|PRACTICE OF LITURGY AND PRECEPTS
Reflections on Liturgy and the Precepts
(adapted from an article "What is Religious about your Practice?")
words from the Mountains and Rivers community
Once at Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a member of the Lotus Flower Sangha told me that he recited the precepts every day, slowly, so he could reflect on them. Since then I’ve done the same thing to help keep my life true to the precepts.
The word “religion” etymologically means “binding back,” which is the effect involved in recalling myself to the precepts. They help reconnect me to my essential humanity, my age-old legacy and promise as a sentient being, enabling me to move beyond self to something larger and more potent. Left to myself, I can rationalize the occasional lie, cruel remark, stupid behavior, or wicked thought. In fact, I often feel obliged to do so, given the situational murkiness of my self-oriented viewpoint. I also lose track of what sometimes comes out fine, loving, and wise in my life. Through practicing a religion, I gain a greater and more valuable perspective on such matters. The precepts are quite clear, and the deepest part of me is determined not to lose sight of them.
When I was 6 or 7, I asked my father why we didn’t belong to a synagogue. I knew that friends were going to services and Sunday school, and I felt left out, although I didn’t really know what they were doing there, other than learning stories about God and Moses. My father answered by saying, “You don’t have to be in a special place to be with God.” This changed the question from how to deal with feeling left out to how to let everything in. The world opened up as place to commune outside myself, and that has held true since. Zen practice, especially zazen, when I happened on it, resonated immediately. Zazen softens “my” view, dissolves, pares down, finally quieting the noisy container. Thinking gone, mind clear, body completely present, reawakens letting the whole world in.
For as long as I can remember, life has been a religious question. Why am I here? Why is there anything instead of nothing? I have strong childhood memories of being filled with wonder: sunshine and bird songs early on Saturday morning; insects under stones and on tree trunks; temples and empires in history books. But I was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and so I also learned to feel deeply sinful and inadequate, and to fear a punishing God.
In adolescence, I rejected Christianity and religion itself. But everything else I turned to — music and drugs, philosophy, Marxism, gay liberation — was a search for transcendence, for fulfillment of a spiritual yearning that I wouldn’t acknowledge. I was repeatedly disappointed. In my thirties, despite an exciting job and a deeply rewarding relationship, the world felt increasingly empty. When I began to read Buddhism, I was deeply stirred and drawn to zazen almost immediately. When the Four Vows sounded in the dark zendo on the first night of an Introduction to Zen retreat, I felt something coming to life that had been buried for years.
Since then, I have been deeply drawn to liturgy. For the first several years of practice, I found myself crying frequently during service, as the liturgy stirred up the feelings of yearning, separation and inadequacy that were central to religion in my childhood. Despite my despair, I kept coming back. With time, my practice feels more life-giving and energizing and less painful. Chanting the Verse of the Kesa after morning zazen, and the Work Gatha in my office before checking phone messages and turning on my computer, can transform my day. When I let liturgy slide, everything feels thinner, emptier. One thing I love about liturgy is that it is always there. I can neglect it for days or space out during a chant, but when I return, it is still there — just like the world itself. Gradually I seem to be learning, in my bones and hara, that religion is not about fear and unworthiness, but about wonder and belonging. Bows of gratitude to my mother and the church of my childhood for awakening wonder and my spiritual sense. Bows of gratitude to Daido Roshi, Myotai Sensei and Shugen Sensei for showing me that my wonder and religious sense are more real than separation and guilt.
Is religious tradition important to me? Yes, tremendously. Through it, I stand on the shoulders of countless plodders who have gone this way. They are my companions. I rely on them. In “Lord of the Rings” Frodo had it right on the way to Lothlorian — I need company. Lots of company. About 2500 years worth will barely do.
Liturgy is pure gold. Feels like warm water. I love bathing in it. The moment I open my mouth, particularly with the Sangha, it’s putting on old slippers. There’s no explanation. It’s something to be done, like wolves howling, falling down on warm earth. Inside flowing out; outside flowing in.
Believe in God? I definitely do, but I don’t call it that. Buddhism feels “monotheistic” — one thing. And what is that one thing?
In a recent talk Myotai Sensei mentioned that she had a much easier time entering into Zen practice than into the tradition, and this rang true for me. I came to Zen having majored in comparative religion and having spent time exploring Tibetan Buddhism, but I was brought up with a strong skepticism of organized religion — what made Zen accessible to me was the simple directness of zazen and the emphasis on work practice. Almost as soon as I came to the Monastery, it felt clear to me that this practice was what I so desperately needed. But I had a hard time with liturgy, and basically anything that felt like religion.
Eight years or so of pretty dedicated practice, and I still do an effective job of separating practice from religion. Practice works. But why is there still so much energy spent with 8th Century Chinese texts and 12th Century Japanese customs? Even taking the precepts — becoming a Buddhist — I find I am most comfortable concentrating on their practical aspects. I see as I work with them how they inform my ability to live in harmony with others.
It’s only been recently that I’ve started to feel that it’s time to take a closer look at some of the aspects of our training which I’ve had waiting up on the shelf. I still tell myself that a lot will open up when I’m further along in my practice, but I also have started to consciously bring more awareness to liturgy in order to see how it works.
