2010 Apr-June

Berkeley Buddhist Priory Newsletter

April – June  2010

Vespers: The Litany of the Great Compassionate One (part 2)

by Rev. Master Koten Benson

(The following is the second part of an edited transcript of a lecture by Reverend Master Koten Benson. The first part appeared in the previous issue of this newsletter. It was first published in the October-December 2009 Lion’s Gate Buddhist Priory newsletter.)

So, I’ll go on to Achalanatha (Fudo: Japanese). Achalanatha: A – “not,” in Sanskrit; like we have some words in English, where we use the “a” as a negative. “A-chala” means the immovable, that which does not move, that which is not disturbed, that which is not disrupted. “Natha” means either the protector or the lord, the one who does not move. The reason these things are put in what appears to be the form of a person is because the experience is personal, if I can put it that way, because it is real, because it is not abstract. It is not an intellectual experience. It is, as Dogen says, “skin, flesh, bones and marrow.” The Invocation of Achalanatha is therefore the invoking of, within ourselves, this sitting still. Interestingly, Great Compassion comes first, then sitting still.

In the pictures of Achalanatha you can see the sitting still in the middle of fires. An important thing to study in detail: Is Achalanatha separate from the fire? Are we thinking that we sit still in the middle of the fires of greed, hate and delusion as if they were something separate from us, or do we learn actually to sit still in it, as part of it? Do you understand? There is a distinction there, which is very important to consider carefully and meditatively.

“Hail to the Mandala!” Again, these things are not meant to be paragraphs, so don’t necessarily think of them as one thought leading to another, but rather a series of internal movings.

Now, the Mandala means the Sangha; the people we train with on all the levels; the Ariya-Sangha; all the people who have come to know the Eternal for themselves. It also represents the mundane level, the very real level of our work environment, our home environment, the people we deal with on a minute-by-minute basis.

A mandala is a three-dimensional organized way of representing the process and experience of training in daily life. It is not a diagram drawn by a crazy person. It is a three-dimensional depiction of how training is done. It is not flat. It’s never been flat; it is alive! It’s depicted that way because that is the way it happens. The gates are gates. The steps and all the rest of it, the multitudinous numbers of beings depicted in it, are all real – but remember, it is not talking about a separate-self thing. “Hail” is what you say at the gates as you enter into the process of training.

“Let us so be engulfed within its praises evermore that,” – “Engulfed within the praises of” is to enter into and continually participate within, “praise” meaning speaking from within.

“By our own wills and vigilance, may we our fetters cut away.” Remember that the initial dharani of Vespers emphasized the power of Great Compassion. Soto altars have Achalanatha standing to the left side and Avalokiteshvara to the right. This is the turning of the Wheel of the Law in meditation. It is a person sitting down in meditation offering up flowers: – Sange is a word meaning to stew flowers, literally, before the Buddha. Achalanatha is the flames and the sitting still within them: – this requires a certain exercise of our will and determination. Avalokiteshvara is on the other side pouring out the water. Through the use of our will in the cleansing of karma in training, in offering up, what is produced is the water of Great Compassion.

“May we within the temple of our own hearts dwell – amidst the myriad mountains.” The myriad mountains is a reference to the various aspects of the self, the skandhas. So, to go into the mountains or to climb the mountain is always a reference to studying the self, to study the self and forget the self. The temple of our own hearts is the dwelling place of true stillness, and Achalanatha is depicted as sitting still in the midst of the fires of greed, hate and delusion.

Achalanatha is often depicted sitting in the middle of the mandala of four other guardians of the gates, which are as fierce as he, and what these other guardians signify is the encounter with self and the encounter with training. Looking at what is in front of one can be quite frightening and intimidating, but through the process of training, although they don’t lose their fierceness, they begin to be seen rather as helps in training. For example, something like anger, when initially looked at, is seen as an obstacle; and when trained with, the way we view it transforms into that which actually assists us, because it is the means by which we train. The arising of our koan is the very vehicle of our training and, as strange as it may seem, we eventually become grateful for it. The fierce forms are fierce because of what they convey: the seriousness of encounter with the self; that suffering is real, and can be a vehicle of our training.

