FAQs - Forms and Customs - Helpful tips for ​practicing with Louisville Zen Center


What gestures are used at the Louisville Zen Center?  How do I do them? ​​

Gestures often used at Louisville Zen Center, as well as most other Zen centers and sitting groups, are gassho, standing bow, seated bow, and prostrations.

Gassho is a gesture indicating respect, gratitude, humility, or all three. It prevents the scattering of attention, unifies seeming opposites (such as left and right, passive and dominant, etc.) expressing Oneness.  The gesture is made by pressing the hands together, palm-to-palm, in front of the face so the hands meet without forming a gap.  Fingers (including thumbs) are straight, not bent, with no spaces between them.  Elbows are somewhat out and away from the body, although the forearms are not quite parallel with the floor. There is about one fist's distance between the tip of the nose and the hands. Fingertips are at about the same height as the nose.  At LZC, we gassho when entering and exiting the zendo, after zazen, before kinhin (but not after), and for the Four Bodhisattvic Vows.  Standing or seated bows as well as prostrations are usually accompanied by gassho.

Standing bow is most often used when entering and exiting the zendo, before kinhin (but not after), and at the end of sittings. To do a standing bow, stand up straight with the feet parallel to each other and hands in gassho. Bend at the waist so the torso forms about a 45 degree angle with the legs. The hands remain in gassho and move with the whole body.  

Seated bow is the same as a standing bow, but is done while sitting down. It is often used when transitioning from a seated position to something else.  At the Center, we do a seated bow before getting up from zazen (sitting meditation) to do kinhin (walking meditation).  Also, during longer rounds of zazen, a bell is rung around mid-way for a posture change.  We perform a seated bow before the posture change.  And during formal Zen talks (teisho or Dharma talk), we maintain a zazen posture, but it’s o.k. to discreetly change positions once or twice during these longer talks. We do a seated bow before changing positions. 

Prostrations are deep, full-body bows expressing respect and humility.  To make a prostration, start in a standing position with hands in gassho, then lower oneself to the floor.  Fold at the waist to flatten the body so the tops of the feet, both knees, elbows, and forearms touch the floor.  Extend both hands beside (or slightly in front of) the head, palms upward.  Then, bending the arms at the elbows, raise the hands off the floor, palms upward, to just above the ears. This gesture is usually performed after chanting the 4 Bodhisattvic Vows, for offerings and ceremonies, and most notably, before dokusan, the private meeting between teacher and student.  

In his book Zen: Merging of East and West, Louisville Zen Center's Dharma grandfather, Roshi Philip Kapleau, speaks of his initial resistance to prostrating before his teacher in dokusan saying, "Why should I bow down before another human being?  Are we not all supposed to be equally endowed with the Buddha-nature?  Why doesn't he bow down before me?  Anyway, what does all this have to do with Zen?"  His teacher, seeing the conflict in his student responded, "Kapleau-san, when you make prostrations in dokusan, you are not bowing before me but before your own Buddha-nature."  This revelation made all the difference in the world for Kapleau.  "Aha! So I'm not bowing down to him, I'm bowing down to myself!  That's different!"  From then on, his prostrations came more easily. 

Not only in the dokusan room, though.  Anytime and anywhere we do prostrations, we are bowing before our own Buddha-nature.  We are embodying, for everyone's sake, the aspiration to continually elevate our True Mind of wisdom, compassion, and virtue above our egoic, small-minded tendencies.


What is that stick for?
The encouragement stick is applied during periods of sitting meditation at the request of the individual practitioner.  It has been used in Zen training for centuries to rouse energy, lift sitters out of drowsiness, dissolve nagging thoughts, and relax tired or tensed muscles (one teacher calls it a “Japanese massage stick”).  The stick is never applied punitively; it serves to keep the zendo atmosphere crisp and awake, and monitors who use the stick do so only after thorough training.  A more complete history and explanation of the use of the stick in formal sittings and sesshins is available here

Do I have to receive the stick?
No. At Louisville Zen Center, the stick is used only upon request as an aid to meditation. You never have to ask for the stick, nor will you be pressured into receiving it. It, generally, is not applied to pregnant women.

