Dedicating our practice

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Boundless Way Temple on February 19, 2015, during our annual Coming and Going Retreat. It is the next in a series of talks I have been giving about the major elements of our liturgy.  A recording of the talk, along with many other lovely talks from the retreat, can be found here.

I went skiing with two Swedes a few weeks ago. At the end of the day, I asked them – rather innocently, I thought – “Did you have a nice time?”

One of the two, who has become a close friend over the past five years, and who now lives in the U.S., said, “It was a great day.”

Our other companion, who I’d just met, said nothing. I looked at my friend, wondering whether he’d had a bad day, despite outward appearances.

My friend explained that this is an awkward question for Swedes. Theirs is a fairly collectivist culture, and yet also a fairly competitive culture. This question puts Swedes in a bind.

On the one hand, everyone is supposed to have an equivalent experience.   That’s the ideal. On the other hand, people really don’t have precisely equivalent experiences, and people do desire to have a comparatively good experience.

My friend has known me long enough, and been immersed in U.S. culture long enough, to have felt compelled to respond to my question. Not so for the other Swede.

From this cultural frame of reference, revealing how he felt about the day – good, bad, or in-between – would have been to engage in a comparison of experiences, which is verboten.

Because we do have different experiences, and experience things differently, my skiing companions explained that this taboo often leaves Swedes feeling jealous, but not having any way to contend with that feeling. As a result, they said, it can be hard for Swedes to take joy in others’ joy.

My friend tried to explain how these cultural patterns are born of the cold and darkness that makes life up north so hard. They’re a recipe for group survival in harsh conditions.

I told them that the ideal I’m more acclimated to, at least in my little corner of the U.S., is taking joy in other’s joy, even though most of us probably practice it quite unevenly. It’s a nice idea, they agreed.

I was also thinking, of course, of one of the closing dedications for our sutra services:

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now. The wind blows, waves fall on the shore, and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads. We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men, ants and sticks and grizzly bears. Let wisdom go to every corner of the house. Let people have joy in each other’s joy.

I really appreciate our dedications. For me, they answer the “So what?” question about our practice. What is our practice about?

And I’ve always loved this particular verse.

Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here, now.

Other dedication verses also open with this reminder. I find it so interesting that this verse, which is about dedicating our practice, opens with something akin to a statement of fact; some might also say an article of faith:

We’re alive. All is alive. And all is blessed.

Notice this! Wake up!

After this or another opening reminder, other verses tend to transition into what we might think of as more clear cut dedications: to all being; to those who suffer from calamity, cruelty and war; to specific people who we know are suffering.

With this verse, we chant:

The wind blows, waves fall on the shore . . .

The alarm clock rings.

The dog scratches its neck.

An email arrives.

Buddha nature pervades the whole day.

. . . and Guanyin finds us in the dark and broken roads.

Compassion does have a way of finding us in our “dark and broken roads.” We may be particularly open to others’ helping hands and the compassion that fills the universe, including our own broken hearts, in moments when we feel lost or down. And, of course, that’s precisely the same love available, and that we may feel, in the wind blowing on our face; the surf pounding against our chest on a warm summer day; that email arriving. Whatever our current life circumstance and disposition.

We give thanks to all the ancestors of meditation in the still halls, the unknown women and men, centuries of enlightened women and men . . .

We dedicate ourselves to this practice, for all it gives us, and enables us to offer to others, with gratitude to those who have sustained it and transmitted it to us. It’s truly something to be cherished, preserved, and developed.

And we dedicate ourselves to . . .

. . . ants and sticks and grizzly bears.

Chanting and hearing this for this first time was one of the moments when I knew Zen was for me. I remember laughing out loud. I was hooked.

This is both playful and serious, of course. Matter of fact. Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, ants, sticks and bears included. The 10,000 things.

And it is our animal nature; the baser parts of our human nature. We, too, are crawling on the ground, like ants. We are dirt and sticks. We can be grumpy and brutish, like bears. We dedicate ourselves to these parts of ourselves, too. We’d might as well face them. We’re enmeshed in it all. We’re in the stew.

Let wisdom go to every corner of the house.

I hear this less as an expansionist, missionary aspiration, than as yet another reminder of what’s here already. This practice is so much about just noticing, I find; about letting be; about getting out of the way – or, rather, coming to know in our bones that we are part of this, and this is the way.

Let people have joy in each other’s joy.

Can there be any doubt that we’d all be happier if we could learn to practice this collectively and consistently? This is the pithiest little ethical mandate I know.

And, like the phrase before it, I think it’s as much descriptive as it is prescriptive. People taking joy in others’ joy. This is the way. The motion and frequency of the universe, to which we can tune in and with which we’re invited to cooperate.

Such a simple principle.

Yet, it’s the work of a lifetime, it seems.

And of generations, across cultures.

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