Tag Archives: ritual

Boundless Sacred Spaces

During the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni, ceremonial space was defined by nothing more than four stones. Once placed and ritualized, the stones described a sacred space called a sīmā. It was a place in which the actions of the monks were considered not just valid, but also resonant with something much greater than them. This makes sense intuitively, because of the monks’ practice of wandering to collect alms and to teach. They needed to be able to create a sacred space without having to construct a building.

Ryoanji Zen garden in Kyoto

Ryoanji Zen garden in Kyoto

However, this practice is also a teaching about the role of intention. It is an example of the way in which the life of the Buddha is a role model for each person’s ability to set an intention that is in accord with the Dharmakaya, the function of perfection in all things. For me it seems that the Buddha knew that our experience of the world, when fully met with the body and mind, could resonate with so much more. That is why he gave the injunction not to simply believe his teaching, but to live it.

Thus, though we may be pushed and pulled by our karma and by the barrage of thoughts and feelings present in everyday life, each one of us is also an aspect of the function of perfection. Therefore, we are truly much more than we can possibly know. Discovering our ability to abide in this experience is the practice of a lifetime, and it can only be found by living it. Study is very helpful, but by itself cannot lead to the ultimate, just as reading a menu will not satisfy your hunger.

Recently I was asked to participate in an inter-faith panel discussion on creating sacred spaces. I began by talking a bit about the sīmā, and about the Buddhist understanding of body and mind as completely interpenetrating. To use Zen parlance, body and mind are not one, not two. They are not identical to each other, and yet they are completely inseparable. Extending it a bit further, this is also true of the relationship between us and our environment. That is, we are profoundly influenced by our environment, and we are profoundly influencing it. Extending this even further,  our environment is interacting with its environment, in ever larger and larger circles until the entire universe is included in each activity of a mundane life.

Image of the Moon, NASA, April 26, 2015 photo of the day

Image of the Moon, NASA, April 26, 2015 photo

 

From this vantage point, it is easy to see why Bodhidharma told Emperor Wu that there was nothing holy about building temples and supporting the Dharma. (See the second koan in the Book of Serenity for more on this.) If everything is interacting with everything else then, from the perspective of the absolute, one thing is not more important than another.

However,  we should not understand this to mean that there is no such thing as a sacred space. We should not confuse the absolute perspective with the relative perspective. We should not fall into thinking that one trumps the other. In fact, it is because this absolute teaching is true that any space can be made sacred by our intention to enact wisdom and compassion. That is to say, since we are part of the function of the Dharmakaya then we can invoke it with our practice, with our intention, with our bodies and voices and candles and incense. We can invoke it with a bow. We can invoke it by including the stones in our ritual.

Examining it from another perspective,  since we are beings with an inherent connection to the Daharmakaya, we can feel the resonance. It’s as if each one of us is a radio, and there is a signal being sent throughout the universe. If you can receive it, then you must be a part of the system.When you receive it, you demonstrate that you are part of the system. Have you ever felt the sacredness of place –  a temple, a church, a zendo, a mosque, a sutra, a scripture? You received the signal. It is a temporal arising of resonance due to the expression of intention, due to the expression of wisdom and compassion.

V838 c. NASA

V838 c. NASA

And that’s where it gets interesting, because it means that our ability to invoke the Dharmakaya in the world begins with invoking it in ourselves. It means that the sacred space starts from within this body and mind, when we set ourselves on the path of following through on our intention to experience the Dharmakaya. So the most important thing we can do in order to create sacred spaces is to find the sacred space within us, the part of us that wants to receive the signal, the part of us that knows there is more to life than meets the eye.

Speaking to this phenomenon in his fascicle on “Awakening the Unsurpassed Mind,” Dogen teaches,

Therefore the present building of shrines, fashioning of Buddhas, and so on, is indeed awakening the mind for enlightenment. It is awakening the mind to directly arrive at attainment of Buddhahood, and is not to be destroyed along the way. This is considered unfabricated virtue; this is considered unmade virtue. This is observation of true suchness; this is observation of the nature of things; this is absorption in the assembly of Buddhas; this is attaining the mental command of the Buddhas. This is the mind of supreme perfect enlightenment; this is the function of sainthood; this is manifestation of Buddha. Outside of this, there is nothing unfabricated, unmade.

So I encourage you to find the sacred spaces within, and to bring them into expression in the world because the world needs sacred spaces. And please find the sacred spaces in the world that resonate with the sacred spaces within you, because that’s what they are meant to do. We all need to find our sacred spaces.

 

 

 

 

 

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Busy, Not Busy

This post is especially for the many readers who live outside the San Francisco Bay area, though some locals may also be interested.

