Enpuku-ji

End Notes



1.0 Introduction

Founded in 1995, Centre Zen de la Main is a Rinzai Zen Buddhist practice centre located in Montreal's Plateau region, on the south-west corner of Vallieres and St. Dominique streets, one block east of Boulevard St. Laurent. The main activity that takes place at the Centre is zazen, or sitting meditation practice. Zazen sessions are held twice daily from Monday to Friday, lasting from 6:00 AM to 7:30 AM and from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM. A zazen session is also held on Saturday, from 9:30 AM to 11:00 AM. Centre Zen offers various other activities in addition to zazen, including "study groups, dharma talks, one-day retreats, sesshins, Buddhist ceremonies and personal ceremonies such as weddings and memorials."[1] The founder and abbess of the Centre is a woman named Zengetsu Myokyo (born Judith McLean); ordinarily, she goes simply by the name Myokyo.

2.0 Institution

2.1 Relationship to Rinzai-ji

Centre Zen is a branch of a larger organization, called Rinzai-ji. This organization was established in 1968 by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a priest affiliated with the Myoshin-ji sect of Japanese Rinzai Zen. Ordinarily, Myokyo and those who practice at Centre Zen refer to him simply as Roshi, a Japanese term literally meaning "venerable [spiritual] teacher".[2]

The head temple of Rinzai-ji, established at the same time as the organization itself, is also called Rinzai-ji (formerly Cimarron Zen Center), and is located in Los Angeles, California. Rinzai-ji has its main training facilities at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, which was opened in 1971 in the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles.[3] Along with Centre Zen, numerous other Zen centres are affiliated with Rinzai-ji: two in Canada, eighteen throughout the United States, one in Puerto Rico, and one in Austria.[4]

According to Centre Zen's website, Rinzai-ji's centres "are committed to practicing Rinzai Zen as taught by Joshu Roshi."[5] In coming to America and establishing Rinzai-ji, Roshi developed a modified form of Rinzai teaching in an effort to make Zen approachable and relevant to Westerners. For example, Roshi replaced the highly-organized system of koan used in Japanese Rinzai practice with a less rigid system, based on koan[6] of his own devising, which he felt was more suited to training people raised in a Western context. Over time, Roshi has increasingly dissociated himself from Myoshin-ji, although the Japanese school has continued to attempt to enforce the relationship between itself and Rinzai-ji.

The administrative structure of Rinzai-ji differs from that which traditionally existed in Japanese Zen sects. In Japan, "Zen in practice... has always maintained strict, formal hierarchies among senior and junior monks, among men and women, and between masters and disciples"[7]; at the organizational level, this has resulted in the consolidation of authority in the hands of the roshi, with individual osho, or priests, being given comparatively little power. In Rinzai-ji, Joshu Roshi has actively encouraged his osho to form a council, through which they participate in the affairs of the organization. This type of administrative structure is unusual among American Zen institutions. The council is made up of twenty osho, including Myokyo, all of whom are non-Japanese born. The council oversees and regulates various functions in regard to monastic and lay students, and acts in consultation with Roshi to determine the course of action to be taken in matters concerning Rinzai-ji as a whole. That women make up a significant minority in the council (six of the twenty osho on the council are female) presents a further contrast with Zen in Japan, "where the role of women has been minimal."[8] Although the creation of the osho council allows for some distribution of administrative power, however, Roshi retains a considerable amount of influence within the organization.

By virtue of their relationship to Rinzai-ji, Centre Zen and the other affiliated centres have a responsibility to carry out their activities in keeping with the organization's principles. According to Myokyo, however, Rinzai-ji does not expressly dictate the manner in which individual centres are to conduct their affairs. Aside from exceptional cases, the organization does not generally take action to regulate the operation of its centres.

2.2 Myokyo's History and Centre Zen's Founding

Myokyo was born into a Quebec Presbyterian family, but in her youth found little appeal in religion. In her twenties, however, she became interested in meditation practice, and was eventually introduced to Zen through the Zen Centre of Vancouver, which is affiliated with Rinzai-ji. Having spent three months living and practicing at the Vancouver centre in 1978, she went to California in 1980 in order to practice at Rinzai-ji Zen Center and Mt. Baldy. From 1980 to 1985, she traveled back and forth between Canada and California to take part in retreats with Roshi. In 1986, after spending a year at Mt. Baldy, she decided to dedicate her life to Zen, and asked to be ordained; thus, she received tokudo (monk's ordination), and was given the name Myokyo, meaning "clear mirror." In 1999, Myokyo was ordained as an osho, and received the name Zengetsu ("Zen moon").

In 1992, while Myokyo was living at Mt. Baldy, Roshi asked her where she wanted to start her Zen centre. Having spent the past ten years living in the United States, Myokyo wished to return to Canada; as such, she asked to be allowed to establish a centre in Montreal. Among the students practicing at Mt. Baldy at that time was Leonard Cohen, the noted Montreal poet, author, and singer. As Cohen had considerable means at his disposal in Montreal, Roshi asked him in 1994 to help Myokyo set up a centre in the city. Consequently, Cohen made available the house that he owned at 30 Rue Vallieres, which has served as Centre Zen's facilities since. Additionally, Cohen arranged for the house to be renovated to make it suitable for use as a Zen practice centre, and donated money to aid in the Centre's establishment.

The agreement between Myokyo and Cohen regarding the use of the building is informal, and has never been put into writing. Since the Centre's founding, a tacit arrangement has existed between Myokyo and Cohen under which the Centre is responsible for the upkeep of the building's interior while Cohen ensures that its exterior is kept in good repair.