Some 7 or 8 years ago the Universe, God, Providence, and the 9 Muses unanimously decided to introduce me to Zen liturgy, and I received the following instructions:
In the dedication of the Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani, we say: “Whenever this devoted invocation is sent forth, it is perceived and subtly answered.” That always gets to me. It points both to how an activity is transformed by how I enter it, and to the mystery of life and nature.
Thomas Merton once said that the way he prayed was to breathe. That works very well for me. Breathing is not “just” breathing, praying is nothing special. I remember two things Sister Joan, a Benedictine nun, told us once during a retreat she led. The first one was: approach things with a sense of awe. The second one: the worst thing is false piety.
I don’t understand all the whys and hows of our liturgy, of bowing. That doesn’t mean I cannot trust it and practice it and delve into it. After all, I don’t understand how and why trees and birds and flowers work. But they do.
What is religious about Zen practice? First, I cannot but help thinking about what religious practice is not. For me it is not sanctimonious, not magic, not a way to beat myself, not an escape, not a way to be holier than anyone, not an after-life insurance policy, not a union card or goody-goody social club. My Buddhist practice does not much resemble the religion of my childhood with its bleeding saints, dark guilt, and Hail Marys after confessing ordinary childhood escapades. Catholicism in childhood was often about submission and subordination although it had its moments of light. The lives of the saints were inspiring: St. Dorcas who never turned away the needy, and St. Teresa with her “Little Way” teaching the sacredness of ordinary life. Now as a Buddhist I can take responsibility without crushing guilt, see my errors without inflicting hurt, touch into the center of life rather than waiting passively for god’s grace — all in the midst of the mundane activities of life. The saints I wanted to emulate are my everyday life, the Bodhisattva way.
How is this ancient practice relevant for me today? A few days ago I witnessed a deathbed service. We chanted the Gatha of Atonement for my friend, his body finally deeply at peace, his struggle of many years with AIDS finally over. I felt a great shift standing there in the presence of death, so final, so still, a sudden stop in my rambling thoughts and tangled feelings. Are we helpless in the face of death? It did not feel that way as we chanted. I felt deeply grounded in reality, in grief, in all past actions regardless of how I viewed them. I also sensed without thinking about it all those who have gone before us practicing as we practice. At the end of the service, Daidoshi blessed my friend with the sign of the cross, as he had been a Catholic seminarian in his youth. This simple action was deeply touching for me. As it is, Buddhist practice is wide enough for all.
Zen is unquestionably a religious practice for me, especially after having taken the precepts and learning to work more consistently with them. I have seen my life transformed. Each morning as I chant the work gatha before leaving for my job as a social worker in a hospital, and during the day I am witness to, and privileged to be with, people dealing with incredible pain, both physical and emotional. My Buddhist faith and Zen practice reminds me that my vow is to help relieve and lessen the suffering the world. For me there is no more important activity than bringing these vows and precepts to life.
To me what makes Zen a religion is not the liturgy or precepts but where practice and the teachings ultimately point — Shakyamuni’s original enlightenment, our original enlightenment. This is the place where I make a leap of faith, going from “Yeah, these are good ideas” to “All sentient beings and I, together enter the Way.” There has never been a mistake, I am right where I should be, and so is everything else for that matter. How can this be? This is impossible to grasp with my everyday mind, but this is what our teachers put forth, what my zazen reveals.
My practice is a religious one because it’s not just dealing with how to act and use the mind, but also the aspect of experience that cannot be explained or measured or even observed. Zen practice demands that I go beyond the face value of my life, my self and my observations, and dive into the direct experience of my life, beyond intellect and discursive, explanatory thought. For me, this is the very basis and foundation of religion and of Buddhism. It is what makes the human condition an intrinsically religious condition, not a philosophical debate or scientific proof. It is what makes my practice a religious practice, not just a set of rules and activities.
Every morning I light incense and a candle for the altar. Every night I gather in wood for the fire and leave a bowl of food on the back porch for the feral black cat who is so spooked by me and so obviously desperate for a place to rest. Which is religious? Which is not? When every stone and cigarette butt, every flower on the altar and orange peel on the pavement offers itself to me in its buddha-nature, what do I serve by drawing lines?
For me practice has been a continual unmasking. I mean that in all senses of the word: excruciating, glorious, banal. I tend the altar every morning out of gratitude, and because tending it shows me the places in myself where I’d rather turn away, go back to bed, pull the covers over my head. Because the beauty of the liturgy feeds me. Because otherwise I might not remember to ask the questions. Because I never thought of tending altars until I stumbled unsuspectingly into this monastery and discovered that I couldn’t live anymore without them.
I watch my life change and my boundaries lift and turn from black to gray. In the midst of that unmasking, I see myself taking care of others and myself with less rancor and less of a sense of being embattled and more ease and (I hope) grace. Philosophy never did that for me, even though I’ve got a degree in it. But I concede that Buddhist is also a philosophical system of immense subtlety. It’s so successful (in my experience) because it addresses the seemingly insolvable problems created by dualistic thinking, and it puts them where they belong: on the shelf with other fictions devised by ego. Then it offers a solution, which is to live in seamless intimacy with everything that is. Even those words, though, seem so inadequate. Buddhism is a science of mind, but that’s not enough. It’s a path of my whole life. It asks everything of me. It gives everything in return. What is it? What isn’t it?
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