Hartford Street Zen Center

Hartford Street Zen Center

In June I gave a Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center on the “One Who is Very Busy.” Deep bows of gratitude to Reverend Myo and the sangha for inviting me to speak, and for being such an attentive audience. If you would like to hear the talk, it’s on their podcast page.

Bodhisattvas Fall Down Too

The Zen Ritual class has been meeting at SFZC City Center, each time studying a short verse from one of the many ceremonies that are traditional in Western Zen. Delving into the words we use to express our understanding and our intention, we find our particular places of connection, our points of entry to the gates of practice. For me this study of ritual has also helped to breathe new life into the forms, brightening the realm in which these activities take place, providing a context that resounds with meaning.

Week two we spoke about the Bodhisattva vows. Here they are again:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Thus, we can take the Bodhisattva vows as an expression of our intention to awaken ourselves and others to the truths inherent in all things. We can take the vows with the intention to see through our mistaken ideas and meet the incomparable uniqueness of each person and thing.

This is a big commitment. You might have a motivation to become a better person and to have a positive impact on the world, but that can easily slip into  just another goal for the striving ego. If you find yourself criticizing your own efforts to help, or those you are helping, you might ask yourself whether your good intentions have been channeled into striving for control. To really take up these vows skillfully you have to recognize that the inner world and the outer world are completely interpenetrating. That is, the world influences you, so you can influence the world. You don’t discount others’ ability to respond or your own ability to respond. You recognize that they work together.

Portrait of Lingzhao courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery online

Portrait of Lingzhao courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery online

I mentioned one of the stories of Lingzhao as an example of just this sort of view. Lingzhao was the daughter of a family of 9th Century Chinese lay practitioners who were deeply respected.

One day she and her father, Layman Pang, were walking along when he tripped and fell. Seeing this, Lingzhao threw herself on the ground next to him. When he asked what she was doing, she said, “I saw you fall down, so I’m helping.” This is truly Bodhisattva activity, meeting the one you are helping and seeing the world from their perspective. This is to literally level the playing field, eliminating any sense of hierarchy between helper and helped. In “the Hidden Lamp,” Joan Sutherland deftly refers to this as action “to help liberate the intimacy already inherent in any situation.” Once intimate with the moment, and the people and things in it, one can respond skillfully. Skillfulness arises as the result of not being blind to specific karmic conditions or to the vast interconnectedness they create.

Of course this does not mean that you have to become completely like the others in your life that need help. So, for example, you can’t help an alcoholic friend by becoming alcoholic yourself or enabling their alcoholism. Still, until you really make an effort to see their point of view and understand what makes them just as human as you, it’s not possible to offer a helpful response.

layman pang

Layman Pang courtesy of elephantjournal

The story continues with Layman Pang’s reply to Lingzhao, which was, “It’s a good thing no one was looking.” Be careful not to fall into thinking that this is an expression of shame. The father is pointing toward the egolessness of his daughter’s response. The “no one” who is looking doesn’t get in the way of enlightened activity, doesn’t set up a separation, doesn’t need to be superior in order to offer aid. Feel free to get covered in dust! Then you can stand upright together.

Taking the Boddhisattva vows, we are promising to fall down and get up with everyone.

Zazen as Ritual

Sometimes it seems as though the Zen tradition is of many minds about the value of ritual. On the one hand, ritual can be seen as lifeless and formulaic, failing to express the immediacy of any instant or its true essence. It is criticized as rote activity that is lacking in any vitality, and fails to produce any insight. On the other hand, Zen is a tradition embraces ritual as a completely indispensable aspect of life, integral to even the most mundane of daily activities, and full of abstract expression. How can we understand this apparent dichotomy?

This question reminds me of the koan of Master Gutei and the boy. In Case 19 of the Blue Cliff Record, the commentary mentions an episode in which Master Gutei speaks with a young boy. The boy tells the Master that he’d held up one finger in response to a question about the Master’s teaching. The boy was simply making the same gesture for which Gutei was known, and which Gutei had learned from his own Master. Yet seeing the boy imitating him, the Master cut off the boy’s finger. What is the difference between the two? For me, this case points to the question of authenticity in practice. It reminds me that it is not enough to simply repeat the actions of the Ancestors; I must find a way to make the teaching and its expression as unique as I am.

Thus, although ritual is usually defined as activity done repeatedly and in a prescribed fashion, and religious ritual usually adds a layer of symbolism, the Zen teaching is that both are always present. You don’t need religion in order to add symbolic meaning, because the symbolic is always inherent in the mundane. This is the meaning of the phrase “practice and enlightenment are one.”

