Monday, October 05, 2009




Another e-mail post please excuse the formatting.

On that note, if anyone would like to volunteer to be an unpaid editor of this blog, the position is open…


In the Shobogenzo Bendowa there is a line that some people latch on to that goes something like: We no longer need to read or recite Sutras, make prostrations, light incense.  There is a lot of this kind of sentiment that arose out of my father's generation of western Buddhists.  There is even a story in a book I recently read (Zen Ritual) that talks of a couple of westerners (of my fathers age) visiting a Zen temple and were shocked when their ideas of iconoclastic monks of spitting or pissing on Buddhist statues, using them as firewood,etcetera were totally smashed when following the abbot around while making his rounds making prostrations and chanting and lighting incense.  They angrily confronted him and said something to the effect of "I thought Zen masters spit on Buddha statues, not venerate them by making bows, lighting incense and chanting."  To which the Zen Master replied "If you want to spit. Spit, I prefer to bow."



The second Chapter of the Shobogenzo is a commentary about the Heart Sutra.  It's a short sutra and it is really well known throughout Japan.  Now to be clear that what I mean by well known here is not that people know what it means, just that people recognize it when it is being chanted and know it is the heart sutra.  From my sampling of interviewing my Japanese wife's friends, I have come to think that very few people have a clue what even the words mean (Often due to them being chanted in Pinyin) and I think that even fewer people that have clarified the meaning of the Heart Sutra for them selves.  

Of the people I asked, most seem to think it is some sort of Buddhist magical spell for health and prosperity.  This reminds me very much of the situation thatoccurred in medieval Europe when the Catholic Church did not want the laypeople reading the bible.


In Dogen's Commentary he kindly walks the reader through the Heart sutra and admonishes:


"Remember, to receive and retain, to read and recite, and to think reasonably

about [prajnā] are just to guard prajnā. And to want to guard it is

to receive and retain it, to read and recite it, and so on."


And in closing he says:


"The realization of this prajnāpāramitā is the realization

of buddha-bhagavats. We should inquire into it, and we should experience it.

To serve offerings to it and to bow in veneration is just to serve and to attend

buddha-bhagavats, and it is buddha-bhagavats in service and attendance."


(excerpts from Shobogenzo Book 1 Nishijima and Cross translation available here: )



Now there are two things I hope I have conveyed with this posting.  

The first being that no, we do not have to make prostrations, light incense, or recite sutras, but we should.


The second being that we should not take thes actions mindlessly but look deeply into them, when we recite the Heart Sutra we should know the meaning is more important than the words and we should discuss it with good friends and clarify it for ourselves (and all sentient beings will benefit.)  It has been my experience that this small sutra can be a wonderful support to practice and, coupled with Zazen, can lead to an awakening of our own inherent wisdom.








At December 11, 2009, Blogger Ted Biringer said...

Thanks Jordan,

Reminds me of a great story:

Our Master once attended an assembly at the Bureau of the Imperial Salt Commissioners at which the Emperor T’ai Chung was also present as a sramanera. The sramanera noticed our Master enter the hall of worship and make a triple prostration to the Buddha, whereupon he asked: ‘If we are to seek nothing from the Buddha, Dharma or Sangha, what Your Reverence seek by such prostrations?’

'Though I seek not from the Buddha,’ replied our Master, ‘or from the Dharma, or from the Sangha, it is my custom to show respect in this way.’

‘But what purpose does it serve?’ insisted the sramanera, whereupon he suddenly received a slap.

‘Oh,’ he exclaimed. ‘How uncouth you are!’

‘What is this?’ cried the Master. ‘Imagine making a distinction between refined and uncouth!’ So saying, he administered another slap, causing the sramanera to betake himself elsewhere!

The Zen Teaching of Huang Po John Blofeld p.95-96

Go ahead and spit. But be careful Huang Po does not see you, unless you want to get slapped around.



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