2.3 Practical Matters: Finances and Administration

In addition to providing Centre Zen with its premises free of rent, Leonard Cohen pays the Centre's utility bills. This, combined with the fact that Centre Zen is exempt from taxes as a registered charity, allows the Centre to function on a very small budget. Centre Zen's main source of income is provided by the donations given by practitioners in return for their participation in the Centre's activities. Prior to taking part in zazen, people are required to attend an orientation session, in which Myokyo explains the basic elements of zazen practice and etiquette, and gives information on the history of the Centre and Joshu Roshi; for this session, a donation of ten dollars is requested. The Centre asks that occasional practitioners donate five dollars for participating in one zazen session. For those who regularly attend zazen, a monthly contribution of thirty-five dollars is expected.[9] Larger donations are requested for participation in the Centre's more intensive zazenkai and sesshin meditation retreats.

The Centre's various fees are set at standard levels, and it is expected that members will be conscientious about paying dues. In general, however, Myokyo does not remind people to donate. A small, unmarked box on a table in the Centre's common area serves to collect practitioners' contributions.

Donations provide Myokyo with a stipend for food and necessities, and cover her expenses when she has to travel to take part in sesshin retreats. Contributions also pay for any costs related to the upkeep of the Centre's interior, as well as operating costs.

In order to be recognized as a charity under Canadian law, Centre Zen is required to have a board of directors. This is in contrast with Zen temples and monasteries in Japan, which traditionally would never have such a board.[10] Centre Zen's board of directors is an administrative body that deals with secular matters, such as legal issues and accounting. The board does not have any authority over affairs of religion or practice. Some of the board's members are practitioners at Centre Zen, while others are recruited from outside the Centre community.

2.4 Community: Centre Residents and Membership Demographics

Myokyo is the only ordained person at Centre Zen. As abbess, she lives at the Centre. In addition to Myokyo, the Centre provides accommodation for students who wish to live in an intensive practice environment. Students residing at Centre Zen must follow certain practice regulations during their stay. Among other things, these regulations stipulate that students must be willing to participate in at least half of regular zazen sessions, to take part in Centre activities, and to train in officer positions (discussed below, under section 3.2). Resident students are required to make a monthly financial contribution to the Centre.

People may also apply to stay at Centre Zen as "scholarship students." Candidates for this position must have a strong practice relationship with the Centre and Myokyo. Scholarship students have more obligations than resident students; in particular, a greater emphasis is placed on officer training. These students do not pay residency fees, and share food costs with the Centre's other residents.

To obtain a position as a resident or scholarship student, people must make an application and receive Myokyo's approval. Over the course of its history, the Centre has had a total of two scholarship students and a number of non-scholarship resident students. At the time of this report, one scholarship student lived at the Centre.

Throughout its history, Centre Zen's lay membership has always been quite small. As of this writing, there were about thirty-five people registered as members. Of these, however, only about fifteen were coming to the Centre to practice with any regularity. New members arrive occasionally, but few of them return to the Centre more than once.

The majority of the Centre's members are anglophones. This is apparently due to a combination of factors. While Myokyo is fluent in French, she is more comfortable conversing in English; as such, she tends to use English both in formal settings, such as dharma talks (discussed below, under section 3.3), and in informal conversation. This, combined with the Centre's established anglophone membership, makes Centre Zen a predominantly English-speaking environment, which tends to discourage new francophone members from staying on. In recent years, many new anglophone members have come to Centre Zen as a result of Myokyo's work as a university chaplain at Concordia and McGill. Myokyo has served as chaplain at Concordia since 1999, and at McGill since the autumn of 2004. Her activity at both schools consists mainly of conducting weekly meditation sessions.

Most of Centre Zen's current members are young; many are in their twenties. Myokyo's work with McGill and Concordia's chaplaincy programs has brought students from those schools to the Centre. Myokyo has mentioned, however, that there has been a predominance of young people among the Centre's membership since its founding. When asked, she said that she was unsure as to the cause of this. Since young people tend not to be settled in life, there is a considerable amount of fluctuation within the Centre's younger group of members. As a result of this fluidity, the demographic characteristics of this younger group tend to shift over time. For example, most of the young people who currently practice at Centre Zen are male, but in the past, according to Myokyo, there have been periods during which the Centre's young practicing members have all been female.

Along with this younger, less stable group of members, Centre Zen also has a smaller group of older members who remain more or less constant. This older group is comprised fairly equally of males and females. At the Centre, there is little noticeable separation between younger and older members in either formal or informal situations. Elder members are not given greater authority in zazen practice than younger ones. Outside of practice, relations between younger and older members tend to be open and pleasant. During my own visits to the Centre, older members have been very friendly, and have been glad to converse with me. According to Myokyo, the older members are generally appreciative of the presence of young people at the Centre.

Almost all of Centre Zen's members are Caucasian. Most were born in North America. Over the course of its history, Centre Zen has had only one Japanese-born member. This is likely due to the fact that Centre Zen mainly focuses on meditation practice, and is not strongly connected to Japanese culture.

2.5 Facilities

Centre Zen is housed in a two-storey brick building, which was originally constructed as a domestic dwelling. Prior to serving as Centre Zen's facilities, the house was used as the studio of a sculptor. Traditionally, Japanese Zen sites have temple grounds, and their various facilities (e.g. cooking area, sleeping quarters, zendo) occupy separate structures. As Centre Zen de la Main is located in a dense residential neighbourhood in downtown Montreal, it does not have any grounds, and its facilities have been consolidated into a single building out of necessity.

