- Mountains And Waters
May 27, 2018
On Zen, religion, chanting, and wearing the robes
Six weeks ago I noticed that chanting the Dai Hi Shin Dharani is an action that reaches into the very structure of the universe. It DOES something. I started paying attention to this while chanting every morning. It began to feel like a gift, from me into the foundation of all being. I thought of this specifically about the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, long known as a magical chant to bring well-being, composed of ancient sounds that have no meaning in any modern language.
The Heart Sutra has a similar reputation, and I tried it out, chanting in Sino-Japanese with the thought that English words would distract my intention. It wasn’t so clear.
Then, yesterday, I read some words from Martin Prechtel, teacher of indigenous wisdom. He said that whenever you receive something from the gods, you must offer them something. Receiving something includes food, clothing, shelter – everything is received, and must be paid for. What humans have to offer is what we make ourselves. He particularly spoke of beauty, art, and song. And yesterday I went into the woods, forgetting my tobacco (which I offer instead of incense, for several reasons), and then wanted to make an offering. I remembered Martin’s words, and sang a song. I didn’t think, at that moment, of offering one of the Zen chants.
This morning I made sure I had offerings, the usual ones: flowers, the best water I’ve got (my only contribution is bringing it), and a candle flame. I did the usual morning service: three prostrations, the Heart Sutra in English, followed by its dedication to “every being and place,” and the Dai Hi Shin Dharani, with its long dedication to Buddhas, ancestors, spirits of many kinds, and then several lists of humans and nonhumans. I listened to the words and felt them as an offering. The English was a vehicle not an obstacle. My voice and meaning were directly a gift.
After chanting like this for over thirty years, finally I’m learning its meaning. And more. Religion, “to bind back,” means binding ourselves to what is sacred, to what is beyond cognitive understanding. Martin spoke of our offerings as payments to the gods. There are some things his people just don’t do because they’re too expensive – not materially but in terms of time, offerings, rituals – so they have no cars or cellphones. I intend to learn more about that sense of balance. Right now, it looks to me like this: Being in relationship involves giving and receiving. A relationship based on buying and selling, on exact exchange, is hollow – like most commercial transactions in the world where I live. A relationship based on unequal giving and receiving is an unequal relationship – appropriate perhaps for parent and child, but otherwise exploiting. A relationship with generous giving and joyful receiving, in both directions, is what we want. And that is the kind of relationship I want to have with the universe as a whole, and with all the people in it.Zazen also is an offering. I’ve said before that to sit zazen is to consciously participate in the great act of creating each other, all beings in the universe, that act which goes on with or without our knowledge. Now its quality as offering appears. I sit down, I offer myself, my whole self, to participate in the mutual co-creation – which is also my whole self.
AND – wearing the robe. Now I see more of why I wear the robe every morning for zazen and service. It acknowledges. It places this human body and mind into the sacred context, as one who offers. Remembering that the first time I wanted to wear the okesa was when I watched Katagiri Roshi bowing at the altar while we all chanted the names of the ancestors. That day, I could feel the energy flowing through his moving body toward the altar and up, out to the universe. That day, I wanted to take that place and let the energy flow through me.
That’s the difference between philosophy and religion. Relationship. Love. Gratitude. Offering. There is nothing but offering.