In matters of ceremony at Pacific Zen Institute we are developing hybrid forms that include Western archetypes and music. This is a departure from Harada’s school but, we feel, in line with both his syncretist spirit and the context we inhabit.

Ceremony of Awakening

Ceremonies continue throughout the year in the form of meditation, koans, poetry, music, the ringing of bells, and the singing of Sutras and Vows. Ceremony is expanded with recitation and song, altars, incense offerings, and ritual openings and closings in our quarterly retreats. Ceremonies of Refuge and Transmission are traditionally held during our annual winter gathering. 

The ceremony of paying attention—doing some zazen every day—is important. It transforms your life without telling you how it’s going to do that. You can’t manage how zazen will change your life. In fact, you can’t even describe it. It’s just that when you look back, the trail looks really different, and you can’t quite get back to who you were.  —John Tarrant

In a way, the whole of Zen training is a vessel through which to pursue our doubt or pursue the great questions—and we get certain kinds of discoveries along the way.

Depending on Not-Knowing

What are we doing when we do ceremony?
We’re in a community and in a tradition that really depends on not-knowing,
and doesn’t depend on certainty.

— John Tarrant

Great Life Passages

Accompanying Each Other

Ceremony is good for great transitions. It’s a way to not only go through the passage, but to go through the passage with more love of life and more kindness with each other. Ceremony has to have a kind of integrity, which is some degree of truthfulness and beauty. Good ceremonies allow for the mercy of emptiness—the embrace, the compassion—that goes with emptiness.

Some passages in life are just known to be hard to get through, no matter how brave you are or clever.

Death would be one of these. If someone we love, or someone we don’t even know is going through a difficult passage, we don’t have to tell them what it means or anything like that. We can walk with them. We can accompany each other. We often think we should bear things, but actually there’s no need to bear it, we just need to accompany each other. 

The Zen approach to any situation is two-fold:
One is to really look at things. 
And one is to trust that somehow the emptiness, 
the Valley Spirit, the empty world, will help us through.

—John Tarrant 

A Koan: Celebration of Life

Round and round the jewel turns, ringing like hanging jade;
horses carry it, donkeys bear it, load it on an iron ship.
Share it with an unconcerned traveler of the sea and mountains.

—The Blue Cliff Record, Xuedou

The PZI Way

Ceremonies in Service to the Community

Zen Baby Blessings

Blessing babies. Welcoming them into the world, into the community. Welcoming their passage through the doorway of birth. The way a baby still has the gaze of the infinite! Flowers, songs, a party? 

A teacher said, “We weren’t born, and we don’t die.” And this is a profound expression of the deep reality of emptiness. That’s always the ultimate thing.  —John Tarrant

Zen Marriage Ceremony

A couple wanting to marry may meet with their teacher to meditate on their vows as koans. A marriage ceremony is developed and performed  together with a Roshi. The partners show reverence to the Buddha by making offerings at an altar. They may light candles and incense, and present beautiful packages of food and flowers. They might also visit a temple as part of the ceremony and perform rituals there. Readings of the Heart Sutra and other blessings is usual.

Zen Memorial or Funeral Ceremony

Japanese funeral: the procession leaves the house

Zen is often thought to be good at funerals, which is probably true, as the tradition addresses life’s great matters by delving into the mystery of death and the unanswerable qualities, questions, and intense emotions that naturally arise around it. 

Some will call on a Roshi to accompany a dying loved one. The Roshi may set up a simple altar for a candle or incense offering if appropriate, and may chant or sing the Heart Sutra and Kanzeon Sutra for crossing over. There is the sense that in some way one is still accompanying them even after they’ve died. 

A funeral ceremony may be held at the cremation or at the gravesite if someone is being buried. The gathering “walks through the passage” with the Roshi. There may be incense offerings, the great Sutras, dedications, and singing of the Boundless Vows. All have a chance to say something with a certain depth and thoughtfulness.

The beauty of Zen is that it supports openness to the mysteryso that people can walk through a passage with more love of life and kindness with each other.

Ceremonies of Transmission: Student & Teacher

Taking Zen Refuge

As students find their own dharma practice and path, they begin to work regularly with a teacher. At some point they usually decide to take refuge and step into the Bodhisattva Way—the path. Refuge is our ceremony of initiation in Zen. There’s a declaration of entrance of the gate, a declaration of the Way involved, and we have a ceremony for it, which is one of the ceremonies we’ve paid quite a bit of attention to over the years.

Allison Atwill Roshi gives the Blacktara Blessing

The ceremony involves a blessing, some reference to the sutras—the Heart Sutra, particularly—and then the taking up the Vows: Refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; refuge in awakening, the Way, and my companions. There are additional vows to do no evil, to do only good, to do good for others. And then the Ten Precepts, which can be looked at from the outside as requirements for living together in community—try not killing each other, or robbing each other and things like that—it might help! We approach the precepts as koans for individual reflection and insight rather that a set of hard and fast rules not to break.

What is a Rakusu?

Sewing your own rakusu – a task not to be taken on lightly

The rakusu is a traditional robe, with a name that links us to the ancestors. PZI has a particular pattern, within which all elements have meaning.  Receiving a rakusu is a sacred act of opening to the teacher’s and the community’s best blessing and spiritual force. The teacher will often paint the interior and give the student a dharma name. Each piece of the rakusu pattern is significant to the dharma and PZI tradition.

Chris Gaffney & Corey Hitchcock show their PZI rakusus

Ceremonies are great because they allow the psyche to have something it can depend on. “Oh, you take the Refuge ceremony!” It helps hold the vessel. Refuge is the great ceremony of our tribe. We take refuge in our awakening, fundamentally.”

