In my vacation post I mentioned that we went to a formal sitting at the Toronto Zen Centre. And indeed we did! And now I feel silly for waiting almost a year and a half to get back there.
Back in April, nyxie and I attended their introductory workshop. After that, you're meant to do some sitting at home and then apply for a trial membership which lasts four to six weeks, and then after that you can become a full member. We... put that off for a while. Things were tumultuous in April 2008, and while the trial membership form was right there on the fridge we just didn't make it back, part inertia and part avoiding scary new things. And while at the intro you're expected to be new, at a regular sitting you're just there with everyone else.
So with the week off we decided we'd give it a try. nyxie emailed the centre asking whether or not it's been too long for us to just show up, and Steve who manages the office there replied to tell us to go ahead and come by and with tons of detail about how to proceed, and that he'd arrange for someone to meet us there early to remind us how a sitting works.
So on last Thursday night we changed into dark, comfortable clothes -- the dress code there is "dark colours; no bare shoulders, plunging necklines, or shorts" -- and off we went. We arrived way early and wandered through High Park and around the neighbourhood to kill some time before arriving at the centre.
We walked in quietly and found... nobody, at first. Slightly disconcerting. At least we'd been there before and knew our way around the building! We rounded a corner towards the main room of the centre and found Vlad waiting for us. He showed us around the main floor silently because some members were already sitting in the zendo -- here's where the extra cushions are, here's where you can get water -- and then we went upstairs to the common room to talk about the sitting. He was shy but helpful!
The time for the sitting approached so we went back downstairs, took some spare cushions and found ourselves a couple of seats in the zendo, just inside the door. There was no Dharma talk, private instruction or chanting that day so the sitting would comprise three half-hour zazen (sitting meditation) periods separated by five-minute kinhin (walking meditation). I'd mentally prepared myself for one half-hour period, maybe two -- three was going to be a challenge!
The monitor hit the han, a big wood block "gong", to announce that zazen was about to start, and by then the zendo was getting busier, about ten people in total. A few minutes later the monitor sounded a bell gong to begin zazen and we sat motionless. I haven't been assigned a practice since it was my first time there, so I followed the breath. The first half-hour was hard; I found myself alternating between dozing off and seeing bright lights, makyo, mind tricks from staring at a blank wall for half an hour! Five minutes of brisk walking meditation (and someone opening the windows for fresh air!) woke me back up, though, and the subsequent half-hour sessions were much easier.
At the end of the session -- and unlike the intro workshop, such that it surprised me even though Vlad had prepared me -- we chanted the Four Vows. I know I said there was no chanting, but there's often a long chanting session, and the Four Vows are chanted regardless:
All beings, without number, I vow to liberate.
Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot.
Dharma gates, beyond measure, I vow to penetrate.
The Great Way of Buddha, I vow to attain.
followed by prostrations to the altar. (This part might seem weird, but it's about gratitude and humility rather than out-and-out prayer or worshipping!)
In short, it went great. We left them our trial membership forms and we're going back for this Sunday morning's sitting!
(We also learned what happens if you forget and wear shorts to a sitting -- someone did, and at the first kinhin, they quietly took him aside and lent him a robe! We just sat in loose pants and t-shirts, robes come later.)