07 October 2013

An Introduction to the Sutra Service; Or, There Are No "Empty" Rituals

We have begun practicing our sutra service on Sunday mornings (and I hope you can join us).  I would like to offer a few words of introduction and description of the service in order to show how it works as a meditation practice, and how it can inform one's everyday life in a way that is deeply meaningful and helpful to oneself and others.  This is important because many of our sangha members have not had the opportunity to participate in this type of practice yet, due to limitations on our space and time that are no longer relevant.

I should address the sentiment I often hear from people who are interested in Buddhism but positively averse to anything that resembles a "ritual."  In our practice, there are no "empty rituals;" we are not indulging in some kind of rote exercise in followerdom or, what may be worse, lux exoticism.  On the contrary:  all Buddhist practices (and for that matter nearly everything we do on a day-to-day basis) are precisely rituals that make meaning for us, that give some kind of insight into how to conduct our lives.  The purpose of engaging in them is not to act the part of the Better Buddhist; Lisa Bright at Earth Sangha is right to insist that Buddhism, in the end, is not about Buddhism, but about the big picture.

Listen:  The purpose of engaging in these practices, the sutra service included, is to make it possible for us to be less and less bound by forces of habit that are out of our control, and more and more capable of conducting ourselves in an awake and creative way in every moment. 

The sutra service shows us how to do that, how to actualize our capacity for awakening in each moment.  It gives an outline for how to transform one's day, week, and year into an intentional practice, meditation-in-action, enlightened conduct.  It takes little imagination to see how the pieces fit together, especially with a few pointers.

After the service opens, the leader and the sangha take on the character of a chorus.  We recite all this together harmoniously.  From the start, the sutra service is an exercise in taking refuge in the right things (the wisdom of the three jewels) and not the wrong ones (distractions, harmful habits, untrustworthy projects of this world).  The service begins with this decision regarding what we, as a group value.  We choose to value the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha's teachings.  And we choose to value each other.  We recite together certain verses that have Japanese titles for convenience (translation for these would be cumbersome and inelegant), but we recite the verses themselves in English.  Here are the main points, in order (and there is a logic to the order in which we recite these--it is not as though this is a random assortment of pieties, as some may assume):

Sangemon. Here, we take honest stock of ourselves:  where we have been, and where we are going.  We recognize the habits of body, speech, and mind that are not helpful to ourselves or others (think, for instance, of envy, pride, hatred, greediness, closed-mindedness...), and we affirm that we do not wish to follow that path any longer.  Instead, we wish to do the next part:

Kaikyoge.  In this verse we rejoice in the opportunity to cultivate the qualities of wisdom and compassion.  This opportunity is not to be taken for granted, so we affirm that we will open our minds and seek the root while we can in the here and now.  We cultivate the aspiration to Wake Up.

What we have done so far sets the foundation for anything else one might do.  If one reflects on Sangemon and Kaikyoge at the start of one's day, then anything else one might do becomes a form of meditation insofar as one is able to maintain the thread of awareness and to keep the aspiration going.  This is one way in which the formal service can teach us a thing or two.  For the purposes of the service, the Thing To Do is to recite a selection of the Buddha's teachings, affirming, again, that this is what we value and what we wish to cultivate in ourselves and in our world.  Hence:

The Sutra.  Usually, we recite the Heart Sutra in our service.  Tendai temples usually recite the Lotus Sutra (selections of it) and the Amitabha Sutra as well, among others.  The point is that in announcing the teachings of the Buddha, we become like a chorus of Buddhas, telling the truth  about our condition.  After this and one or two other elements like it...

Hogo.  This verse looks back into historical time, to our spiritual ancestors Shakyamuni Buddha, Chih-i (sometimes spelled Zhiyi and referred to as Tendai Daishi), and Saicho (sometimes referred to as Dengyo Daishi).  All three of them told the truth in difficult times.  In spirit, we are looking back in history to all those men and women who have affirmed the path of wisdom and compassion, and showing gratitude and respect.  The last line of the verse looks to the future; we affirm our intention to bring this path forward into time, benefiting all.

Soeko closes the chanting portion of the service.  In this verse, we dedicate the merits of the practice we have done.  What does that mean?  When one does anything virtuous, a certain sort of positive energy or momentum is generated.  Then what?  We could choose to be stingy and horde all that positivity to ourselves, claiming for ourselves whatever good comes of it.  Or we could be negligent and just let it dissipate into nothingness.  Instead of these alternatives, we choose to share it and multiply it by affirming that these merits belong to all of animated life, so that together, we may "progress along the Buddha path of liberation."

Just as we close the service with Hogo and Soeko, one can close one's day reflecting a sense of gratitude into the past, and a sense of purpose into the future, and dedicate whatever virtuous acts one has engaged in to the benefit of all:  may these deeds become a cause for the awakening of all beings.  With this attitude, each day can become a meaningful ritual rather than a jumbled and out-of-control series of actions imposed on you; one can reflect back on each day without regret at having wasted time or opportunity.

And that is why I say that the sutra service demonstrates or models the Buddhist path of meditation in action.  It shows how to lay the groundwork for a life that has purpose, dignity, and joy.  And that is why I encourage everyone to participate fully in the sutra service.  (I should add, parenthetically, that there is much more to discover in the service than what I have gestured toward here...)

Enjoy your practice!

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