All of the Centre's public activities take place on the building's ground floor. On the second floor are two rooms for students or visiting practitioners staying at the Centre, and a large room used as Myokyo's bedroom and the Centre's office. Early in the Centre's history, this larger room was used as the zendo (meditation room). Eventually, however, Myokyo decided that it was inappropriate for members to have to walk up a flight of stairs and down a hall past the bedrooms of the Centre's residents in order to reach the zendo. As a result, the zendo was moved to a smaller room on the ground floor. In addition to the bedrooms and office, the second floor has a small sewing room and a bathroom. The building also has a basement, which is used as storage space.

Fig. 1: Floor plan of the first story of the
Centre Zen de la Main. All dimensions
are approximate.

  1. Entrance Hall
  2. Stairs to Second Floor
  3. Common Area
  4. Kitchen
  5. Washroom
  6. Zendo
  7. Shoji room

Fig. 2: The mokuhan.

The main entrance to the building faces north onto Vallieres street. Immediately inside the front door is a small entrance hall. People entering the Centre are to remove their shoes and outside clothes in this area. Coats are hung up on coat hooks along the west wall of the entrance hall, and shoes are lined up neatly beneath the hooks. On the eastern wall of the entrance hall hangs a mokuhan, a large wooden block which is struck with a mallet to produce sound. The mokuhan is used at Zen sites to formally mark the time of day. At Centre Zen, the mokuhan is struck to mark daybreak, sunset, and the end of evening zazen. The calligraphy on the mokuhan reads jikishi jinshin kensho jobutsu ("See directly into your own mind, awaken to nature and become Buddha," attributed to Bodhidharma, traditionally known as the founder of Zen Buddhism). Opposite the front door is a stairway that leads to the second floor.

Fig. 3: The common area: table, chairs, and benches.

Fig. 4: The common area: bookshelf and side table.

To the east of the entrance hall is a room that serves as the Centre's common area. The room is furnished simply with a table, four chairs, and three benches, all of which are wooden. Before zazen practice, members gather in this area to settle down in preparation for sitting. The room is also used for the Centre's monthly discussion groups (discussed below, under section 4.1).

Fig. 5: Centre Zen's bookshelf.

Fig. 6: Table with donation box, pamphlets, and guestbook.

In the northeast corner of the common area, there is a small bookshelf containing books related mainly to Zen and Buddhism in general. Among the books are collections of Buddhist sutras and scriptures, works table, which bears the Centre's promotional pamphlets, a guestbook, and the of early Zen masters, and modern texts on the history and philosophy of Buddhism and Zen. Members are free to borrow these books and study them on their own time.

To the right of the bookshelf is a small box used to collect members' donations. The table is decorated with a simple vase in which small tree branches are arranged. Behind this table is a framed black and white photograph of Joshu Roshi.

Adjacent to the common area is a domestic kitchen. The tea served as part of zazen practice is prepared in the kitchen, as are the meals served formally during zazenkai retreats. A large whiteboard on the east wall of the kitchen shows announcements and lists upcoming Centre activities.

Fig. 7: The large gong used in ceremonies.

The door to the zendo is at the end of a corridor that leads from the front hall toward the back of the building, Across from the zendo door, a large metal gong is hung on the wall. Conventionally, this gong would be struck to announce the entrance of a doshi, or ritual officiant, into a ceremony. Centre Zen does not possess a stand for this gong, however, so it is not used. A smaller gong, used during retreats to call people to formal meals in halls other than the zendo, hangs to the left of the zendo door.

The decoration throughout the centre is simple and functional, almost to the point of austerity. All of the walls are painted plain white and are almost entirely bare of decorations. The emphasis on simplicity and naturalness, as seen especially in the plain wooden furniture, could arguably be considered revealing of traditional Japanese aesthetic influences.[11] In general, however, although Centre Zen is a Japanese Rinzai centre, the decoration of the building's interior does not suggest any special concern for portraying the Centre as Japanese.

3.0 Ritual: Zazen

3.1 Ritual Space: The Zendo

Fig. 8: The zendo.

The zendo is a large room (12 feet by 22 feet) that takes up most of the eastern side of the ground floor. The walls of the zendo are painted plain white, and have no decorations on them. Two large windows, one in the north wall and one in the east, provide natural light during daylight hours. Three light fixtures in the centre of the ceiling, controlled by a dimmer switch beside the door, provide additional light when necessary.

Fig. 9: Floor plan of Centre Zen's
zenod. All dimensions are

  1. Entrance mat
  2. Practitioner's zabuton
  3. Jikijitsu's zabuton
  4. Shoji's zabuton
  5. Jikijitsu table
  6. Butsudan
  7. Bowing Mat

The door leading into the zendo is in the southwest corner of the room. Immediately inside the door is a small mat. Whenever a person enters the zendo during zazen, he or she steps onto this mat left foot first, places his or her hands in gassho (palms held together in front of the chest), and bows from the waist. The gassho gesture is used "to indicate respect, gratitude, humility, or all three."[12]

Fig. 10: The gassho gesture.

Along the east and west walls of the zendo are large, flat, rectangular cushions, called zabuton, on which practitioners sit during zazen. There are five zabuton along the west wall and six along the east, making a total of eleven. All of the zabuton are identical. A small cup, used when tea is formally served during zazen, is placed behind each zabuton.

Fig. 11: A zabuton.

