There’s little of Buddhist liturgy or ritual these days that I find indispensable. Still, I follow a daily pattern of chanting the Heart Sutra, a praise for Avalokiteshvara, the Three Refuges, and the Bodhisattva Vows, along with the traditional bowing and ringing of the gong. I couldn’t tell you why I continue to do so. I think I once had reasons but if so I’ve forgotten what the reasons were. I no longer ask why I’m doing any of this or feel any need to know. I just do what I was once taught to do…..and none of it feels essential.
It’s ironic that the one element of Buddhist liturgy that I do find indispensable is not among those I observe daily. Thirteen years after my initial ordination, I entered the path of Zen because I was weary of the hurt and pain I somehow managed to cause myself and others in my years prior to becoming a nun, and I thought that Zen might help me to cease from it. The Zen lineage offers a highly disciplined practice that instills accountability, learning, ceasing from attachment to mistakes and accomplishments, etc. Although all frames of Buddhism teach this, Zen in particular emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment and personal expression of direct insight in the Buddhist teaching. As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine, and favors direct understanding through seated meditation (zazen), interaction and experience in life. Additionally, Zen supplements Kenshō (“seeing (one’s) nature” or “true self”) and insight into the absolute with Karuna, or compassion toward all sentient beings. So why did I ordain in a second lineage? The truth is I felt guilty. Old wrongs of mine would rise up in memory, prior events of sometimes ten years earlier, and I would cringe at the recollection. It’s puzzling to me what sorts of memories come to haunt me in this way, seemingly minor lapses in kindness that might seem insignificant to others but somehow loom large among the things I wish I hadn’t done.
One incident that returns to trouble me occurred thirty-one years ago as I write this. As a then eleven year old, I was active in school, advanced for my age, trying to make friends and fit in. While attending orientation to the sixth grade, I met Malaya, a Filipina girl of eleven years or so who’d lost her family through death and was adopted by an American family…..I never bothered to ask too many questions, though she spoke of them often. Malaya and I became friends and spent a lot of time together. Neither of us had much money and so we took walks along the waterfront and sat at benches in the park and read books together. I sometimes took advantage of my “excellent” status on my library card and we would ask the librarian for snacks, and when Malaya’s adoptive mother was working at the theater, she got us in to free movies. And when we felt like treating ourselves, we’d share a bowl of okra and hush puppies at a little Lake Beach restaurant, sitting together at the counter with paper bibs hung about our necks, wiping our hands on terry cloth towels still warm from the dryer. We would laugh and talk about the characters we had read in our favorite books and we would dream of the lives we would someday live when we married our Prince Charmings.
Malaya was thin and angular with dark hair and large brown eyes. She was alternately playful and pensive….incredibly brilliant. She’d invariably cry over the sad parts in the cartoons or movies we saw, and she’d often take off in a sudden run when we walked in the park. She had two prominent gold fillings that flashed in the light when she smiled or laughed. These I later learned were filled due to a terrible fall she took in the Philippines. The few “friends” I had begun to make in school never really liked Malaya because she was so different…..different in looks and different in mental capacity. She was indeed a genius with an IQ of 180. My new found “popular friends” at school teased her, and nicknamed her “Skinny Gold.” which often made her laugh and show her fillings all the more. She didn’t realize how they joked. Malaya’s family struggled financially, as did mine. Soon they rented a small room in a shelter in the Southend district of town and at length she told me she was allowed visitors in her room and I could be the first. She hadn’t had any “visitors” at all in her new home she said. But telling me this, she seemed excited about the prospect. She could get the security guard to check me in and we could meet at her room the next afternoon for her mother to prepare us cookies. “Now don’t run off,” she said. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see. I’ll pick some flowers and we can read the extended installment of The Phantom Tollbooth.”
But I did run off. I said I’d be there and then I wasn’t. To this day, I can’t say why I did that except that she was such a dear friend and the pressures I was facing from the fake “friends” I had met was so much that I was unnerved by the prospect of further complicating our lives. Perhaps I didn’t want to be teased any more than we already were. I didn’t want her to be teased anymore. I’d recently been bullied for being friends with the “different one”, “Skinny Gold” and the encounter had left me fearful and guarded. I hadn’t told Malaya about this, and even then when she’d invited me further into her home and I needed to be candid with her, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her how I felt. I was fearful for her….I was fearful for myself. I left her that day with the impression that we would meet the next afternoon. Afterwards, I avoided the places where we were likely to meet at school, and was soon moved onto a different educational program than the one we had been in together. To this day, the thought of Malaya getting out of school and off the bus, and coming home to her shelter home with a grinning mouth full of gold and a fist full of flowers only to find out she’d been stood up still breaks my heart.
It is just such failures of honesty and loving-kindness that carry for me the heaviest sense of wrong…… I once injured a high-school team mate, showing off my physical prowess in swimming practice; how I provoked Ms. Walters to tears in front of the whole junior G&T English class, the one teacher who’d looked beyond my behavior and found talent she’d hoped to promote; how I repaid the kindness and support of the manager at Burger King (my first job) by abruptly quitting without giving notice.
