We see the word prayer through our own mental structures—not to mention the structures of obliviously colonializing translators. As Western Zen practitioners (and, one might argue, even as Western-influenced Eastern practitioners), we practice against a background of Judeo-Christian prayer styles. We enact our Zen practice in the epistemological space that combines elements of Western religion with those of Eastern religion, in a cultural frame that includes prayer as supplication and communion. For many of us, the word prayer conjures up Cotton Mather, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Martin Buber, and Thomas Merton. Moreover, in Asia, Buddhism arose amidst local deities and the customs of supplication and offerings of various pantheistic traditions. Thus throughout the Zen tradition there is the paradox of a cultural impulse toward prayer, with its implication of duality on the one hand, and on the other, the absolute Dharma of the One Body, of the empty nature of the self, and the interconnection of all things. How can we understand the difference?

I think of Issa’s great haiku, written on the death of his child, musing on the Buddhist truth that life is as impermanent as a drop of dew:

The world is a dew drop,
Yes, the world is a dew drop,
And yet, and yet . . .

We can share in Issa’s perplexity: There is the clear teaching of impermanence and of the ignorance and the absurdity of clinging to any thing, and yet there is also the grief we feel in the face of loss. They stand together in this haiku, as prayer stands in the midst of emptiness. Two seemingly contradictory experiences coexist without conflict, right here.

It seems our minds have a natural way of being able to contain different systems of knowing, to hold them at the same time, in different modes, and to be able to switch back and forth from one to the next, as when one tends to a grieving person with appropriate ritual and condolence, and at the same time gives the healing teaching of emptiness and impermanence. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form.” In the world of form there is prayer and bowing, and yet, all of this is also emptiness where there is no prayer, no bowing. We experience both the dry, spare part of our practice—the side that recognizes the emptiness of all creations, the impossibility of “one” praying to an “other,” and we experience the sweet, sentimental side of the practice wherein we offer “sweet cakes, rice, and tea” to our dead loved ones.

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