On top of the zabuton are cylindrical pillows called zafu, which are used for support by people who meditate in cross-legged positions. Each zafu ordinarily has one small rectangular support cushion under it, but practitioners are free to add more if necessary. Most practitioners at Centre Zen sit in cross-legged positions, such as quarter-lotus or half-lotus. For those who are unable to sit cross-legged due to physical discomfort, however, other options are available. Some people (myself included) sit in seiza, a traditional Japanese kneeling posture, using small wooden benches instead of zafu for support. Others meditate sitting in chairs, which may be brought into the zendo.[13]

Under the front of each zabuton is a copy of a book titled Daily Sutras.[14] This book, which is a standard text used in Rinzai-ji's centres, is a collection of Buddhist texts chanted during zazen. The texts are written in Japanese, Sino-Japanese, and Sanskrit, transliterated into Roman characters. The book contains no translations or commentary.

The zabuton of the ritual specialists, the jikijitsu and shoji (respectively, the "leader" and "attendant" in zazen; discussed further below, under section 3.2), are located at opposite ends of the zendo. The zabuton at the north end of the east row is the seat of the jikijitsu, while the shoji's zabuton is beside the door. These two zabuton are identical to those used by ordinary practitioners.

Fig. 12: The mokugyo.

Fig. 13: The jikijitsu's table.

Behind the shoji's zabuton is a mokugyo, a small wooden drum carved in the shape of a fish. According to Philip Kapleau, "Fish, since they never sleep, are symbolic in Buddhism of the alertness and watchfulness required of the aspirant to Buddhahood."[15] The mokugyo is struck by the shoji to keep time during chanting.

Beside the zabuton of the jikijitsu is a low table, upon which are various implements used by the jikijitsu in zazen practice. At the left of the table is a small bell with a stem, called an inkin, which is struck with a thin metal rod at various points during zazen. To the right of the inkin is a votive candle, which is lit prior to the beginning of zazen, and is extinguished at the end. This particular use of candles during zazen is not traditional, and is an innovation peculiar to Rinzai-ji.[16] Beside the candle is a small cup in which incense is burned. A wooden box to the right of the cup holds sticks of incense. A digital clock at the back of the table is used by the jikijitsu to keep track of time. At the front of the table are two wooden clappers that are struck together to produce sound; these are used during zazen to mark changes in activity. Behind the jikijitsu's table are two bowl-shaped gongs, which are struck during chanting.

Fig. 14: Centre Zen's butsudan. All dimensions are approximate.
  1. Statue of Kwan Yin
  2. Incense holder
  3. Offering Cups
  4. Candle
  5. Poinsettia
  6. Keisaku

Fig. 15: The butsudan.

The entire north end of the zendo is taken up by a large table, which serves as the altar, or butsudan. Centre Zen's butsudan is atypically large. Prior to being acquired by the Centre, it was used as a dining table in the refectory of a nunnery. At the centre of the butsudan is a carved wooden image of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Customarily, the image on the butsudan would be of the bodhisattva Manjushri. Centre Zen uses the image of Guanyin because of the statue's size, simplicity, and impact. At the foot of the statue is a votive candle. A taller candle stands to the left of the statue. As with the candle on the jikijitsu's table, these candles are lit at all times during zazen.

Fig. 16: The statue of Guanyin.

Fig. 17: The keisaku and cut flowers.

In front of the statue is an incense holder. Two cups on stands, placed to the left and right of the incense holder, are used for making offerings of water and tea before daily chanting and during ceremonies. Ordinarily, cut flowers would be placed on the butsudan as an offering; at the time of this report, however, the funds set aside by the Centre for buying cut flowers were being donated to charity. Thus, instead of cut flowers, there was a potted poinsettia on the butsudan to the right of the statue. A keisaku, or "warning stick," lies across the butsudan to the right of the poinsettia. Often in Japanese Zen, practitioners take turns carrying the keisaku in the zendo, using it to strike other meditators and bring them to alertness.[17] At Centre Zen, the keisaku is never carried except during intensive retreats, and even then it is only occasionally used. A small woven rug on the floor in front of the butsudan, referred to as a bowing mat, is used by the jikijitsu during the performance of sampai ("three bows," discussed below, under section 3.3).

A door at the back of the zendo leads to a small room, called the shoji room. This room is used to store the supplies used in the formal cleaning of the zendo, called nitten soji, which takes place after morning zazen and during zazenkai retreats. Extra zabuton, zafu, and seiza benches, as well as robes, are also stored in the shoji room.

3.2 Ritual Specialists: the Jikijitsu and the Shoji

Prior to discussing the evening zazen ritual, it is necessary to explain the roles of the jikijitsu and shoji, the ritual specialists (commonly called "officers") in the zendo during regular zazen. The jikijitsu is typically characterized as a stern "fatherly" figure, and is responsible for keeping track of time and maintaining discipline and order in the zendo. The shoji is the jikijitsu's gentle "motherly" counterpart. Should anyone have a problem during zazen, it is the shoji's job to take care of him or her.[18] During evening zazen at Centre Zen, the shoji is also responsible for striking the mokuhan to mark the time of day, preparing and formally serving tea, and beating the mokugyo to keep time during chanting (discussed below, under section 3.3).

