Form, of course, often comes up as a question in America. American students ask, "Why are you doing this? And, in that way? What is that for? Who says you have to do it that way?" Well, I can only answer that that is Zen practice. Even when students don't get a good answer for themselves, they may continue to practice and take up the forms. Still a year or so later they will begin to want to discard them. The forms have been around in Japanese Zen for about 8 or 9 centuries and yet after one or two years of intermittent practice, that is, coming to sit once or twice a week, the student will itch to change things as if they had mastered the forms and had some right to make it the way they want.
Imagine going to take tennis lessons to try to improve your serve. You find someone who has mastered tennis pretty well and after several lessons you say, "I don't think the serve should be done that way. Why are we serving the ball that way? I don't think we should include the serve in the game of tennis." No, we couldn't imagine that in most of our activities. We might learn the form quite well and then discover that if we toss the ball a little higher or a little lower, we serve better. But we don't discard the basic serve. We allow the body to play tennis and to learn what works well within the form of tennis because that's what tennis includes.
Zen forms are similar. When we learn to bow, in the beginning it may feel awkward and we can't easily master getting up and down. Slowly we begin to realize that if we bend our ankles a certain way, our knees don't pound the floor, or if we throw our weight a certain way on the rise, we get up more easily. These things take time, and slowly as we practice we fall into the ease of the form. After all of that, we might fall into the bodily understanding, the bodily wisdom of what the bow means and why we bow. That is, the body itself, realizes itself as the body of practice. The body gives wisdom to the mind and the mind to the body. These go together as one body, one expression. Maybe after 25 or so years, we can consider whether we should discard this or that, but by that time it's too late. After 25 years of bowing, one could never give it up.
It amused me that there was such fury over the president bowing to the emperor of Japan. When I saw the picture of the president bowing, I felt very heartened that he could follow the culture of Japan because that's what's done in Japan. I felt glad that our president was not too proud to bow to his elder, to bow to an ancient culture, and to bow as a man of reverence and not hold arrogantly to having to be the head of state. The emperor in Japan is not the government. After all, it's often American arrogance that has gotten us into such messes around the world feeling that we are more important than anyone else and our way is the only way. But, you know, I'm often in the minority and have a view of things that will never quite fit with the mainstream....thank goodness. I think, how lucky we are to have a president who can bow. This means he can restrain himself, that he has humility, and that he can step back with deep consideration and discernment when making unbelievably hard and problematic decisions. We always hope that a true leader has these qualities. Let us hope so, indeed. But, here we are in the press embroiled over the form of our president bowing.
Well, enough on this. The rain has a mind of its own and insists itself on us, inch by splashy inch. Slowly the moss turns bright green and the soaked downed branches fall apart in the hand. Winter in the form of winter.