Day of Prayer, Squandered Life and Philip Kapleau Roshi


“A federal judge’s ruling last month that the law that directs the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional did not diminish the enthusiasm of the faithful, who held Bibles, waved American flags and raised their hands to the heavens.” [from here]

I wanted to focus briefly on the Buddhist concept of prayer.  Buddhist prayer does not need a god or even a supernatural or transcendent presence (although many Buddhists do incorporate some of those concepts into prayer).  And, just as a footnote, I see no need for a National Day of Prayer.  I believe what most people are looking for was a “National Day to Push Christianity on Everyone Within Praying Distance” and I am very happy without one.  I mean the constant prayer marathons and testimonials get rather old when it dawned on me that my own prayers (without a godhead or paternal figure and completely not Christian) were not welcomed.  So I thought I would take the time and talk a bit of my version of Buddhist prayer.

Rather than solely focusing on the petitioning of external, supernatural forces for gain or benefit, Buddhist prayer is an engaged, introspective aspect that is only part of a wide array of practice that serves to hasten the awakening of our inherent nature.  That inner-nature of fortitude, compassion and wisdom is far removed from the popular view of prayer perceived as a reflective action bases on the fear of eternal retribution or damnation.  Far from needing a day to promote the action, prayer is a constant reminder of our practice.

This aspect of prayer is similar to the Buddhist concepts of the precepts. Neither prayer or the precepts are meant to be restricting or limiting but rather a positive expression of compassion and ability.  This view is not exclusive of Buddhists or Buddhist practice – many practitioners of other “revealed” faiths have the same goal in mind when they bow heads or put hands in gassho – to actively engage in humility, compassion and effort in striving for a deeper and more meaningful understanding of our surroundings and ability.  In essense to connect us with us and not with anything supernatural.

A prayer necessitates some form of self-reflection, introspection and humility.  The humble aspect of prayer rises up when we actively face issues (sometimes painful) about ourselves in our practice.  By engaging in humility and compassion, regardless of the focus, we strive towards the same goal as when we sit in meditation – the route just differs.  While in mediation, we allow thoughts and emotions to rise and then fall again in a natural process without placing emphasis on “good” or “bad” thoughts.  In prayer we focus towards a particular aspect or quality. 

In the following Shin Buddhist prayer there is a focus on humility and benefit.  It can serve as an active reminder of the presence of our practice and need to strive in that practice.

Ocean of Oneness, I take refuge in you.
Entrusting with my whole heart and mind
In your Primal Vow;
I am empowered by you to live a full, Compassionate and creative life,
I dedicate myself to the service of all beings,
Striving to help others realize,
Their human potential and Enlightenment;
May your Teachings guide me
Throughout the day, in my relationships, work and play.
Namo Amida Buddha

The Gatha of Atonement is another popular prayer in Zen schools that is often repeated in liturgy and one of the few “prayers” that I repeat daily.

All the evil karma ever committed by me since of old,
On born of my limitless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought–
I now atone for it all.

The act of atonement is central to Buddhist ethics.  It involves self-reflection, confrontation with our negative attributes and occasionally with our own destructive tendencies.  As a result, our practice becomes more and more internalized and not externalized to a force outside of our control or to the forgiveness of an overseeing deity or middle management.  Instead we are addressing our faults and bringing them to the opening.  We are taking responsibility and we are continuing to strive to be more than our thoughts and perceptions.

We recognize that we are fools but capable of being more.  By striving we become wise one and fool, greedy and generous, violent and compassionate. 

We break down walls.

This “Day of Prayer” falls on the anniversery of the death of Philip Kapleau roshi ~ a man of great compassion, great doubt and great striving. 

Philip Kapleau was one of the founding fathers of American Zen. He made it his life’s work to transplant Zen Buddhism into American soil, bridging the gap between theory and practice and making Zen Buddhism accessible to all.

After a successful career as a businessman, Philip Kapleau spent 13 years undergoing Zen training in Japan under three Zen masters before being ordained by Hakuun Yasutani-roshi in 1965 and given permission by him to teach. In 1966 he published The Three Pillars of Zen, the first book to explain the practice of Zen to Westerners. Still in print today, Three Pillars has become a Zen classic and has been translated into 12 languages. Shortly after the publication of Three Pillars, Roshi Kapleau came to Rochester to found the Zen Center. His other books include Zen: Merging of East and West, Straight to the Heart of Zen, Awakening to Zen and The Zen of Living and Dying: A Practical and Spiritual Guide

Roshi Kapleau died in May, 2004, at the age of 91.

So my prayer for this day is as follows:

Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. 
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

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4 thoughts on “Day of Prayer, Squandered Life and Philip Kapleau Roshi

  1. This is how I pray 🙂

    You’re on a roll, John!

    Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā-sambuddhassa.

    Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    I go to the Buddha for refuge.

    Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

    Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

    Dutiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    A second time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.

    Dutiyampi dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    A second time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

    Dutiyampi saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    A second time, I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

    Tatiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    A third time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.

    Tatiyampi dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    A third time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

    Tatiyampi saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
    A third time, I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

  2. The external god and your internal being… Avoiding damnation and seeking enlightenment, hell’s fire inside or out? Vomit and diarrhea, simultaneously, from one that is ill.

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