Invocation of Mahakala; Mahakala is the next one. He has two different aspects, which are really one. There is the fearsome, the Great Black One, who is the form of Great Compassion that appears to beings who don’t respond to the more peaceful forms. It is our own suffering appearing in its strongest form. The other is what is called Daikoku in Japan: the “kitchen god;” a little, fat gentleman holding a hammer, wearing a little hat. He’s the Bodhisattva of generosity, in the sense that the Great Black One means the seeming emptiness out of which everything good can come. In China, they say that it is the emptiness of something that makes it valuable. It is like a cup or a vase: it’s the emptiness inside the cup that makes it able to be filled in order to be made use of. So Mahakala means the great blackness or darkness out of which anything is possible, in a good sense. And again we enter the mandala: “Engulfed within the Mandala of the Sons of Buddha.”

“The Arrow of Emptiness.” As I said at the beginning, these are not paragraphs, they’re attempts on some level at describing pure experience. In the Christian tradition they talk about the wind, moving where it listeth. I saw this for myself when I was on the prairies in Edmonton: the wind moves across the grass in the fields and the grass bends. You can’t see the wind, but you can see the effect of it, and so in the Christian tradition in general it’s a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, the activity of God which cannot be seen, but the results are seen. The “arrow of emptiness” is kind of like this. There is a story of Keizan and his teacher; his teacher was talking about the nature of the Unborn or the Eternal and was asking the various monks to respond from their own experience. Keizan said something like, “It is as a jet-black iron ball moving through darkness.” In the same way as the wind, it cannot be seen but it can in fact be known. It cannot be pinned down; the results of training cannot be pinned down, but they can be known and felt. So the arrow of emptiness is like an arrow moving through a dark night. It cannot be seen, but we can in fact experience it, if you see what I mean. I’m using metaphors from another culture. The arrow of emptiness is also in reference to the two arrows meeting in mid-air or the effect when training or some aspect of the teaching strikes us.

The Invocation of the Cosmic Buddha, which is Vairochana. Now, this is something quite difficult to translate. A mystic is someone who experiences or seeks union with the Unborn or the Ultimate in whatever tradition. A mystic is a person doing the form of training. To me, the Invocation of the Cosmic Buddha is saying that there is something, which for lack of a better term is called the Unborn, the Uncreated or the Eternal, that this Something is not simply a concept or an idea or an experience, but is beyond that, and when we come to experience ourselves in union with it we experience no separation, so that the person training becomes one with the Ultimate, with the Unborn. They do not become the Unborn; they become one with It. Therefore, it’s depicted in some sort of form, as a statue, in different ways in different Buddhist traditions, not meaning that it is a person or has a personality or is an ego writ large, but rather that it is something real and to be experienced for ourselves. I don’t know quite how to put it other than that, because this Invocation, for me, is very much a description of the experience where it becomes real for oneself and no longer either a theory or an idea. In the same way, the Eternal is sometimes called the Lord of the House. I once knew a monk who, after they had had a major awakening experience, came across that term and said, “Yes, that is what it is called.” It very much resonated with them, that particular term, because It is not something separate from us and yet it is something that, when we experience it, is so much bigger than us. It is also, while not exactly personal, is definitely intimate, in the true sense of a connection with something. I’m explaining this very badly, to tell you the truth.

Now, The Golden Bell that Rings but Once. “Makura Om” is translated literally as “peace upon the pillow,” because “om” is translated as “peace” and “makura” means pillow in Japanese, as far as we are able to tell. The Japanese call the Scripture of Great Wisdom the “Pillow Sutra,” not in the way we think of ‘pillow’ in a frivolous sense, but in terms of signifying the time of death. What is spoken to the person dying is called the “Pillow Sutra,” because it’s recited when, as it were, lying on one’s last pillow.

When we hear the golden bell ringing we think that it is rung only for us, when in fact it is ringing all the time. The fact that we do not hear it does not necessarily mean that something is lacking in us. When we have any insight at all (everyone here would have had at least one or two insights) into ourselves, where a penny drops, spiritually speaking, or training becomes true to us in some way, we think that we are having a moment in time of realizing something that we had not realized before, and we think of it as linear. We think, “Oh yes! That bell just went off for me.” In fact, the bell sounds all the time on the level of our own true nature, the realization of it going on constantly. The ringing is going on all the time, and is beyond time because it is the true nature of things. From time to time we have a glimpse of it. “Sometimes we raise the eyebrows of Shakyamuni and sometimes we don’t.” Sometimes we hear it, sometimes we don’t. That is not necessarily a problem, as long as we simply continue to train, but the fact that we have heard the bell means that we know that it is there, if we actually trust in that. Having heard it once we can hear it again.

