Monday, September 19, 2011

Just 'Help!'

It’s a difficult point. 

For being a notoriously non-theistic religion[1] Buddhism involves a surprising amount of prayer. True, some schools/sects/traditions call it ‘chanting’ or 'mantras' or ‘reciting the sutras’ or even ‘making wishes’ but, hey, if it quacks like a duck… 

It’s too easy to write all that off as mere cultural luggage or be jokey about it[2]. But in the end Buddhism tends to be practical first, theoretical later. There must be some real point to it, right?

Dosho Port at Wild Fox Zen recounts an illuminating discussion between himself and his teacher, Dainin Katagiri[3]:
“Before you think who you are, you are you,’ means you are exactly the universe, exactly, harmoniously intimate, no gap between. You must jump the gap between you and universe.”

“How can I jump the gap?”

“With prayer.”

“I am to use prayer to go beyond self-consciousness?” I asked.

I had left Catholicism and the reliance for salvation on any power outside of “me” years before and thought that the essence of Zen practice was not to rely on God or anybody.

“Yes, of course,” Roshi continued, “always you are thinking, observing, calculating. This is ego. Your ego is calculating how to go beyond ego. But ego cannot go beyond ego, always holding tightly to something.”

“So I should pray?”

"Yes,” Roshi began to smile. “You know the story of the octopus. Japanese fishermen in old days would catch the octopus by throwing a chicken neck tied to a line into the sea. Then octopus would come and grab the chicken neck and fishermen would pull a little bit. The octopus holds on tighter. The fishermen pull more and the octopus holds on tighter.Finally, the octopus is hauled onto the fishing boat. But fishermen don’t use any hooks. From the beginning the octopus is free. Let go any time, anyway.”

"Okay. So I am like the octopus and I should pray. But Roshi, if there is nothing outside, no gap between me and the universe, to whom should I pray?”

"‘Pray’ means just pray. No object there. Just ‘Help!’”

So, maybe I should just come out and own up to being the praying kind. 

There’s not a session of practice I don’t start with the nigh incomprehensible 7 Line Invocation of Guru Rinpoche. There’s not a session I don’t end with profuse dedication prayers[4]. But really, if there was just one prayer I could say, one prayer I could share with everyone I met, one prayer I could print on business cards and hand out to random strangers[5], it would be this:

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from true happiness that is free from suffering.
May they have equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.[6]

Just say that. My mind not occupied with anything else. Not wandering off to the past or the future. Just letting attention quietly rest on the words and their meaning. Just pray. 

There’s an interesting inversion going on here, I feel. Growing up in an atheist household, I thought of prayer as basically like asking Santa[7] for a pony, minus the tinsel and plus the incense. I ask, Thou listent. But in prayer like this it’s me, such as it is, listening and everything asking. Listen closely and not a thing does not cry out for either pain or joy.

I can't teach myself the truth of selflessness. But, if I listen, all things can. 

"Just ‘Help!’", Katagiri Roshi says.

Who does the helping?

image: beach in Harlingen, last weekend, when we went 
to scatter my grandmother's ashes in the Wadden Sea.

[1] Whatever that may mean.
[2] However instructive this may be. I heard one anecdote where a teacher in a Tibetan tradition instructed his students to pray as loudly as they liked. “There’s no one listening!” Nice one, Lama.
[3] Which apparently also appears in the book Keep Me In Your Heart Awhile.
[4] For example:
Through this merit, may all beings attain the omniscient state of enlightenment,
And conquer the enemy of faults and delusion.
May they all be liberated from this ocean of samsara
And from its pounding waves of birth, old age, sickness and death!
[5] Which I just might do, come to think of it.
[6] It’s called “The Four Immeasurables” because the four lines arouse immeasurable, unbounded feelings: love, compassion, sympathetic joy and impartiality respectively. Read Words of My Perfect Teacher to really learn about them.
[7] Or rather Sinterklaas, in my case.

1 comment:

  1. Although I am a Buddhist, the rest of my family are strict Baptists. I recently wrote this poem with them in mind. I think they would be upset by its' message, so in the interest of familial peace, I have not posted it on my blog where they might see it.

    Dear ones,
    Don't be upset
    When I say this,
    But when we are praying,
    We are talking
    To ourselves.

    Listen closely!

    Of course, even if one believes there is a deity listening in, one is still talking to one's self in prayer. If we listen closely to our prayer we will see a truly intimate view of ourselves and see what is central to ourseleves, it is this most close to the heart which we would convey to One Most High.

    I found your site via Dosho Port's. I really like your photographs on the SO/UI section!

    David Clark