What To Expect

What To Expect: An Introduction to Zen Buddhist Forms on Zoom

If you are new to Zen practice, please do not worry about memorizing these forms. You can just follow along when you join us, and the service leaders will provide guidance as needed.

Entering and Leaving the Zendo

When we enter the room in which we will be practicing via zoom, we pause at the door and bow with hands in gassho (toward an altar if you have one). Gassho position is hands palm to palm and fingers together; we bow from the waist. We then go to our places and bow to our cushions or chair, then open our zoom room and bow to the community once we’ve been admitted. After we’ve greeted each other, we transition into a more mindful presence together in our own home spaces with guidance from a service leader, and take care to ensure that we’ve muted our microphone. During that time, the service leader who will lead the chanting will light incense and perform three full prostrations (see below) to the altar, after which they will start the service.  

Chanting During Sutra Service

During chanting, if we know the chant, we leave the liturgy book at our sides on the zabuton cushion. If we don’t know the chant, we hold the book in front of us so that our posture stays upright without lowering our heads to look down. The hand position for holding the liturgy book is indicated by a symbol at the beginning of each chant for either gassho (palms together) with the book between our thumbs and index fingers, or hands open with our thumbs and pinkies on the inside of the book and the three middle fingers on the outside like a music stand. You can look to the chant leader for demonstrations of these postures during the service. We avoid placing the liturgy book on the floor.

Walking Meditation (Kinhin)

When the sutra service ends, the clapper sounds twice to indicate that we should bow and come to standing. Then, at the sound of the clappers, we bow again and bring our hands into the kinhin position (shashu) with the left hand held in a gentle fist at the lower ribs and the right hand covering it lightly.  We then walk at a steady pace, preferably in a roughly circular pattern, for a few minutes, paying attention to our shifting weight, our footfalls refinding our balance, and our body moving through the room. When the clappers sound again, we bring our hands into gassho and walk quickly back to our places. At the next sound of the clappers, we bow to each other and then turn (in the direction of the altar) and bow to our seats before sitting for zazen.

Sitting Meditation (Zazen)

Zazen begins with the sound of the clappers and then three bells. From the moment we take our seats until the sound of the third bell fades, we can move to adjust our posture. After that, we sit in stillness.

For zazen, we sit in an upright and dignified posture with eyes slightly open and unfocused on a spot on the floor or wall in front of us. Whether we sit on a chair, a cushion, or a kneeling bench (seiza), we create a three-pointed foundation with our bodies. On a chair, both feet are flat and the third point is our buttocks on the chair bottom. We don’t lean back in the chair, but sit gently upright. On a cushion or seiza bench, our knees are on the rectangular floor mat (zabuton) and our buttocks are on the edge of the cushion or are supported by the bench. Our hands form the “cosmic mudra” – left hand resting palm upward on top of the right hand with the thumbs forming an oval shape, the tips of the thumbs lightly touching. We can adapt any of these postures to fit the needs of our bodies, including adjusting hand positions or adding extra cushions to support the knees or for the back against a chair.

During zazen we maintain stillness. We don’t move, yawn, sigh, stretch, scratch, or look around. We do not leave the zendo unless there is an emergency or a risk of injury, in which case we can adjust our posture or move to a chair, then maintain stillness again. (If our movement will last for more than a moment or would otherwise be visually disruptive to the others in the sangha, we turn off our camera and turn it back on when we’ve regained a still posture.) If we find ourselves slumping or falling asleep, we sit up straight again. If we cough or sneeze involuntarily, we lift our elbow or a tissue to cover our nose and mouth.


After a single bell at the end of the final sitting period, we bow but stay seated to chant “The Four Bodhisattva Vows,” after which there will be one bell, indicating another seated bow, then two bells indicating that we should rise. We come to standing and face the altar to do 3 standing bows or full prostrations, depending on our physical capabilities. Bells indicate when to bow.

To begin a full prostration, we bow in gassho and then, without moving our feet, come down to our knees. Our forehead and forearms are brought to the floor with hands resting palm up. Then we lift our arms from the elbows so that the hands rise up and then lower.  Then we come back to standing with our hands in gassho.

Individual Meetings (Dokusan)

Once a month, we offer individual meetings with teachers (dokusan) using a private breakout zoom room. Interviews are strongly encouraged, and the service leader will invite the sangha to indicate their interest prior to the start of dokusan. When it is our turn, a pop-up window will appear with the invitation into the dokusan breakout room. 

When we arrive at the dokusan room, we do one bow, say our name, and state our meditation practice (for example, breath, shikantaza, or koan practice), even if we have met the teacher a hundred times before. Dokusan is intended to be brief and entirely focused on our practice. The teacher signals the end of the meeting by bowing, and we return this bow. Then we return to the main zoom zendo by leaving the breakout room (and not the meeting itself). Returning to our places, we settle back into our zazen posture.

Be Gentle with Yourself

Please don’t worry about making mistakes as you learn the forms. The key is paying attention to our sangha and following along as best we can. This very attention is a form of practice in and of itself. Remember that Zen practice is not about right and wrong. Our together-practice creates a container that allows us to discover freedom within this human form.