The Rhythms of Zen

Minh Tran

While sitting this year's winter retreat at Gaksu, one word kept appearing in my mind – rhythm. The more I observed the retreat with this word in mind, the more rhythms I noticed. It seems that there is a rhythm to every aspect of our Zen practice, and these rhythms become more and more pronounced as we sink deeper and deeper into the retreat.

4:30 a.m. The first moktak sounds. Everyone jumps out of bed, folds their sheets and blankets, and heads downstairs to brush their teeth and wash their faces.

4:50 a.m. Another moktak roll down. Time to head up to the Dharma room for bows.

5:00 a.m. sharp, we say the Four Great Vows. Then bowing commences – up and down, up and down, all in unison, following our Sifu’s pace. Immediately after the107th bow, the head nun announces, “Last bow.” We do our last bow and remain standing until Sifu and the rest of the sunims depart. Then we turn toward the exit and head down the stairs for a short break in a single file line.

5:20 a.m. Another moktak roll down. Time to head up for chanting. Before the moktak sounds, three people have taken their places in the dharma room upstairs, waiting for the moktak’s signal. As soon as the moktak finishes its roll down, these three retreatants bow to the three altars. They click the lighters to light the candle to the left, then to the right. Then they light the incense sticks, put them in, and open the water bowls. The person in the center looks to his left and to his right to check that his partners are ready. Then he starts and the others follow to take three steps back and finish with a standing bow. All of this in synchrony.

5:30 a.m. sharp. I hit the wooden stand of the bell – tok-tok, tok, tok, tok – and then I strike the bell, and the morning bell chant starts.

6:20 a.m. sharp, the chugpi hits three times. Sitting starts.

7:00 a.m. sharp, the chugpi hits three times. Sitting ends.

7:10 a.m. sharp, the chugpi hits three times, breakfast begins. The chugpi hits three times, breakfast ends.

Just like this. Moktak hits. Chugpi hits. Bell sounds. Retreat is governed by these rhythms. They allow for the retreatants to become one – without having to speak at all. One of our Zen teachers, Andrzej StecJDPSN, once said that our life depends on rhythms – the rhythm of our heartbeat, the rhythm of our breaths flowing in and out, the rhythm of the sun and the moon coming and going every day...

Zen retreats help us become one with our body’s rhythms, our sangha's rhythms, society's rhythms, and the universe’s rhythms. From every syllable of the chants to every strike of the moktak or chugpi, to every bow – up and down, every slow inhalation and exhalation, every lighting of the candles – all in unison, all on beat. We become one with every moment and every person. Then correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function will automatically appear, and we can help others with wisdom and compassion.

Join us next time!