How do I request the stick?
Place the hands palm-to-palm at forehead-level as the zendo monitor approaches. Remain in that position until the monitor touches your right shoulder with the stick, then drop the hands in your lap keeping the head still and shoulders relaxed.  You will be struck twice on each shoulder at points corresponding to acupuncture meridians.  After the stick has been applied, again raise the hands palm-to-palm briefly as a sign of gratitude before returning them to the sitting meditation position.


Why do you chant?
Chanting is another way of embodying the direct, non-conceptual way of Zen.  Even though most of the chants at the Center are in English, conscious understanding of the meaning of the words is unimportant.  Of primary importance is the mind-state cultivated by chanting - namely, absolute oneness to the point of self-forgetfulness. 

​How can I learn to chant?
Listen to sutra chanting often and practice.  To find your chanting voice:

  • First, read the text in your regular speaking voice allowing the pitch to rise and fall naturally.
  • Next, read the same text in a monotone without allowing the pitch to "rise".
  • Keep reading the text in a monotone.  Divide the words into even, choppy syllables.
  • Soften and relax the choppiness by slurring syllables together to form one continuous drone of sound.
  • Allow the monotonic droning to resonate in the chest and head cavities.​​


Why are there zendo protocols?  What are they?
Group sittings are done in silence with eyes lowered as aids to concentration and inward-looking.  Having guidelines to follow lets each of us apply ourselves wholeheartedly to our own practice while harmonizing with others.  In short, protocols help establish an atmosphere most conducive to Zen practice for everyone.  We know there are a lot of guidelines to remember so don't worry if you make mistakes.   

  • It is best to wear subdued attire.  Some are sensitive to visual stimulation especially during zazen.  Tank tops, revealing clothing, and bright or patterned clothes can be eye-catching. The same is true for white or bright socks.
  • If you want to receive the encouragement stick, do not wear a top that bunches at the neck, such as a hoodie, or one that leaves the shoulders near the neck bare.  Also remove dangling earrings and wear long hair up.
  • Please don't wear shorts, short skirts, or anything else that lets zazen equipment contact bare skin.  Skin oil, sweat, and body salts soil cushions and mats.  
  • Some are sensitive to strong odors especially during zazen.  Avoid wearing perfume, aftershave, and scented shampoos, oils, lotions, and powders. 
  • Remove shoes and place them in the designated area.  It's fine to wear socks in the zendo.   
  • Short, quiet conversations can occur in the entry area.  At the 5-minute warning, observe silence and take a seat in the zendo. 
  • Maintain silence and stillness in and around the zendo.  Silence cell phones, alarms, and other noise-makers. 
  • To keep the zendo uncluttered, please don't take personal items to your seat (eyeglasses are o.k.).  Lock valuables out of sight in your car.  Also bring or dress in layers.  No blankets, shawls, wraps, coats, hats, or gloves are worn in the zendo.
  • ​When entering and leaving the zendo (except during kinhin) do a standing bow towards the altar with hands palm-to-palm.  Hands are in kinhin position when walking around the zendo.
  • ​Avoid scattering your attention.  Keep the eyes lowered in the zendo.  Unless your zendo job requires it, there's no need to wear a watch.
  • Prevent collisions by moving clockwise (turning right) when mounting and dismounting your zendo seat.
  • There's no moving during meditation – don’t scratch, fidget, or change positions.  It's distracting to your practice.
  • Maintain a zazen posture for teisho and Dharma talks, but it’s o.k. to quietly and unobtrusively change positions when needed. 
  • ​To keep from spreading germs in the close quarters of the zendo, cover your mouth with the crook of your elbow when coughing or sneezing.  If the nose is really running, it’s o.k. to wipe discreetly and infrequently, but don't blow your nose in the zendo. 
  • If feeling faint during a sitting, put your head down between your knees.
  • If the legs are numb when getting up from zazen, don’t try to stand.  You could really hurt yourself!  Just remain seated and bow with everyone at the bells.  Stay facing the wall and rub the legs to wake them.  Please don’t obstruct others by sitting or standing turned part-way around.​​