In Soto Zen centers, there’s a verse we chant every morning between the dawn sitting and the morning service. The robe that symbolizes the commitment to the Buddha’s way is unfolded from its pouch and placed on top of our heads before we intone,

Vast is the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction
I wear the Tathagata teachings
Saving all sentient beings.

On many mornings, I indulged my initial amusement at the absurdity of people sitting on their cushions with bundles of cloth piled on their heads. So much of dislocated Japanese Zen ritual can provoke a wince, with its bloodless and robotic pretensions. By contrast, this seemed sweetly—even innocently—kind of silly.

Yet the verse took on a life of its own. It seeped into my internal byways with the gentle force of a slow rain. I repeated it all day. Or rather, it seemed to repeat itself rhythmically throughout the day, like the hum of the refrigerator, or the feral cats in heat outside, or traffic, or the addictive ditty of the ice cream truck that pulled up outside the zendo every afternoon. The phrase “formless field of benefaction” made me breathe deep, expand my chest, and raise my head. There was an inchoate sense that my own breathing had the capacity to energize and expand “the formless field.” I imagined a green field, daytime, sunlight, a field encapsulated in a kind of transparent bubble; with each deep breath, this bubble would grow until it contained many fields as well as oceans and lakes and animals and cities and fire engines, cell phones and saxophones. And sometimes I disappeared into this formless field of benefaction and moved in it and through it and with it in a magical dance of form and light in which there was no viewer, and the globe had no boundaries. The task of saving all sentient beings lost its insurmountable wonder; it suddenly seemed utterly sensible, even doable.

Vast is the robe of liberation. A formless field of benefaction. What a generous, comforting image—a robe as limitless as the sky, and at the same time a sense of being covered, held, embraced, protected. A natural, organic refuge, like a cave in winter snows.

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