—John Tarrant

Dharma Transmission

Formal Dharma Transmission occurs when the lineage is passed from a Roshi to a student with whom they have worked with closely.

John Tarrant Roshi shares David Park’s Transmission silk

There is an idea that in some sense the world transmits awakening to us, that we’re in the hands of something vast, and something large is pulling us into the path. We’re depending on something larger than ourselves that doesn’t always inform us of its plans for us. The Way becomes about something deep in the nature of us, and deep in the nature of who we are and what it is to be human.

At this point on the path we are not trying to get outside the principle. We embody the peace from within the Way, not from having a vantage point outside the world. 

“What is the first principle of the teaching?”
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”  —Bodhidharma

Ceremonies at Sesshin & Retreat

Fall Sesshin Altar

Ceremonies in PZI zendos and temples continue throughout the year in the form of meditation, koans, poetry, music, the ringing of bells, and the singing of Sutras and Vows. Ceremony is expanded with recitation and song, altars, incense offerings, and ritual openings and closings in our quarterly sesshin (short or long retreats). Ceremonies of Taking Refuge and Dharma Transmission are traditionally held during Winter Sesshin. 

Any time we gather as a community, there is chanting and singing the sutras. During sesshin we have Sutra services overseen by our cantor and temple musicians. We’ve developed a Sutra Book for these occasions, with links to some in common usage, below:

Ceremonies in the Temple: Special Gatherings

Communal Zen ceremonies at PZI mark the turnings of the seasons or occasions of significance in Zen history or the larger culture.

Ringing in the New Year
Spring Equinox
Bathing the Baby Buddha (Buddha’s Birthday)
Summer Solstice
Autumnal Equinox
Calling in the Ancestors (Halloween & Day of the Dead)
Buddha’s Life in Your Own Heart (Buddha’s Enlightenment Day)
Winter Solstice

Ringing in the New Year with 108 Bells

Striking the Temple Bell

Joya-no-Kane is the custom of ringing a temple bell on New Year’s Eve in Japan. Practiced throughout the country, priests and temple visitors ring this symbolic bell 108 times to usher in the New Year. Some Buddhists celebrate the new year on December 31st or January 1st along with most of the world. Others wait for the first full moon which usually falls mid-January. Our PZI ceremony, when we gather together in person, involves lighting candles, dressing our altars festively with offerings, and chanting the sutras. We call everyone to the gathering with the Bonsho bell and the community brings smaller bells to stand in for traditional temple bells.

Spring Equinox: Peach Blossoms

Spring blossoms are luminous harbingers of the transformation from winter into spring. In Japan in particular people take time off to go and sit among them.

A KOAN for the season:

Lingyun was wandering in the mountains and became lost in his walking. He rounded a bend and saw peach blossoms on the other side of the valley. This sight awakened him and he wrote this poem:

For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman,
how many times did the leaves fall,
and the branches burst into bud?
But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms,
I’ve had no doubts.  PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 37

Bathing the Baby Buddha: Buddha’s Birthday

Washing the Baby Buddha

Some Buddhists believe that when the Buddha was born, he stood up, took seven steps, and said “I alone am the World-Honored One.” He then pointed up, to heaven, with one hand and down, to earth, with the other. The seven steps the Buddha took are thought to represent seven directions—north, south, east, west, up, down, and here. The ritual of “washing the baby Buddha” commemorates this moment. Typically, a small standing figure of the baby Buddha, with the right hand pointing up and the left hand pointing down, is placed on an elevated stand within a basin on an altar. People approach the altar, fill a ladle with water or tea, and pour it over the figure to “wash” the baby.

Summer Solstice


What is the blown-hair sword?
Each branch of coral holds up the moon.
—PZI Miscellaneous Koans 74c

Autumnal Equinox


Yunmen taught, “Everybody has a light inside. When you’re looking for it, you can’t see; it’s dark, dark, hidden. What is this light that everybody has?”

He himself answered, “The kitchen pantry, the entrance gate.”

Then he said, “It’s better to have nothing than something good.”

—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 86

Calling in the Ancestors on Halloween

On Halloween, we can think that the ancestors are easy to reach—veils are thin. The bardos are close. It’s good to have ancestors on our side, they have already passed through the celebrated doorway of death; nothing scares them. They can encourage us towards more joy and less worry, and to the confidence that we will be alright.

Everyone has personal ancestors and spiritual ancestors who watch over us and give us hints for direction. We have grandmothers and immigrants and fugitives and queens and kings; and then Neanderthal cave painters, and then, well, all of life is connected—even viruses and ghosts.

Our ancestors are also Buddha and sages, who sat late into the night watching the changes in the world and harmonizing with the flow of things. I particularly want to dedicate this retreat to our spiritual ancestors. PZI hosts an annual retreat at this time to bring in the blessings.

Buddha’s Story in Your Own Life: Buddha’s Enlightenment Day

Now I see that all beings have the nature of the one who comes thus:
Only their delusions and attachments keep them from realizing this
—Buddha’s words upon his awakening

The Buddha’s discoveries take place in our own lives. The Buddha’s hardships and sorrow are definitely ours, and the Buddha’s awakening is waiting for us to know it personally. It’s easy to think of the Buddha’s journey as something far off. But the journey lives on and through us. Each year we follow the paths out of the palace and meet dragons and hermits and milkmaids and the morning star. We see them in the path of our own destiny and the shape of our own faces.

PZI hosts an annual retreat is on the anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment in early December as the old year winds down. 

Winter Solstice

A KOAN for the season: Snow in a Silver Bowl