Yunmen said, ‘The world is vast and wide like this. Why do we put on the seven-paneled robe at the sound of the bell?’

~ Gateless Barrier, Case 16

Ritual, rules, and robes; monastic and lay behavior. Traditionally, ordained Buddhist monks were required to follow 250 rules while nuns had to adhere to 348, a greater number the meaning of which we can only wonder at. At times, I have been deeply moved by traditional Zen rituals of chanting, bowing, and offering incense. But I have also experienced communities where the importance of ritual overshadows the natural freedom and joy that flows from our practice. Yunmen, I believe, is telling us that ritual is vast and wide, but that it has no special meaning outside of the simple act of putting on a robe. And it is only because it has no meaning that it holds any value at all.

A couple of months ago, a friend of a friend suddenly passed away, and given my aging peer group, I thought I might do some research into ancient Chinese Zen burial rites. I sent for a translation of the Chanyuan Qingqui, an 11th century collection of Song Dynasty monastic rules and practices that had their source several hundred years earlier, in Pai Chiang’s famous system. Though I found the book a fascinating window on monastic life, I also found it fussy and for me, it held little of the spirit Yunmen is expressing above. In fact, if I had come across this 112-page book when I first began to practice Zen, I would probably have remained separated from any true understanding of the teachings by just that number of pages.

Notions of ritual expertise and purity of behavior can be important vessels for helping communities function smoothly. But they have nothing special to do with realizing the Way. I have some students who I do serious koan work with who have not yet memorized a chant as simple as the Four Vows. Understanding that the world is vast and boundless requires no special understanding outside of simply putting on your pants within the sound print of the wake-up bell.