Burdened with the pain of such memories, I asked my Zen teachers for help. Among the things they gave me was a contrition verse:
All the ancient twisted karma
From beginningless greed, hatred, and ignorance
Born of my body, mouth, and thought
I now confess openly and fully.
From that day to this, whenever I feel like a thoroughly bad person, I chant this simple confession. The chanting is an offering to those I’ve wronged, persons who have since died or whose whereabouts are lost to me and to whom I can no longer make direct amends. Even if Malaya or Ms. Walters or the Burger King Manager can’t know in person how sorry I am, there’s still something about the wholehearted admittance of wrongdoing that softens the hard edge of guilt. The words of contrition summon a tender and regretful remorse, a sorrow for whatever harm has been brought by my doings. It is this exposed heart of sorrow, vulnerable and unguarded, that heals the wound of guilt and allows for sympathy and forgiveness to do their work.
I’d had the contrition verse in my keeping for some time before I became curious about the word beginningless. How is it, I wondered, that greed, hatred, and ignorance are said to be beginningless?
In time, I came to see that I hadn’t personally invented my own wrongdoings. They came ready-made for my use, and in fact the whole human catalogue of potential wrongs was an inheritance. The “ancient twisted karma” of the contrition verse was a vast impersonal stream into which I’d been cast at birth. The genesis of greed, hatred, and ignorance was itself unknown, lost in antiquity and impossible to imagine. The potential for wrongdoing must have been present before the birth of the universe itself, an option for harm that we humans fell heir to. And the same must be true of generosity, love, and wisdom, which were always here and for which I can claim no individual merit or lack of it.
But that doesn’t absolve me of responsibility.
I can choose, and it is this exercise of volition, an equally ancient potential of human behavior, that holds me accountable for the consequences of what I do. While I did not set in motion the karmic stream, it’s nonetheless up to me as to how I negotiate its currents. I can go with the current, swim against it, or seek a shoreline, but the currents and eddies of the stream are forever shifting and leave me no option but to continually decide what to do. My choices bear upon the stream itself, for it is, as I said, an impersonal stream and therefore a mutual stream in which all of creation swims. I can do nothing that will not affect you. You can do nothing that will not affect me. We are awash together, bound in such intricate and binding reciprocity that if anything moves, all the rest moves with it.
An old Chinese story tells of a monk who came to Zen Master Ta-sui with a question about a teaching he’d gotten from a traditional Buddhist cosmology telling of a conflagration that sweeps through at the end of the eon and totally destroys the universe. This disastrous prophecy is a metaphor of consequence carried out on a colossal, universal scale. In the face of universal destruction, the monk wonders, “Is this destroyed or not?”
Ta-sui said, “It is destroyed.”
The monk said, “If so, then this goes along with it.”
Ta-sui said, “It goes along with it.”
Perhaps the monk thought that something could be salvaged, not carried along in the otherwise universal sweep of events. He wonders if there is something exempt from the common conflagration. Ta-sui tells him that it all goes together. The exchange touches the wistful heart of that moment where life spills into emptiness and the monk says for himself, “If so, then this goes along with it.”
I suppose every heartbeat is the end of an eon wherein whatever the moment is goes along with it. The consequence of my morning’s remark to my neighbor on his way to work will be carried along to who knows where? Perhaps he will carry the sense of what I said to another and from there it will radiate from person to person as they touch each others lives throughout the day. Maybe my neighbor himself will carry it with him to lunch and haul it back home again after work. Perhaps he’ll return it to me some day. Or, perhaps he’ll leave it right where I said it this morning, and it will go nowhere else at all. The dispersal of consequence is without known limit, as endless as the verse says it is beginningless. It’s not hard to imagine that my casual morning comment to my neighbor, wishing him a good day, may some day go streaming among the stars on its dark flight toward destinations unknown to me.
The verse of contrition I was given to chant so many years ago, has had consequences of its own. It has carried me beyond a simple “I’m sorry” to an appreciation of the circumstances in which we all live, the ways in which we try and fail, and try and fail again. I’m a partner now in the brotherhood and sisterhood of inevitable error and recovery.
Recently, at a UN event, I met a woman named Malaya Kumar, MD. Could it be? Yes, it was. Now, she is not “Skinny Gold”….she is the District Maternal & Child Survival Coordinator for UNICEF in the Philippines. She had gone on to study fiercely, graduating top of her class in everything and ending with a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in London where she advanced in her medical studies and humanitarian causes. She gave her time back to needy and continues to do so. She no longer has gold on her teeth, but her smile is much the same. She didn’t ask me about the day so very long ago…..she only smiled so brightly, gave me the warmest hug as if time had stood still, and demanded to know when we would meet for a stroll in the park.
Our human lives are “ten thousand beautiful mistakes” as my Teacher liked to point out. If my mistakes, willful or unintended, have cost anyone the price of pain or distress, I’m truly sorry. I would like to be free of wrongdoing, but I’ve found that impossible in life as I know it. Yet I take consolation in acknowledging the mistakes I’ve made, saying to the world, “This is what I’ve done. And this is what I am, no better and no worse than you see me now. I trust that you will grant me that much and allow me to go along with it.”