Expanding a bit on the last post, I want to say a little more about hierarchies and formalities in Buddhist institutions. Lots of people have ISSUES about authority figures, spiritual or otherwise. And whenever we have another scandal eruption, I hear from folks who say that this is why they don't join a sangha, thank you very much.
I have pointed out before that there must be a few hundred Zen teachers in North America by now, and that the number of "bad eggs" can be counted on one's fingers. This observation never seems to make a dent in anyone's conviction that teachers are not to be trusted, and one is better off practicing alone.
And in the case of Zen especially, I think people also are taken aback by all the formalities -- the ceremonies, the bowing, the priests, the robes. I run into people who are certain Zen did away with all that. The "Beat Zen" mystique will not die.
Japanese Zen includes a lot of bowing. The beginning of a sitting period is like a dance of bowing. Before sitting, the student bows to the meditation pillow, then turns and bows toward the row of students on the other side of the room. Other students, facing the bower, bow back. The officiating teacher or priest, called the doshi, also bows and receives bows, and everyone bows to the Buddha. By the time meditation begins, everyone in the zendo has bowed and been bowed to multiple times.
This is bowing with hands in the gassho position, which signifies nonduality. The gesture acknowledges that our appearance as separate beings is an illusion.
This formality can be a bit like the "Rubin Vase," those pictures that look either like a vase or two faces, depending on how you focus. If you look at it one way, you see a hierarchy, with a doshi, attendants, and senior and junior students. Looked at another way there is no hierarchy, no distinctions. Just practice. It's a dance of absolute and relative, or two truths.
The bowing procedure also underscores that we're all engaged in something together. It is not a room full of individuals who are each doing his own thing, but a sangha engaged in practice together, giving and receiving strength and teaching from each other. And in this sense, the distinctions are only those of function. There is han striking, time keeping, candle lighting, incense offering. No one possesses the hands doing these things.
Many years ago I noticed something about my first teacher. Whenever you bowed to him, he would return the same bow, with just as much respect and sincerity. Once I saw him bowing to a monastic much shorter than he, and he bent more than she did, so that his head was not above hers. And it struck me that this bowing was an expression of the absolute -- "abbot" was just a function, not an identity. A teacher manifests only in the presence of students.
This is why the really great teachers don't want to be treated as the Lord High Pooh-Bah Teacher. Nothing is above or below. The hierarchy is no-hierarchy.
You might ask, then why not just do away with the positions and the robes and whatnot? I have a couple of answers to that. One is that emptiness is form, and in the relative world their are hierarchies, authority figures, submissive figures. Throwing the robes out doesn't change that. Second, the formalities -- the choreography, if you will -- creates a kind of neutral container that doesn't belong to any one person. The functions are carried out according to tradition, not according to somebody in charge.
Like it or not, forming hierarchies appears to be hardwired into human behavior. Put together any group of people, and sooner or later they will sort themselves into leaders and followers. The traditional formalities, if properly honored, create a structure in which functions are not assigned according to who is most assertive or intimidating or charming, but according to what is traditional and needed at the moment.
In time, shy people are nudged out of their comfort zones; assertive "I'm in charge" people learn the virtue of sitting down and shutting up. If properly honored, the formalities are a great equalizer in a way that isn't obvious at first. I'm saying "if properly honored" because I'm sure there are Zen centers in which individual egos have taken over and killed the true spirit of the formalities, but I've been fortunate to have seen very little of that.
The dance of two truths is a means to make sunyata more than a concept or an intellectual exercise. It is reality. It is your body, the teacher's body, the incense bowl, the bow.
Same thing with robes. You can look at Buddhist robes as something that makes the monastics and priests (or whatever) stand out, or you can look at the robes as something that makes them less distinctive, because they're all dressed alike. What you see is in your own eyes, not in the robes.
Many people practice by themselves, but a truly solo practice is not a Zen practice. (Indeed, I would argue that "solo Zen practice" is an oxymoron.) Especially if you keep yourself cut off from the tradition because you have issues about hierarchies, and not because you are too far from a Zen center, it's not a Zen practice. Why? Because your practice is built around maintaining an illusion of a separate self. Plugging into the tradition even a little bit, by doing a couple of weekend retreats a year, can make a world of difference.