Officer positions rotate based on a weekly schedule. In most zazen sessions at Centre Zen, Myokyo acts as jikijitsu. Both officer roles, however, are open to anyone who is interested in training in them and has some experience sitting at the Centre. Usually, an interested person will ask Myokyo for her permission. If she consents, the person is given preliminary training in the role, either by Myokyo or by another member who has already been trained. The trainee then spends two or three sittings observing the person acting in the role he or she is being trained for. Following this, the trainee begins to actually serve as an officer, learning the role by making mistakes and receiving corrections from Myokyo. This method of training through experience is somewhat similar to that employed in Japanese Zen monasteries, in that people are assigned roles and are expected to learn them as they go. In a Japanese monastery, however, "The new officer must perform his duties without prior instruction."[19]

The officers in the zendo wear practice robes. Some members who do not serve as officers have expressed a desire to wear robes during zazen. In the past, Myokyo was concerned that this would create confusion in the zendo over who is and is not ordained, especially for new members. Eventually, however, she decided to allow non-officers to use the Centre's robes if extras are available. Despite this allowance, most members dress in casual Western attire for zazen.

3.3 Ritual Process: Friday Evening Zazen

The Centre asks that people coming to zazen sessions arrive early, so as to ensure that the session begins on time and to allow everyone a chance to settle down before starting zazen. As they arrive, practitioners remove their shoes and coats in the entrance hall and go into the common area to wait. Some members use this time to stretch, or to peruse the bookshelf; others quietly socialize. Out of respect for others, everyone is fairly subdued during this time.

Up until five minutes to six o'clock, practitioners enter the zendo one at a time. On entering, practitioners step onto the mat inside the door left foot first, close the door behind them, place their hands in gassho, and bow. Keeping their hands in gassho, they walk to an open zabuton and stand in front of it. After bowing again, they sit down as quietly as possible, facing the centre of the zendo.[20] Members seat themselves beginning with the zabuton closest to the butsudan and filling out the spaces toward the south end of the zendo, so that no empty zabuton are left between practitioners. There are no divisions among sitting practitioners based on gender, age, or any other discernible characteristics.

Fig. 18: The mudra held during zazen.

Practitioners are to sit with their backs straight and the crowns of their heads raised toward the ceiling. The hands are held over the navel in a mudra, or symbolic gesture, formed by laying the fingers of the left hand over those of the right and bringing the thumb tips lightly together to make the shape of a full moon. As Kapleau explains, mudra "are performed to help evoke certain parallel states of mind of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas."[21] The eyes are to be kept partly open, and are directed toward the floor at a forty-five degree angle. Once seated, practitioners are to remain silent and motionless to the greatest extent possible.

At six o'clock, the jikijitsu enters the zendo carrying a lit stick of incense, followed by the shoji . Both officers hold their hands in gassho. The jikijitsu steps several paces into the zendo, while the shoji remains at the mat and closes the door. Both officers bow, and move to stand in front of their respective zabuton. After bowing again, the jikijitsu strikes the inkin. The officers bow once more, and the shoji exits the zendo to strike the mokuhan.

Once the shoji has left, the jikijitsu bows, and then moves to stand behind the bowing mat and bows toward the altar. He or she walks clockwise around the mat to stand directly in front of the butsudan and bows again, placing the incense in the holder on the altar. The jikijitsu continues clockwise around the bowing mat until he or she is once again standing behind it, and then performs three full prostrations, called sampai . In each prostration, the forehead is placed on the bowing mat, and the hands are raised to the level of the ears, palms flat and turned upwards. When I inquired about the meaning of sampai , I was informed that the ritual symbolizes placing the feet of the Buddha above one's head; alternately, it may be interpreted as an acknowledgement of one's own Buddha-nature. The symbolic significance of the rite was never explained to me until I asked about it.

While the jikijitsu is performing sampai , the shoji strikes the mokuhan.[22] In Japanese Zen monasteries, these actions are timed to coincide with the rising and setting of the sun. Since daily meditation at Centre Zen operates on a daily meditation with fixed times, such synchronization is not possible.

Having completed sampai , the jikijitsu returns to his or her zabuton and sits down. Once the striking of the mokuhan is also completed, the jikijitsu strikes the clappers twice, signaling to the shoji to re-enter the zendo and take his or her seat. When the shoji , too, is seated, the jikijitsu strikes the clappers once and the inkin four times, indicating that the first zazen period has begun.

During zazen, all participants are to remain completely silent and motionless, and focus on their breathing. In the orientation session which must be attended prior to taking part in zazen, Myokyo explains that, by focusing on something as simple and immaterial as breath, the practitioner is able to remain in the immediate moment, and becomes more aware of his or her mental processes. One aims in zazen to allow the thoughts that arise in one's mind to pass by without becoming attached to them. Ideally, through this practice, "the mind is freed from bondage to all thought-forms, visions, objects, and imaginings, however sacred or elevating, and brought to a state of absolute emptiness, from which alone it may one day perceive its own true nature, or the nature of the universe."[23]

In order to facilitate meditative concentration, the zendo is kept as close to completely silent as possible. Due to the Centre's downtown location, the noise of passing cars and people intrudes from the outside. The building itself is noisy, too; in the zendo, the floors creak, the walls shift, and the radiators buzz. Those who are sitting, however, are to remain quiet, minimizing voluntary movement and sound. If anyone is producing excessive sound, the jikijitsu verbally reminds one to be silent.

Fig. 19: The sashu gesture, held during walking kinhin.