Still, it’s necessary to conduct our lives in a way that expresses this understanding; so we practice the ritual of zazen. “Sitting zazen” sees the impermanence and interconnection of life amidst stillness and amidst busyness. “Walking zazen” sees the impermanence and interconnection of life amidst movement and amidst peace. You can only know this by experiencing it. No matter how many times you read about zazen, or hear about zazen, or see people doing zazen, until you actually sit or walk zazen, you won’t know what it is. This is true of all ritual, and I believe that people know this intuitively. As Isadora Duncan, the famous and infamous American dancer once said,

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan

“No, I can’t explain the dance to you. If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

So talking about (and reading about) ritual gives you some context, yet you know that it’s true meaning is in the lived experience. This particular body and mind can’t find the expression without performing the ritual. Performing the ritual, this body and mind can realize that it has always been expressing the impermanence, expressing the peace, expressing the many, expressing the one.

We play the instruments. We chant the chants. We dance the dance.

courtyard altar

 

 

Zen Ritual: A Practitioner’s Perspective of the Expressions of Forms

This summer I will be offering a class, at San Francisco Zen Center, that will look at the ways in which each one of us can connect at a profound, personal level with the ceremonies and activities of Zen. It means looking at formal practice from the place of our personal dharma position. That is, the class is about the ways in which ritual relates to us — individually, in community, and from the standpoint of the absolute. So we’ll look at a number of ceremonies over the course of five classes, and talk about these layers of experience and how they deeply inform our practice.
zen_priest
One example of a ritual that we’ll study is the Bodhisattva Vows, which are said at the end of Saturday morning lecture and during the Full Moon ceremony. A typical translation of these vows is:
Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
We can start to take these vows with the idea of being more skillful in the world, with the support of and engagement with our fellow practitioners. Yet, we can really only take these vows seriously if we understand ourselves as interconnected with all things. So we’ll read a chapter from Shohaku Okumura Roshi’s book, “Living by Vow” in which he writes:

“We cannot be proud of our practice, and we don’t need to be too humble about our lack of practice or understanding. We are just as we are. Our practice is to take one more step toward the infinite, the absolute, moment by moment one step at a time.”

I would add that we are already completely within the infinite in each moment, even though we might feel that we are stepping closer to it. So this is the way in which we will take up the study of ritual this summer. I plan to write a blog entry during each of the five weeks of class, beginning the week of June 23rd, and I hope to hear from each of you about the ways in which you engage with ceremony in your own lives.

Is it a parade?

Today we walked over to the park carrying parasols festooned with paper streamers and bamboo poles decorated with colorful balloons. It was part of the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday, also known as Vesakha. One aspect of my job this week had been to prepare these decorations, in the way it’s been done for quite a few years here. I enjoyed it, feeling childlike when a tiny balloon wouldn’t fill with air or a streamer would wrap itself around my ankle.

But as we walked, sprinkling flowers on the ground and circling the small City park while chanting about emptiness, I thought that it could be a scene out of Bhutan, or Nepal, or India. So the question arose, what is this practice? What is it that makes this activity transformative? Is this an activity of awakening?

It could be as simple as showing gratitude that Prince Siddhartha was born 2575 years ago, chose to take up the life of a spiritual seeker, and sat in meditation until he discovered something truly new about life. Or it could be as simple as giving ordinary people the opportunity to find themselves involved in practice in a way that doesn’t require them to confront a blank wall, literally or figuratively. But it can also take on another dimension.

It takes a lot of people to pull off even something as simple as walking across the street, offering incense and a chant, and walking back. Studying the responses that arise: one person sweating and barking orders; one person with furrowed brow who irritably brushed off the flower petals that were gently placed on them; one person who stood still and smiled at the 100 or so people who walked and chanted and bathed the baby Buddha statue (as is the typical ritual); one person who directed people’s movements seemingly quite concerned with the efficiency of the proceedings. Afterward, working together to set up and take down the ritual items, and eating the birthday cake, we talked about what it was like.

Aha. Those who understood their viewpoints to be simply expressions of preference found there was less “stickiness” to their feelings. That is, if you are aware of your feeling about the procession ~~ irritated about the chaos or blissful but detached ~~ and aware that your feeling is a conditioned response, in the most fundamental sense of the phrase, then you don’t have to put a lot of stock in it. You don’t have to explore it and explain it and attach some judgement and some protagonist/antagonist story to it. It can simply be what it was and be done (or be done differently next time). But if you choose to take it up as truth, then it becomes another reinforcement of the conditioning, giving you the “I told you so” reaction. Which do you prefer?

ImagePhoto: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters