Formal Practice: Buddhist or Christian
Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 63-76
In this paper, I write from a Mahayana perspective and take up seven Buddhist practices and the views that bring them into being, together with Christian practices that may be analogous, in turn with their inspiration. The Buddhist practices sometimes tend to blend and take on another's attributes and functions. I name them according to their usage in Western Buddhism.
The Nembutsu invokes Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life and the Lord of the Pure Land, a powerful savior by dint of vows he took while still in his Bodhisattva Dharmakara incarnation. He is venerated across Asia—in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Chinese diaspora. The Nembutsu formula, "Namu amida butsu," or the equivalent in the other languages ("Veneration to 'Amida Butsu'"), is repeated devotionally, bringing promise of a joyous afterlife, and for some, intimacy with Amida, the spiritual oyasama, or parent, an effect not unlike that of Christian mysticism. 1 The Myokonin (Pure and Happy People), the Pure Land movement of Japanese who take it upon themselves to practice the Nembutsu moment-to-moment, set forth their experience in artless poetry that is poignant and metaphysically clear:
Interior repetition of the Nembutsu hundreds of times a day brings the fulfilling gift of spiritual intimacy with the oya, and the Christian analoy is clearly the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," or its shortened version, "Lord have mercy" ("Kyrie eleison"). 3 Yet there is more than a shade of difference between devotion to a savior empowered by his original vows for his all-embracing compassion, and devotion to the one who inherits the power of an omnipotent God. In the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, "God is almighty. His power has equaled His will; and so He can do everything that pleases him. The less I understand this, the more I believe it and the greater the devotion it arouses in me. Blessed is He forever! Amen." 4The Ekomon
In contrast to the Nembutsu, the ekomon is not an appeal for redemption but a return of the "auspicious power" (J. fukutoku, Ch. fu-tu, Skt. punya) of the sutra or sutras just recited to Buddhist ancestors and archetypal entities. Contemporary personages may also be beneficiaries. The auspicious power of those reciting the ekomon, accumulated through virtuous deeds, is also returned by the recitation. The classical sutta does not close with an ekomon, but with an account of how well the Buddha's words were received by his disciples. The form emerges with the appearance of commentaries, such as Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara, which has a lengthy ekomon that extends the merit he accumulated by composing his book to the afflicted and endangered of the world: "Through my merit may those in any of the directions find oceans of happiness and delight. . . ." 5 In contemporary usage the ekomon is tailored to the sutras it follows, and is often varied to fit the circumstances. In the Diamond Sangha, the ceremony of accepting the Buddhist precepts ends with an ekomon that evokes both kinds of auspicious power—from sutras, and from the sangha—in this case, after a sesshin or retreat:
Metta then is directed to those near and dear—may they be free from danger, and so on—then to those about whom one feels neutral, then to enemies, and so on to all beings. Under the guidance of a seasoned teacher, the resistance one feels to this compassionate practice is faced squarely and allowed to wither and disappear. This way of metta is the first of the Four Noble Abodes of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In the Theravada view, metta is the ground of the Noble Abodes, 9 as contrasted with the Zen view, which would probably name equanimity the ground. 10 In practice metta is another Buddhist devotion that is like the prayer for friends far and near in Roman Catholic mass, except that it begins with compassionate self-affirmation. The mainstream Catholic view that gives rise to "mea culpa" releases personal power to God. Yet outside this convention, self-affirmation is found in Liberation Theology, which empowers the oppressed with the realization that Jesus was a man of the poor, 11 and is also found in the preaching of Meister Eckhart and his heirs: "People think God has only become a human being there, in his historical incarnation—but that is not so, for God is here, in this very place—just as much incarnate a human being as long ago. And this is why he has become incarnate as a human being: that he might give birth to you as his only begotten Son, and no less." 12 Some Mahayana ekomon appeal to other powers, and of special interest to this study is the memorial that freely reifies archetypal entities, after the manner of Vajrayana Buddhism. Here is a portion of the memorial ekomon used by the Rochester Zen Center and its legatees:
Other Zen centers have memorials that are similar in spirit. Glenn H. Mullin makes the interesting point that ekomon(which he calls "prayers") do not have a central place in Mahayana practice (the August Title changed by Myohoji monks would be an exception). Moreover, they are recited "tongue in cheek," with the consciousness that the person reciting the ekomon, the ekomonitself, and the act of reciting it—all lack self-nature, inherent value, and status, 14 not to mention soul and afterlife. And, of course, there is no authority up there to lend a hand. "Tongue in cheek" is perhaps not quite the appropriate expression. The appeal to other powers, whether in some ekomon or in the Nembutsu, acknowledges the lack of fortitude one feels on facing the heroic path of self-realization, 15 or on facing the inexorable inevitability of illness, old age, and death. However, by all accounts the Buddha Shakyamuni attained realization on his own and reached an altogether good-humored accommodation with the facts of life and death. Subsequent literature bristles with succeeding champions of his Way. Pure Land practices and the ekomon, which appeal to other powers, are also subsequent developments. They appeal to the psyche that finds a home in Christianity as well, with its promises of hope and eternal life. Similarly but not identically, the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, recited daily as a separate sutra in Zen monasteries in Japan, enumerates the powers of Kanzeon (Ch. Kuan-shih-yin, Skt. Avalokiteshvara) to save petitioners from tribulations and disasters in this world and to fulfill their desires. By calling out "Namu kanzeon bosatsu" a victim of torture will be delivered; a prisoner, whether guilty or not guilty of a crime, will be freed; a merchant transporting valuable commodities will be protected from robbers; a woman may choose to have a male or a female child; and so on. 16 This sutra, however, like so many religious devotions, Buddhist and Christian alike, can be seen as a metaphor. The Zen student finds that Kanzeon is not an outside deity.Zazen
Zazen, the practice of focused meditation found in the Zen schools, is best judged by its fruits.
Kanzeon is commonly delineated with multiple arms and eyes by way of presenting her many skillful means to comfort and support. For the Zen student, she is not a denizen of another world, but the noble archetype of the pilgrim who has forgotten the self in the peak experience of the practice. By name she is the "One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World." The crow goes "caw-caw!" the sparrow goes "chirp-chirp!" The stone striking a stalk of bamboo went "tock!" for Hsiang-yen. 18 The drum for Wu-men's noon meal went "boom!" 19 Kanzeon's great compassionate power does not arise from her vows, but from her realization. She is the one who really perceives sounds. Body and mind drop away and there is only Tock! Boom! The metaphor expands to displays, tastes, sensations, and thoughts. The sole self disappears and the multicentered self manifests, large, containing multitudes. "Shakyamuni, seeing the morning star, attained realization and exclaimed, 'I and all beings have at this moment attained the Way.'" 20 To paraphrase Dogen Kigen: No trace of such realization remains, and this no-trace is continued endlessly 21 —as old Tao-wu stretches and yawns. The passage to such attainment, however, is rigorous. It is focused mediation straight through the void of the forgotten self, as "The Ten Oxherding Pictures" show vividly. 22 The Desert Fathers agree ("Apply yourself to silence"). 23 This is shikantaza, the act of pure sitting, which transcends yet includes the world of the sacred and profane. 24 Hotei (Ch. Pu-tai) can then appear in the city with his bag full of candy for the children, mingling with prostitutes and publicans and saving them all 25 —reminiscent of Desert Fathers, not to mention Sufi and Hasidist masters. Listen to the Desert:"A certain old man was asked, 'What is necessary to do in order to be saved?' The old man was making rope and, without looking up, he said, 'You are looking at it.'" 26The Vow
The vow is part of this same rigorous passage, and like many other Buddhist practices, tends to be grounded in first-person responsibility. The Four Bodhisattva Vows, traced to Chih-i, founder of the T'ien-t'ai tradition, are based line by line on the Four Noble Truths, and are recited in all Mahayana sanctuaries in slightly different wordings at the close of virtually all ceremonies:
Also essential to the Buddha Way are the Refuge Vows, the entry into commitment, rooted in earliest practice:
Though classically the first of the Refuge Vows refers to Gautama, 28 the Mahayana understanding, as explained by my teachers, would be finding my home in his realization. I find my home in the teaching as well, and in the kinship with pilgrims on the path. These Three Vows of Refuge, together with the Three Pure Precepts—to avoid all evil, practice all good, and save the many beings, derived from the Dhammapada, 29 and the Ten Grave Precepts (also derived from Classical Buddhism 30) form the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, the core of Jukai and ordination ceremonies in Mahayana schools. 31 Thus, unlike the ekomon, the vow has a central place in the Mahayana. In his study The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Sanskrit Literature, Har Dayal traces bodhichitta, the aspiration for enlightenment, developing in importance in the Mahayana to enlightenment, developing in importance in the Mahayana to formalization as pranidhana and the pronouncement of vows, to incorporation among the Ten Paramitas. 32 The Sixteen Bodhisattva Vows are ritualized, but informal expressions of determination also have an important place in Buddhist practice. The vows of the Buddha Shakyamuni not to leave his place under the Bodhi tree until he had achieved his purpose of realization are renewed in Zen monasteries by each novice, and are the central imperative of most Mahayana schools. 33 Similar expressions of determination are also found in the life stories of Christians, humble and famous. Brother Lawrence, for example, determined that he would practice the presence of God for the rest of his days, whether or not his anxieties were pacified. 34 The vows presented in the Pure Conduct Chapter of the Hua-yen ching(J. Kegon Kyo, Flower Ornament Sutra) are not ritualized but are specific to everyday situations. The Bodhisattva Manjushri is asked an elaborate, lengthy question about how Bodhisattvas can attain wisdom and compassion. He replies with 139 vows in gatha form that set forth occasions to follow the Buddha Way. 35 The first line of the gatha establishes the occasion, the second line presents the act of vowing, and the last two lines follow through with the specific conduct that one promises to undertake in the circumstances.
These gatha present actions that are potent with teaching. Often phenomena have the same vigorous function:
Skillful speech flows naturally from a serene mind. The pond and the act of bathing are among the myriad things that can advance and confirm the self in peak experience, and similarly they are teachers of religious practice. The ten thousand Tathagata come forth, sacred, as they are, to keep us on the path. I am reminded of the Desert Father Saint Anthony: "A certain philosopher asked St. Anthony: 'Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books?' Anthony replied, 'My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.'" 38 God the creator brings forth the ten thousand things to instruct us, but for the Zen Buddhist, at any rate, the created and the creator are one and the same. "The mind is the mountains, the rivers, and the great Earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars," as Dogen Kigen was fond of saying. 39 They teach us, and the fact that they teach us, teaches us. I have a friendly disagreement with Professor David Chappell, whose translation of the Four Bodhisattva Vows I cite above. He renders the third line, "The teachings are innumerable, I vow to master them all." In the Diamond Sangha, we chant, "Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them." The sweet piping of the linnet! The scent of the puakinikini! See the dolphins frolicking around the bow!
I do see Dr. Chappell's point, however. I trust that he sees mine. The role of the many beings to nurture and confirm the self is evinced also on takuhatsu (Ch. t'o-po, Skt. pindipata), the walk of monks through the town to accept dana of rice or money. Zen monks call out "Ho!" as they walk, but this, as head monks of Ryutaku Monastery explained to me, is not the "ho" of the Sino-Japanese for "dharma," but rather the first segment of hoben, "appropriate means" (Ch. feng-pien, Skt. upaya), in this case the ripening of chances to circulate the gift. "Ho!"is the reminder to townspeople that they too may turn the dharma wheel, and thus enable it to be turned further, and on around.Sange
The dharma wheel can also be turned with sange, or confession, a practice to be distinguished at the outset from Christian, particularly Roman Catholic, confession. 41 There is no original sin to be forgiven by God, but rather a shared realization of the essential purity of shunyata as the nature of all things. With this realization in peak experience, all the evil of the past is purified. This is mushosen (Ch. wu-sheng-chang),repentance on realizing the unborn—that all is pure from the beginning. 42 Buddhist literature does not give transgressors a circumscribed place after they are redeemed, as the moon was assigned by Dante in his Paradisoto priests and nuns who have broken their vows and forgiven. Rather, the Buddha Way is full redemption in the realization of the vacancy of karma and the purity of essential nature, and then renewed realization with renewed confession. 43 Here is the sange gatha that is part of every Rinzai and Soto Zen Buddhist sutra service, as recited in Diamond Sangha centers:
Dogen Kigen says, "If you repent in this way, you will surely have the assistance of the invisible Buddhas and ancestors." 45 Hee-Jin Kim comments, "These acts of repentance and confession are performed in the nondual context of the I who confesses and the Buddhas who receive the confession. . . . Ultimately one confesses, repents, and is forgiven in the non-dual purity of the self and Buddha." 46 The sange ceremony—in the simple form of repeating the gatha at daily sutra services, and in more elaborate form of repeating the gathaat daily sutra services, and in even more elaborate forms in full-moon ceremonies—is a reminder that the peak experience of realization and redemption must be sustained. Moreover, the process does not stop there. Public confession and repentance are classically a part of conflict resolution in the Buddhist community. See, for example, Thich Nhat Hanh's Old Path White Clouds, for the ceremony called Saptadhikarana-samantha, the Seven Practices of Reconciliation. 47Mudra and Dharani
Mudra and dharani are presentations fundamental to esoteric Buddhism—Shingon in Japan, and the Vajrayana of Tibet and Mongolia. Both are present in exoteric paths of Buddhism as well, though they usually function in supportive roles. A mudra is a "seal," authenticating and personalizing an aspect of realization and its dharma. E. Dale Saunders, in his seminal study Mudra, traces its beginnings back to the dramatic gestures of earliest dance. Hindu and then Buddhist iconography reflect its adoption in the hand positions and postures found in archetypal sculpture. In Shingon Buddhism, and in its antecedents in Vajrayana, the mudra itself is the practice, with directories listing as many as 295 positions, in two main categories, those presenting aspects of the kongokai(Ch. chin-kang-chiai, Skt. Vajradhatu), the diamond realm of enlightenment, and taizokai (Ch. t'ai-ts-ang-chai, Skt. garbhadhatu), the womb or matrix realm of fundamental wisdom, from which the kongokai arises. 48 The Gassho-in (Ch. ho-chang-yin, Skt. anjali mudra), hands held up palm to palm, is a universal Buddhist gesture of accord, veneration, and respect, and is found across the spectrum of world religions. In Christianity, the sign of the cross could be considered a mudra, as well as the ritualized gestures of the priest during mass. The hand position in zazen, the join (Ch. ting-yin, Skt. dhyana mudra), with the right hand over the left (sometimes reversed) and the thumbs touching, forms the "mystic triangle" that is found in earliest Indian Buddhist sculpture. Postures, or asana(J. za, Ch. tso), are bodily mudra, so to speak. The figure of the Buddha in meditation might first come to mind. With hands in join, the Zen student presents the Buddha himself or herself beneath the Bodhi tree. There are a large number of other postures in Zen and other Buddhist traditions, with leg and hand positions defining the variations. 49 Saunders does not include bows among mudra, but surely the standing bow and the prostration fit the category. Raihai (Ch. li-pai, Skt. namas-kara), the bow to the floor, is found throughout Buddhism, in Christian ordination, and in other world religions, with variations in leg positions and hand placement. Christian genuflection is a kind of abbreviated prostration. The Zen student is taught that in raihai one throws everything away. Pivoting the forearms on the elbows and raising the hands while prostrated is the act of raising the Buddha's feet above one's head. The dharani is the verbal seal of a rite, again found as a central practice in Shingon and Vajrayana, but also a seal of a sutra or a series of sutras in Zen and other Mahayana traditions. The briefer mantra, not distinguished from the dharaniin Far Eastern etymology, can also be a seal, or it may stand alone as a sacred formula. The Nembutsu, the Daimoku,the supplication to Kanzeon, and the call of monks on takuhatsucan be considered mantra. Like other dharani and some mantra, the closing words of the Heart Sutra are mostly bastard Sanskrit that nobody translates satisfactorily, in this case a kind of "Ode to Joy." Here is the Sino-Japanese, spaced to the beat of the sutra:
It is interesting that the Heart Sutra refers to itself as a dharani or mantra, recalling the identity of wisdom and words emphasized by Dogen Kigen and Meister Eckhart alike. 51 The Zen sutra service in the West has inherited dharani from Japan, including the "Shosai Myo Kichijo Darani," a short ode to Kichijo-ten (Skt. Lakshmi), incarnation of good fortune and merit. This is traditionally recited three times following the Heart Sutra "to remove disasters." Another, the "Daihi Shin Darani," dedicated to Kanzeon, the incarnation of mercy, is longer and is recited seven times. Like the "ode to joy" at the end of the Heart Sutra, these dharani are rationally almost meaningless incantations, and D. T. Suzuki's efforts to translate them, he admits, are problematic. 52 Nonetheless, they are meaningful to those who gather to recite them, simply, it seems, by the chanting itself. I feel that Gregorian chants, though straightforward in meaning, have something of dharani quality, and perhaps this was sensed by my teacher Nakagawa Soen Roshi, who spent many hours listening to them on recordings, though he had no understanding of the language. The short Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo, (Ten-Verse Kannon Sutra of Timeless Life), though readily translatable, also has a dharani-like quality. 53 In early Diamond Sangha days I offered a translation for recitation in lieu of the Sino-Japanese original, and it was shouted down after a trial of only a few days. There was just too much enchantment (sorry!) in the old rhythms.Sutras and Sutra Services
Sutra services in Buddhism, like Christian singing, can be deeply moving experiences. In the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, sutras are chanted in a profound monotone that requires special training, a practice that carries over into other esoteric Mahayana sects. Sutras in the exoteric sects in Japan are recited in a less profound monotone, and in all other Buddhist cultures they are rendered in a kind of plain song, with Korean and Burmese chants especially beautiful. Again the comparison to Gregorian chanting comes to mind—and Moslem chanting, Judaic chanting, Hindu chanting, traditional peoples' chanting across the world. Surely there is no religious practice more universal than vocalizing. Perhaps even more closely than Gregorian chants, the Buddhist sutra services are linked to the very founder of the religion, for they evoke the recitations of the Buddha's sermons of earliest times. Ananda, it is said, had perfect recall, and all sutras begin with his words "Thus have I heard," which prefaced his training of teachers at the first assembly of elders after the Buddha's death. For the next five hundred years, all sutras were transmitted orally. 54 Even today, the constant oral repetition of words —for example in the Heart Sutra:"Form is emptiness;/ emptiness is form"—in the context of related expressions of the teaching establishes a frame for realization of the Buddha's views. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy makes a strong case for illiteracy in the setting of a strong oral tradition, for the old words are deeply imprinted, like the poetry a grandmother reads to her little grandchildren. They are not merely words one reads on a printed page. 55 This internalizing enhances the religious course. Saint Augustine of Hippo said, "He who sings prays twice." 56 I would suggest also that those who chant as incantation "pray" more than once as well, and when the incantation aspect of singing or chanting is removed, many of the most religious feel deprived, as Catholic congregations felt to one degree or another when their services were converted from Latin—as my own students felt when the Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyowas translated. Moreover, the profound benefits of singing and chanting play themselves out in physical health and well-being, and indeed as research anecdotal evidence indicates, chanting, singing, and reciting aloud (and hearing this vocalizing) lie at the very well-springs of human integration and inspiration. 57Conclusion
I am sure there are other practices that are analogous in Buddhism and Christianity, but for our purposes, these seven seem to suffice. What, then, is my comparison? Most importantly, the presence of God sets the tone for Christian prayer, from the formulas of children and the assurances of Brother Lawrence to the plain but profound utterances of the Desert Fathers and the "blasphemy" of Meister Eckhart: "We pray God to rid us of 'God' so that we may grasp and enjoy the truth, where the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal." 58 God must guide us to the elimination of his concept, that all things might be seen in their equality. For Yuan-wu, however, the commentator on The Blue Cliff Record, it is with individual human realization that the many beings are seen in their glorious light, and the Buddhas, sages, and masters, not to mention God or "God," have no role whatever, and are, in fact, excluded: "If you turn upwards, then even Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and the myriad sages, together with all the masters in the world, all suck in their breaths and swallow their voices. If you turn downwards, worms and maggots and everything that crawls, all sentient beings, each and every one emits great shining light." 59 Thus, there is a huge difference. Teachers smile out at the audience at the conference of comparative religion. They have two nostrils each, two ears, one chin apiece, but their robes and their practices disclose their diversity. "Yes, but . . ." marks their discourse. Chacun á son goût.Notes
1. D. T. Suzuki, A Miscellany on the Shin
Teaching of Buddhism (Kyoto: Shinshu Otaniha Shumusho, 1949), pp. 71-91.