Like many westerners, one of the attractions of Zen to me was its no-nonsense meditation focus. I had flirted with a number of other religious traditions for some years and I never could get the hang of all the cultural, spiritual drivel that seemed bound up with them. Worst of all seemed to be the thread running through all of them that I should bow down and devote myself to some higher power. Buddhism (and particularly Zen) seemed to offer something different, a philosophy and psychology rather than a superstitious religion.
Well, twelve years after meeting a teacher and a lot has changed. I didn't notice it at first. I was happy to sit in neat rows wearing muted colours, happy to treat my teachers more impenetrable talks on the compassion of the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas as metaphor or skilful challenging of my attachment to views. I was even happy to chant the writings of ancient priests and bow when my teacher eventually invited us to do so, in fact, strangely, I embraced these things, but still I felt a little superior to my friends in devotional traditions who clearly just didn’t get it – that there was nothing outside ourselves to devote to!
This arrogance began to wane a little when I realised that the chanting, bowing and ceremony I was involved in didn’t look so different to theirs, but I consoled myself that I understood this was just a meditation in the Zen tradition, we don’t attach any special significance to our ceremonies.
Of course feeling the separation my arrogance caused was a just part of the practice that helped to soften me. Years of sitting facing the wall – and myself, years of taking care of precepts that highlight my human frailty and years of devoting myself to my teacher who I dearly love helped me to see that the love I feel is not focused on a man and the commitment I have to practice is not for my benefit. As I realise the emptiness of myself and all beings and the emptiness of the practise, how can I do anything other than bow down and devote whatever I am to whatever it is?
This is not a novel discovery, recently I read (in the article linked to in the final words of this newsletter) that Rev. Keido Chisan Koho, Zenji, abbot of the Sojiji monastery likened Buddhist training to walking through a tunnel, not to get somewhere, but to be changed by the walking so it does not matter which end you go in or which end you come out. He gave a name to each end of the tunnel. One he called "Zen Buddhism"; the other he called “Pure Land Buddhism", the most devotional type of Buddhism I know of whose main practice is repeating the name of Amida Buddha to always keep her in mind. I think the point is that we can start by meditating and end up filled with devotion or we can start off filled with devotion and end up meditating.
I still don’t know who or what I am devoted to, but I see the fruitlessness of a life lived for self gratification and feel a deep wish to make my life an offering to compassion, to hand over all that I am to Avalokiteshvara…
… Namo Guan Shi Yin Pusa!
They got me in the end.
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