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. I entered the path of Zen because I was weary of the hurt and pain I somehow managed to cause myself and others, and I thought that Zen might help me to cease from it. The truth is I felt guilty. Old wrongs of mine would rise up in memory, prior events of sometimes forty or fifty 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 fifty-three years ago as I write this. A draftee, I was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco on my way to an assignment overseas. While there I met Malaya, a Filipina woman of thirty years or so who’d lost a husband through separation or death—I never bothered to find out which, though she spoke of him often. Malaya and I liked each other 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. I sometimes took advantage of my option to include a guest at the Presidio mess hall in order to save us the cost of a meal, and Malaya got us in to free movies at theater where she worked shifts at the ticket counter. And when we felt like treating ourselves, we’d share a steaming bowl of cioppino, Italian fish stew, at a little North 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. Malaya was thin and angular with dark hair and large brown eyes. She was alternately playful and pensive. She’d invariably cry over the sad parts in the movies we saw. She’d take off in a sudden run when we walked in the park, like a child playing hide-and-go-seek. She had two prominent gold fillings that flashed in the light when she smiled or laughed. My buddies at the Presidio liked her as much as I did and nicknamed her “Skinny Gold.” which made her laugh and show her fillings all the more. Malaya rented a small room in the Pacific Heights district 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 for a long time she said. But telling me this, she seemed pretty excited about the prospect now. She could get a friend to trade shifts at the theater and we could meet at her room the next afternoon. “Am I being too bold?” she asked. “Now don’t run off,” she said. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see. I’ll bring some flowers.” 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 I liked her so much that I was unnerved by the prospect of further intimacy. Perhaps I didn’t want to be closer than we already were. I’d recently suffered a painful breakup that had left me fearful and guarded. I hadn’t told Malaya about this, and even then when she’d invited me further into her life and I needed to be candid with her, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her how I felt. 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, and was soon shipped overseas. I think Malaya probably had misgivings of her own, and might have chosen me as a partner because she knew I’d soon be sent overseas. But to this day, the thought of Malaya getting off work early and coming home to her apartment 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–how I once injured a high-school team mate, showing off my physical prowess in football practice; how I provoked Ms. Talbot to tears in front of the whole senior 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 plant foreman at Rinshed Mason Automotive Paints 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. Talbot or the shop foreman 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 back it 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. Our human lives are “ten thousand beautiful mistakes” as the old masters 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.”
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