Last week, Catherine and I talked about etiquette in a Chinese Buddhist temple. Over the years, I’ve found that etiquette is a source of both anxiety and annoyance to newcomers—after all, it isn’t easy and unavoidably leads to many, many mistakes. It is a process that all of us go through in Buddhism, and despite struggling with it and feeling the same heart-pounding anxiety as everybody else when I first started, I’ve come to appreciate what it’s taught me.
Reflecting on the process of learning etiquette—some of which is rather arbitrary and seemingly pointless at first—there are a few points I think are especially important to mention.
First, learning etiquette is a very good equalizer in Buddhism. No matter what background you come from, everybody is humbled and returned to being a complete beginner when learning etiquette. While uncomfortable, I find that it is a necessary jolt to our prescribed patterns of living and the habits that we’ve grown so accustomed to. I remember when I attended one of my first retreats, one of my classmates grew incredibly frustrated at how we had to line up and walk in an orderly manner at all times—he was used to walking freely, and not being able to do so led to afflictions.
What’s important is realizing these afflictions and observing them. In my experience in retreats, participants will often blame the rules and etiquette for their discomfort without thinking about the underlying causes of their feelings. It’s not that the etiquette is causing us discomfort, but rather that we’ve grown so used to our ways that anything outside of what we’re used to is a disturbance. And so, etiquette helps us start from scratch and identify each and every thing that we’re attached to. From the way we wake up in the morning, the way we dress, the way we brush our teeth, drink water, and eat our meals up to the way that we stand, walk, sit, and sleep—these seemingly arbitrary rules are constantly with us.
While sometimes arbitrary, they give us points that we can be mindful of. During meals, the soup bowl and rice bowl could be reversed for a session or two and the world would keep spinning, but the temple has it set a certain way, so we follow it and take it as a point of mindfulness. When we notice that we’ve strayed from proper etiquette, we can use that opportunity to remind ourselves and bring our focus back to the present. On the same note, etiquette provides an external manifestation of our practice. After staffing for a few retreats, I realized that it was very easy to tell which participants were alert and mindful just by looking at their posture. I knew which ones were distracted just by how they ate their food. And so, when at the temple, it’s crucial to make use of the opportunity to practice etiquette.
Lastly, it’s especially important to remember that as students, we learn these points to transform ourselves—not to judge others. We use these standards to set expectations for ourselves, not to belittle others for their mistakes. In retreats, there is always a discipline officer—it’s best to just leave the instructions to them and simply focus on our own practice. Especially because when we’re learning, there’s often misinformation among participants (or usually rules that we happen to make up on our own). Either way, there’s one person who decides the proper etiquette for the retreat, and as participants, it’s not one of us.
It is extremely dangerous to get into a mindset of using etiquette to pass judgment on others because it blinds us. When we are obsessed with how others are doing, we forget about our own conduct. The same goes for becoming arrogant when we see others make mistakes. Sure, it might make us feel better about ourselves, but to have such thoughts tricks us into thinking that we’re “good enough” and that there’s not as much urgency to continue improving, even though we’ve barely begun our journey on the path to awakening. Instead, it’s much more helpful to give rise to understanding when seeing others make mistakes—we’ve likely done the same thing at one point. It’s also helpful to use the opportunity to remind ourselves to not make the same error.
And so, I hope that this makes Buddhist etiquette less intimidating and less confusing. While uncomfortable at first, it is very helpful in practice, and I hope that more people can benefit from engaging with the Dharma through this sort of hands-on experience.