After twenty-five minutes of sitting, the jikijitsu bows and strikes the inkin once and the clappers once, marking the beginning of kinhin, a walking form of zazen. Everyone bows in unison and then stands in front of their zabuton with hands in gassho. After another single clapper, all bow again, and form a line for kinhin. Carrying the clappers, the jikijitsu begins to walk counter-clockwise around the periphery of the zendo floor, and everyone else falls in line behind, maintaining the order in which they were seated. The shoji walks at the back of the line, so that it is bracketed by the officers. The hands are held over the chest in sashu, a mudra in which the left hand is placed over the right and the thumbs are laid overtop each other. The arms are held slightly out from the body. Each person walks in step with the person ahead of him or her, so that the movement of the entire line is synchronized. kinhin provides practitioners with an opportunity to stretch and move their legs, which may have become cramped while sitting. It is also zazen, however, and thus practitioners must remain focused and silent.

kinhin usually lasts from five to seven minutes. Once the kinhin period is over, the jikijitsu strikes the clappers once, and everyone places their hands in gassho. The line continues once more around the zendo, with each person stopping to stand in front of his or her zabuton. The jikijitsu strikes the inkin once again, and everyone bows before seating themselves.

Once everyone is settled, the jikijitsu strikes the inkin three more times. The single clap and four inkin which follow walking kinhin mark the beginning of the second zazen period, which is identical to the first. Following the second walking kinhin, the third and final period of zazen begins.

At the beginning of the third zazen period on Friday evenings, as well as on Thursday and Saturday mornings, Myokyo gives a dharma talk. She describes these talks as outpourings of her understanding of Zen practice rather than prepared lectures. In some cases, Myokyo bases her dharma talks on aspects of Zen doctrine, or on the teachings of a Zen master such as Dogen; at other times, however, she bases them on anecdotes from her own life. In her dharma talks, Myokyo often discusses how the rituals surrounding zazen, such as bowing, chanting, drinking tea, and work practices such as cleaning and cooking are formal opportunities for the manifestation of "no-self."[24] Dharma talks may also concern the manifestation of no-self in daily life outside of formal practice. Following the dharma talk, everyone places their hands in gassho and bows.

At the end of the third zazen period, the jikijitsu strikes the clappers twice, marking the beginning of a short rest period, also referred to as a kinhin, in which practitioners are allowed to shift positions. During this period, the shoji stands, bows, and leaves the zendo to fetch tea. After the jikijitsu ends the rest kinhin with one clapper and one bell, the shoji returns to the zendo with a teapot, bowing once again as he or she enters. The shoji turns up the overhead lights to full brightness, and moves to stand at the south end of the eastern row of zabuton, facing the butsudan. The jikijitsu then says the Japanese word sarei, meaning tea ceremony, to indicate that tea is about to be formally served. At this, everyone retrieves the cups from behind their zabuton and holds them with both hands at chest level, making as little sound as possible.

Beginning with the jikijitsu and moving toward the south end of the row, the shoji first serves the people sitting along the east wall of the zendo. Before the person at the head of the row is served tea, that person and the shoji bow to each other simultaneously. People are served tea two at a time. While being served, people hold out their cup to the shoji with one hand, while the other hand is held out with the palm open, facing up. This open hand is raised to indicate to the shoji that one has received enough tea. After the last person in the row has been served, that person and the shoji bow to each other. People may begin to drink once those sitting next to them have been served. Cups are held at mouth level, arms parallel to the floor and elbows pointing out to the sides. Tea is to be drunk silently; if anyone makes sound, the jikijitsu verbally corrects them. Meditation is maintained throughout sarei. As with all activity which takes place during zazen, the highly formal tea service is a ritualized opportunity to manifest no-self.

Once the east row has been served, the shoji serves the west row, following the same procedure. Both rows are served twice, after which the shoji returns to stand once again at the south end of the east row. As people finish the second serving of tea, they silently replace their cups behind their zabuton. Once everyone has finished drinking, the shoji bows toward the butsudan and then exits the zendo, turning down the lights on the way out. The jikijitsu strikes the inkin once and proceeds to do sampai before the butsudan while the shoji hits the mokuhan to mark the end of evening zazen. Shortly thereafter, the shoji re-enters the zendo, turns up the lights, and returns to his or her seat, bowing both at the door and in front of his or her zabuton before sitting.

When the shoji is seated, he or she retrieves the mokugyo from behind the zabuton. The jikijitsu strikes the inkin three times and chants the opening line of "The Final Instructions of National Teacher Kozen Daito," one of the texts printed in the Daily Sutras book. After the first line has been chanted, the shoji begins to rhythmically strike the mokugyo , and all of the practitioners begin to chant. At any given sitting, there may be a few people who have the text memorized; most practitioners do not, however, and must therefore take out the Daily Sutras books from beneath their zabuton in order to follow along.

Although the chanting is not especially fast, it can be quite disorienting for new practitioners. On my first visit to Centre Zen, I spent most of the chanting period flipping frantically through the sutra book until the person sitting next to me kindly reached over and pointed me to the correct page. Even then, I barely managed to fumble through the remainder of the chant, frequently losing my place in the text. After several visits, however, most people become familiar enough with the text to be able to keep up with the chanting.

Once the chanting is completed, the jikijitsu strikes the inkin once, signaling to the shoji to put away the mokugyo . The inkin is struck twice, and everyone except the jikijitsu puts their chant books away, quickly stands, and places their support cushions in the centre of the zendo floor, forming a straight line of cushions running from the north end of the room to the south. While this is happening, the jikijitsu strikes the inkin with increasing rapidity. Each person stands in front of his or her support cushion, with hands held in gassho. The practitioners then perform sampai in unison. A single bell indicates the beginning of the first and second bow, and two rapid bells indicate the final one. Following the third prostration, everyone replaces their support cushions, and stands in front of their zabuton with hands in gassho while three bells are struck. The jikijitsu and shoji bow and stand. The jikijitsu cleans his or her zabuton by sweeping it off with his or her hands, and beats his or her zafu back into shape. Everyone continues to stand in gassho while the shoji and jikijitsu exit. At Centre Zen, the shoji exits first, and bows to the jikijitsu as he or she leaves.

