Please don't worry about “getting it right”. Just follow along and enjoy the flavour of Zen. Hopefully this information will help answer some of your questions. As you continue to practise, there will be more opportunities to bring up questions about aspects of Zen ritual that you may find puzzling.
When we enter the meditation room, or zendo, our attitude is one of respect. We act respectfully in the meditation space and with the meditation materials. We show respect for the practise of our fellow meditators as well as for our own. This supports and encourages us all.
For sitting meditation, or zazen, we take a comfortable but dignified posture and stay with it for the half hour meditation period. We should have some energy in our sitting and not be completely relaxed. If it becomes necessary to move during the meditation period, we do so quietly and respectfully by putting our hands together in a bow (gassho) and then changing our position quietly. We sit with our eyes partly open with the gaze directed downwards, neither looking around nor fixed on anything in particular. Our awareness should be open without being too relaxed. We don't seek anything special, but we don't shut anything out either.
We give our attention to following the breath. It may help to count each out-breath. We can count from 1 to 10 and then start over again at 1. If we lose count, we just notice that and then go back to 1. If we find ourselves beyond 10, we just notice that and return to 1. Our minds may wander in thoughts and feelings. When we notice this has happened, we simply return our attention to be present with the simple facts of our posture and breath.
Two bells at the end of a period of sitting meditation are the signal for walking meditation. We space ourselves evenly and then walk slowly in a clockwise direction. Our attention is still with the breath which we coordinate with our steps. We are aware of the movement of our bodies and of our contact with the floor that supports us.
A single bell at the end of a period of sitting meditation usually indicates service. Service gives us an opportunity to unite with an ancient tradition. To the newcomer it may look as if our bows are some form of idol worship. If you feel this is what the bows are, then please don't do them! Some people say that they are bowing to the Buddha within us all, or bowing to the Buddha nature that we all share. You could say that the bows are an expression of gratitude to the unknowable. Or you could consider them a form of relinquishing one's small, restricted sense of self in order to offer oneself to the universe. Bows express humility, but not submission or shame. A bow is a mindful activity that should be done in the spirit of harmony. If you do not feel comfortable doing these bows, then please just stand respectfully while the others do them.
The service begins with three prostrations. We then chant a sutra or sutras together, usually with a dedication recited by the chant leader. Three more prostrations follow. At the end of the service we do two standing bows: the first one toward the altar and the second toward our fellow practitioners.
If you have any questions about Zen meditation or would like further instructions, please call or email to make an appointment.