There is a poem about this by Tendo Nyojo: “The entire body, the entire being, is a bell, hanging in the air. Whichever way the wind blows, it always gives forth one sound.” This means that we are in that sense like a bell hanging in the Eternal, and the wind of the Eternal blows, and if we give ourselves over to that wind, then it produces the sound. Our doing so is not necessarily something that is cognizant through the self, but rather something experienced in trust, and the fact that one hears this and moves within it does not mean that everything is going to work out all right, that there are going to be no difficulties or obstacles.

Dogen says that what really helps the training is if one realizes that one has never been upside down, lost or confused. He doesn’t mean that we don’t experience it that way. He means that we can train, dropping all thoughts of obstacles and things getting in our way and simply take that which is in front of us at this very moment, whether we like it or don’t like it, whether it’s greed, hate or delusion, whether it’s good feelings or bad feelings, we can take it and embrace the moment and do what we can with it.


Announcement: Wesak Celebration on May 16

On Wesak, Buddhists throughout the world commemorate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is the most spiritually significant day of the Buddhist calendar and it is helpful for Buddhists to join together as a Sangha and express their gratitude and joy for the existence and transmission of the Three Treasures.

On Sunday, May 16, we will have the usual 9:30 am meditation, followed by the Wesak ceremony at 10 am. The Wesak ceremony is a particularly joyous service. The altar is covered with silk flowers, and a statue of the Buddha as a baby stands on the front altar. During the ceremony we pour water over the head of the baby Buddha, representing the water of compassion abundantly flowing over all beings.

After the ceremony, the Priory will have a Dharma talk. At around 12 pm, we will have a vegetarian potluck lunch. All family and friends of our Sangha are welcome to come to the potluck and to share in our celebration of the birth of the Buddha. The Priory potlucks provide a wonderful offering of foods, and allow us to deepen our contact and friendship with our fellow members of the Sangha.

Memorials and Animal Naming Ceremonies

An animal ordination ceremony took place on 7th January following the Sunday Dharma Talk for the young and exuberant dog being cared for by Jon and Patty Felix. The dog was given the name Berkeley, which was received with much cheerful tail wagging. Another animal ordination was given to Mischa Wendel’s two dogs, the mother, Izzy and her daughter, Jillie. These two dogs have had a difficult life and it was good to have the ceremony which embraces them within the Dharma.

We had a memorial on January 17th for Keiten Chinlund, who died unexpectedly during the night a year ago after returning from outpatient knee surgery. Keiten, only 23 years old, was the only son of Jennifer Chinlund, a Sangha member. On January 27th, Rev. Scholastica was the celebrant for a memorial for Sekou Nyerere Osborne to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his death. Sekou, 27 years of age at the time he was killed in an automobile accident, was the only son of Rev. Scholastica. On January 16, we held a memorial for Margo Rost and on February 9th there was a memorial for Grant Townsend, the father of Peter Townsend. Mr. Townsend died in 2008 at the age of ninety-three.

Celebrating memorials provides an opportunity for the Sangha to come together to offer support and merit. The treasure of training with others is voiced in a line from the closing offertory “Let us walk on the way to enlightenment together with all living things.” It is a rare privilege to train with others, and the Priory is grateful for the support and participation of the many members of our Sangha.

Our Gratitude

In recent months, we have been given many generous gifts, including black wagesas, cat food, toilet paper, dish soap, plastic bags, towels, bedding, cooking pots, kitchen knives, dish towels, altar brackets, knitted hats, a water filter, books, toilet paper, and tissues.

Providing monks with food is the traditional offering given when coming to a Buddhist temple, and we appreciate all the generous food offerings we have been given which provide most of the food for the Priory. During the past few months we have been given a number of prepared and take-out meals, vegetables, fruit, soup, soymilk, cow’s milk, butter, beans, salad, salad dressing, eggs, coffee, bread, bagels, tomato sauce, pasta, rice, teas, breakfast cereals, olive oil, tofu, vegetarian meats, fruit juice, dried fruit, crackers, noodles, nuts, cheese, chips, yogurt, peanut butter, jam, sugar, vinegar, spices, chocolate, ice cream, cookies, candy, pies, and cakes. You are always welcome to check with the Priory on what foods are currently needed.