There is a Greek myth about a man named Procrustes. He invites travellers in for a good meal, and a restful night’s sleep, in his special bed which he claims exactly fits whoever sleeps in it. However, the bed is a trap. If the person is too small for the bed, Procrustes stretches him on a rack until he fits. If he is too large, Procrustes lops off the hands and feet that extend past the frame.
A Procrustean bed is a metaphor for making a person fit the form, instead of finding a form to fit the person. Zen, of course, is filled with forms: the proper way to sit, the bows, the chanting in service. But blindly adhering to the forms for form’s sake is not Zen, I don’t think. Each one of us is an individual, and we bring our own needs, desires, weaknesses, strengths to the practice.
One of the things I love about the teachings at Russian River Zendo is the permission to do zazen as it works for you. If you cannot sit in lotus position, sit cross legged. If you cannot sit on the floor, use a chair. If your back will not permit sitting in a chair, then lie down. No matter how different each person’s “sitting” may look, it is still zazen, as long as the intention is clear.
But having some forms, some guidelines, keeps us centered, so we can find that self expression. Suzuki-roshi talks about expressing yourself fully in Not Always So. He says:
It is a big mistake to think that the best way to express yourself is to do whatever you want, acting however you please. This is not expressing yourself…If you know what to do exactly, and you do it, you can express yourself fully.
That is why we follow forms. You may think that you cannot express yourself within a particular form, but when we are all practicing together, strong people will express themselves in a strong way and kind people will express themselves kindly…The differences among you are easy to see because the form is the same.
Later in the same book, Suzuki-roshi continues:
Zazen will become your own zazen, and as you are Buddha, you will express your true nature in various ways. That is freedom from the forms of practice. Whatever you do, you will really be you. You will be Buddha, in its true sense.
This is what initially drew me to Zen practice: the sense that here was a place that had room, a place where I could be myself. I love the forms. I love chanting, and full bows, and lighting incense. I love the sound of the bells and the drums. But I also love that no one has to do anything they’re not comfortable with, and that anyone can modify their own participation to fit where they are at that particular moment. I love the fact that Zen teachers say, “You know your own truth better than anyone else.”
Zen is no Procrustean bed. Instead, it is a way station for the weary traveller that offers beds of every possible size, a unique resting spot for each individual. And there is always room.
To anyone out there reading: Comments are welcome! I’d love to have your input, either responding to topics I have brought up, or sharing your own experiences with Zen and Buddhism. Write!