I recently revised a post about the death of a friend that I offered here a few years ago. One of the elements I added was a small section towards the end about the meaning of words in our prayers. How each syllable can be packed with wisdom, whether we recognize it or not.
You can read the entire article here, at the webzine Life as a Human, where I have a regular column.
Along the lines of prayer, this morning we began a two week meditation intensive at the Zen center. With about a dozen others, I woke up around 5 am and committed to sit with the sangha and study Dogen's "Bendowa" for the next two weeks. There's something prayer-like about this kind of commitment. It goes beyond the act of meditation, or chanting or bowing - all of which we did this morning, and will do during the rest of the period together. In fact, meaning itself isn't really an issue. Whether I know it or not, I am just there, breathing in and breathing out the life that comes.
What was interesting to me this morning is that part of me isn't so fond of the Bendowa. Being from the early period of Dogen's teaching, some of strikes me as excessively disparaging of other approaches to Buddhism. Such as the chanting focused schools of practice.
Kaspalita Thompson (no relation to me) offers beautiful insights into continuous chanting practice in this post.
What the continuous practice gave me then, and still gives me, is a deeper relationship with the practice of chanting the Buddha's name, and a deeper relationship with the Buddha. In the continuous practice you are turning yourself to the Buddha over and over again. Sometimes this happens consciously, but for me it's mostly unconscious. My thoughts wander far and wide but my voice keeps calling to the Buddha - and something sinks in. Something happens at the core of my being - I am pointed towards the light.
Sometimes this is blissful, sometimes it is painful (the light shows me how aching small and flawed I am), and sometimes I don't notice at all.
Sitting zazen with our group this morning felt similar to me. The repeated call back to Buddha occurring on the cushion. In each footstep during walking meditation. In each inhale between phrases while chanting.
Western Buddhists, frequently haunted by Judeo-Christian notions of prayer, often reject the word "prayer" and its attendant "faith." And with that rejection tends to go the actions themselves.
We struggle to live faith. To trust in the emergence before us, in each of us, and all around us.
Going back to Dogen's Bendowa, beyond the bluster and perhaps elitism present in some of the words, there's something else. An embodying of Buddha in form beyond form. I don't know if Dogen would agree with me or not, but as I see it, the repeated return to particular forms - zazen, chanting, bowing, etc. - are about maintaining right direction. In that we'd probably agree.
Perhaps the disagreement would be that I don't elevate one form over another. The dharma gate of continuous chanting of the nembutsu has the ability to re-turn a person to their buddhanature just as seated meditation does. A little differently, but the same as well.
In these modern days, filled with seemingly endless ways to loose one's direction, it strikes me that we'd be wise to have a wide tool box. To recognize that the long term rhythms of each our lives will probably call us to different forms to remedy our spinning, internal weather vanes. Even the devote of zazen, if awake to these rhythms, will practice slightly or greatly different forms of meditation, depending upon the nature of the misalignment.
I often walk the skyways of St. Paul during the winter months, offering metta to those rushing to their jobs, appointments, or meals while on break from work. In the warmer months, I do the Jizo Bodhisattva chant while riding my bicycle to and from various places.
As I left Sunday service this morning, I heard the birds in a nearby parking lot, and stopped. Stood still. Let the freezing cold air penetrate my coat, straight through to the bone. With it, the songs of every bird, and all of them together. Stoking the fires within. Warmth there in the cold.
What is practice anyway? Can you draw any hard and fast lines?
The house sparrows chant; I bow to myself.