Once the shoji and jikijitsu have left, the practitioners bow, and proceed to clean their zabuton in the same manner as the officers. Once each person has returned his or her zabuton to its original condition, he or she may exit the zendo, bringing the cup used during sarei to the kitchen for washing. The shoji remains standing in the hall outside the zendo until everyone has left the room.

Some members leave the Centre immediately after zazen. Others stay in the common area for a short time to speak with each other and discuss practice with Myokyo. The atmosphere is generally quite calm, although somewhat more lively than before practice. Members are supposed to leave promptly and quietly. Usually, the last members have left the centre by about 7:45.

4.0 Doctrine and Beliefs

Centre Zen de la Main is formally associated with the Rinzai sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Rinzai advocates koan practice as a major means of attaining enlightenment, which may come in the form of an "ecstatic experience" of awakening, or satori.[25] Since Myokyo is not a roshi , she does not possess the authority to conduct koan practice on her own; thus, the main mode of practice at Centre Zen is zazen . Familiarity with Rinzai and Buddhist philosophy is not regarded as essential to practice at the Centre, and there is almost no formal insistence on doctrine. In light of this, it is worth considering that Kapleau records his Zen teacher, Yasutani-roshi , as saying that "Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist doctrine, and Buddhist philosophy are no more than intellectual formulations of zazen , and zazen itself is their practical demonstration."[26]

Doctrinal texts are present in zazen practice at Centre Zen in the form of the Daily Sutras book, which contains the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, two dharani (esoteric Buddhist texts), the Dai Segaki, and the Four Great Vows of the Bodhisattva. Translations of these texts are available in the Manual of Zen Buddhism, which may be found in the Centre's library; furthermore, the Centre is currently preparing a small booklet containing the translated chants. For the time being, however, people do not generally ask to see the translations, and are thus not aware of the meaning of the texts while chanting. In this regard, the use of the Daily Sutras book at Centre Zen is similar to its use at Mt. Baldy. There, practitioners "are not expected to understand the words they chant."[27] Bailey et al. argue that this "points to the non-rational nature of Zen, particularly during zazen : the emphasis is not on rational understanding, but on doing and intuition."[28]

Initial formal education of members takes place via the mandatory orientation session. During the session I attended, Myokyo mainly focused on explaining the procedure, etiquette, and purpose of zazen practice, without making reference to any underlying doctrines or insisting on the adoption of any set of beliefs. Anyone who is willing can practice at the Centre, regardless of his or her level of familiarity of Zen and Buddhist doctrine.

Subsequent formal instruction takes place through the practice of zazen itself. Practitioners learn about zazen by observing others in the zendo, and by making mistakes during practice and receiving correction from the jikijitsu. Myokyo may also offer comments on one's form in the zendo after practice. Similarly, members training to serve as officers learn about their roles through practical experience. As with the orientation session, the training that takes place through zazen is concerned mainly with the form of practice, and does not generally deal with any underlying doctrine or beliefs.

According to Myokyo, roshi announced to his students some four or five years ago that he felt he had only taught them about Zen and not Buddhism in general, and that he had erred in doing this. Subsequently, he instructed his students to learn about Buddhism, and to teach Buddhism, as well as Zen, to their own students. In point of fact, to say that practice takes precedence over doctrine at Centre Zen is not to say that doctrine is wholly absent from the Centre. Myokyo's dharma talks sometimes refer to doctrinal texts, and provide insight into conceptual aspects of practice such as the manifestation of no-self. Through the Centre's monthly study and discussion groups, members are encouraged to investigate aspects of Zen philosophy. The Centre's small library provides a means by which practitioners may acquaint themselves with Zen and non-Zen Buddhist texts. In general, however, while a comprehension of doctrine may be beneficial to one's zazen , it is not regarded as critical to practice.

Since doctrine is not insisted upon, the beliefs of Centre Zen's members tend to be diverse. While they do not necessarily adhere to any one set of beliefs, the Centre's members share an interest and willingness to engage in zazen practice. When asked about their reasons for practicing, members interviewed tended to express a belief that zazen was somehow of spiritual benefit to them. One member compared practice to the process of creative writing, insofar as both involve revealing things from within the self. Another member felt that practice led him to a sense of connection with life. In contrast to the personal spiritual motivation suggested by these responses, a Japanese roshi who was interviewed for this project via e-mail noted that "nowadays in Japan it is just a formal tradition to belong to some religious sect, and it does not have any religious meaning today."[29]

5.0 The Future: Enpuku-ji

Currently, Centre Zen de la Main is involved in a campaign to establish a new home.[30] The new temple will be called Enpuku-ji, a Japanese phrase which may be translated as "Temple of Complete Prosperity." A number of factors have contributed to the decision to move to a new location. Among these factors is a need for a space that is more appropriate as a public centre, since the building that presently houses Centre Zen de la Main is a residential building. The plan for Enpuku-ji is to either construct a new building or purchase an existing building and renovate it. Enpuku-ji will be larger than Centre Zen de la Main, with a total floor space of approximately 2800 to 3200 square feet. The zendo will be able to accommodate twenty-five people during zazen , and up to sixty people for special events such as ceremonies. In addition to the zendo, Enpuku-ji's facilities will include an office, a library, a kitchen, bedrooms for resident practitioners, and a studio apartment for guest practitioners.

As of October 2005, the preliminary research stage of the Enpuku-ji project is nearing completion. The public fundraising campaign will be launched in the spring of 2006, and several fundraising and community awareness events are planned. The first annual "3 Bowl Zen Dinner," a silent, formal affair, was held in October 2005. Once a building or property is acquired, renovation or construction will take place over the course of 2006. The opening ceremony is scheduled for the end of that year. From then on, Enpuku-ji will continue Centre Zen de la Main's mission to providing Montreal with a Rinzai Zen practice centre.

End Notes

    1 <http://www.dsuper.net/~czenmain/welcome.htm>.

    2 Kapleau 342.

    3 http://www.zen.ca/joshu_roshi.html>.

    4 A list of Rinzai-ji centres is available from Mt. Baldy Zen Center's website: <http://www.mbzc.org/rinzai-ji/>.

    5 <http://www.dsuper.net/~czenmain/history.htm>.

    6 Kapleau provides a brief definition of koan: "In Zen a koan is a formulation, in baffling language, pointing to ultimate Truth" (335).

    7 McMahon 226.

    8 Ibid. 227.

    9 Thirty-five dollars is the standard contribution for regular members. Centre Zen's website outlines different rates for family memberships, supporting memberships, and affiliate memberships: <http://www.dsuper.net/~czenmain/dues.htm>.

    10 Hori 1998, 65.

    11 Ogata 24-5. Ogata summarizes the work of Dr. Hisamatsu Shinichi, who counts simplicity and naturalness among the defining characteristics of "Zen culture which later had remarkable influence upon all phases of Japanese culture."

    12 Kapleau 331.

    13 For diagrams and descriptions of standard zazen postures, see Kapleau 315-20.

    14 The Daily Sutras book is available online, via Mt. Baldy Zen Center's web site: <http://www.mbzc.org/PDF/mbzc_sutrabook.pdf>.

    15 Kapleau 338.

    16 Hori 1998 54-5. Examining this same use of candles at Mt. Baldy Zen Center (referred to in the article as ABC Zen Center), Hori argues that this new practice "shows that the ABC Zen Center thinks that zazen is an activity with a beginning and an end; this reveals a lay or secular, rather than monastic, understanding of zazen." In Japanese monasteries, by contrast, "Ritually speaking… Zazen never ends."

    17 <http://www.mbzc.org/glossary/>.

    18 Ibid.

    19 Hori 1994 12. Hori discusses the methods of training employed in a Japanese monastery as "means to the goal of the spiritual training of the person" (13).

    20 Orientation of the body during zazen differs in Soto and Rinzai Zen practice: "Soto devotees face a wall or curtain during zazen. In the Rinzai tradition sitters face each other across the room in two rows, their backs to the wall" (Kapleau 9).

    21 Kapleau 346.

    22 The mokuhan is always struck in a prescribed pattern, consisting of a combination of loud hits, soft hits, and roll-downs (accelerating series of hits). The pattern is as follows: Loud, soft, soft. Seven louds, soft, roll-down. Five louds, soft, roll-down. Three louds, soft, roll-down. Soft, soft, loud.

    23 Kapleau 13.

    24 "No-self" (Sanskrit: anatta) is one of the three characteristics of existence recognized by the Buddha. Kapleau explains the concept of no-self: "ultimately nothing is self-subsistent... all forms in their essential nature are empty, that is, mutually dependent patterns of energy in flux, yet at the same time are possessed of a provisional or limited reality in time and space" (15).

    25 Hyers 10.

    26 Kapleau 27.

    27 Bailey et al. <http://www2.hmc.edu/www_common/religious_studies/baldy/text_teach.html>.

    28 Ibid.

    29 Gudo Wafu Nishijima, personal email to Dainius Sileika.

    30 Section 5.0 of this report was written in October 2005.


I would like to extend my gratitude to my colleague, Dainius Sileika, for his support, to Professor G. Victor Sogen Hori for his guidance, to the practitioners of Centre Zen de la Main for their assistance, and to Zengetsu Myokyo Judith McLean for her patience, understanding, and help.



    Formal interviews with Zengetsu Myokyo Judith McLean conducted on March 18, April 1, and April 8, 2005.

    Informal interviews and conversations with Myokyo and members of Centre Zen de la Main conducted over a series of visits from January 21 to April 1, 2005.

    Formal interviews conducted by Dainius Sileika with members of Centre Zen de la Main between January 21 and April 1, 2005.

    E-mail correspondence between Dainius Sileika and Gudo Wafu Nishijima, April 5, 2005.

Print References

    Hori, G. Victor Sogen. "Japanese Zen in America: Americanizing the Face in the Mirror." The Faces of Buddhism in America. Ed. Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 49-78.

    Hori, G. Victor Sogen. "Teaching and Learning in the Rinzai Monastery." Journal of Japanese Studies Vol. 20, No. 1. (Winter, 1994): 5-35. JSTOR. McGill University Libraries, Montreal, QC. 2 April 2005. .

    Hyers, Conrad. Once-Born, Twice-Born Zen. Wolfeboro: Longwood Academic, 1989.

    Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

    McMahon, David L. "Repackaging Zen for the West." Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. Ed. Charles Prebish and Martin Baumann. Berkely: University of California Press, 2002. 218-229.

    Ogata, Sohaku. Zen for the West. London: Rider & Co., 1959.

    Radin, Yoshin David. The Zen of Myoshin-ji Comes to the West: 25 Years of Joshu Roshi in America, 1962-1987. Los Angeles: Rinzai-ji, 1987.

Internet References