Posts Tagged ‘atta dipa’

John Burroughs

“To learn something new,” wrote the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921),”take the path that you took yesterday.”

As resonant as it is paradoxical, Burroughs’s remark has survived in our public discourse for more than a century. Only last year, the essayist Pico Iyer quoted it in Autumn Light, his meditation on impermanence in Japanese culture. On first hearing, Burroughs’s observation may seem puzzling, if not willfully obscure. Duly considered, however, it has the ring of half-concealed truth. And it closely accords with a cardinal principle of Zen practice. (more…)

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ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. (more…)

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Like forms in the natural world, musical forms have their own, distinct identities. A ballad is one thing, a sonata another. In his review of the Cowley Carol Book (1902), a collection of traditional Christmas carols, the British musicologist Sir William Henry Hadow (1859-1937) explores the differences between two such forms: the carol and the hymn. Although Sir Henry’s discussion has nothing overtly to do with Zen, it brings to mind an important component of Zen practice.

As Sir Henry explains, a carol is the “folk-song of religious music; its essential character is simple, human, direct; it sings its message of joy and welcome, of peace and goodwill, and remembers, while it sings, the sanctity of motherhood and the gentleness of little children.” Carols are by nature democratic. They appeal to emotions that are “the common heritage of mankind,” and they aim at “no display of learning, no pageantry of ceremonial.” They are “the service of poor men in their working garb,” and they bring “tidings which all may hear and understand.” In keeping with their humble origins, the melodies of carols are “simple and flowing” and “easy to remember.” Their native place is the “open air,” where a “few rude voices” are singing “under the frosty stars.”

By contrast, hymns are most at home in churches and cathedrals. They are an instrument of worship, and they have an authorized place in the Sunday service. In their solemnity and grandeur, hymns represent the “majesty and erudition of the Church.” Marked by “intricacy of contrapuntal device,” “ingenuity of modulation,” and “colored or perfumed harmony,” hymns by the likes of William Byrd sort well with the “fretted aisles and blazoned windows” of the great English cathedrals.  Unlike the carol, which evokes a beautiful “beggar-maiden” in peasant rags,  the hymn wears “a sumptuous habit of jewels and brocade.” It is an integral part of Anglican liturgy, and it carries the weight of ecclesiastical authority.*

Zen has no exact equivalent of the hymn or carol. Western “bare-bones” Zen, as practiced by Toni Packer, Joan Tollifson, and others, dispenses with liturgy altogether; and even the liturgy of formal Zen, with its wood-blocks, bows, and bells, is a plain austere affair, at least when contrasted with Sunday morning at York Minster or Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge.

Yet formal Zen does make use of chants, which combine the most prominent features of hymns and carols. Like the hymn, such chants as Atta Dipa (“You are the Light”), the Heart Sutra, and the Four Great Vows embody the authority of a venerable tradition. Chanted in Pali or Sino-Japanese, they evoke a strangeness comparable to that of an Anglican Mass. At the same time, most Zen chants are, in musical terms, rudimentary. The Heart Sutra is chanted in a rhythmic monotone, and Atta Dipa consists of two notes at an interval of a fourth (do-fa). However strange their idiom or formidable their authority, they can be learned and chanted by anyone.

Unlike its counterpart in Christian liturgy, Zen chanting is not a form of worship. Its functions are, first, to loosen the diaphragm in preparation for seated meditation, and second, to unify the body, breath, and mind in the act of chanting. As John Daido Loori Roshi has noted, Zen chanting grounds the practitioner in the here-and-now. No less important, it serves to cultivate wholesome states of mind, particularly those of respect and gratitude. In Daido Roshi’s words, Zen chanting has “little to do with the volume of your voice. It has all to do with the state of your mind.”*

Nowhere are these purposes more evident than in Tei Dai Denpo, or lineage chanting, in which Zen practitioners intone the names of their ancestral teachers. Shido Bunan Zenji. Dokyo Etan Zenji. Hakuin Ekaku Zenji. . .  Echoing in the zendo, this ancient chant evokes a mood of profound communal gratitude. Traversing the centuries, it conjures an unbroken lineage of practice, thought, and feeling, extending from the fifth century B.C. E. to the present day. An amalgam, if you like, of hymn and carol, it also honors the teachers in ourselves.


*Sir Henry Hadow, “Carol Singing,” Times Literary Supplement, January 2, 1903.

*John Daido Loori Roshi,  Bringing the Sacred to Life : The Daily Practice of Zen Ritual (Shambhala, 2008),  65-66.

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Since the death of Walter Cronkite in July, much has been written about the late anchorman’s moral authority. According to a Roper poll taken in 1974, Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America”. When he gravely intoned his signature line, we believed him. However shocking or sad the reality just reported, that’s the way it was. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite had opened a window on things as they were.

Zen practice also aims to put the practitioner in touch with reality, as it is in this very moment. And every Zen center or monastery has, as it were, its own Walter Cronkite. Whether he or she is called Abbot, Sensei, Roshi, or simply “head teacher,” the person in this position embodies the inherited wisdom and the venerable authority of the Zen tradition. If the person is a “lineage holder,” which is to say, has received “Dharma transmission” from an earlier teacher, the weight of authority is even greater. It is, in most instances, unquestioned, and one of the core requirements of a prospective Zen student is to believe in the teacher. If a Zen student is unable to do that, the student is well-advised to find another teacher.

Yet if the structure of the traditional zendo is authoritarian, the practice itself is quite the opposite. It is radically egalitarian. From the start, Zen students are enjoined to rely on direct experience: to trust their senses, not the words of any teacher. Every morning, students in Rinzai Zen training chant the verses “Atta dipa / Viharata / Atta sirana / Ananna sirana,” which roughly translate as “You are the Light / Rely on yourself / Rely on nothing but yourself”. This is followed by “Dhamma dipa / Dhamma sirana / Ananna sirana,” which translates as “Rely on the Dharma / Rely on nothing but  the Dharma”. Although the word Dharma has multiple meanings, in this context it is best understood as “reality,” or “the laws of reality,” most prominently those of  impermanence and interdependence. It is left to us to perceive those laws—and to realize ourselves within our immediate surroundings. As one ancient Chinese master told his student, “I can’t  wear clothes for you. I can’t eat for you. . . I can’t carry your body around and live your life for you”. We must do these things—and know we doing them—ourselves.

How, then, is the near-absolute authority of the Zen teacher to be reconciled with the imperative to trust direct experience and rely on ourselves? And to the extent that we embrace a particular Zen lineage, to what extent are we free to question its authority? To speak for ourselves?

For Toni Packer, who left the Rochester Zen Center to establish the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry, the resolution lay in dropping the liturgy, forms, and hierarchies of traditional Japanese Zen, leaving only the sitting, listening, and questioning. For traditionalists, however, the resolution lies not in discarding hierarchical structures but in clearly defining the teacher’s role. Often that role is likened to a mirror, which reflects the present state of the student’s mind and heart.

In my own experience, the most helpful teachers have been those who have urged their students to look honestly into their lives, moment by moment, and to act in accordance with what they see. Rather than answer abstract questions with absolute authority, such teachers return their students, time and again, to the concrete, reliable practice of zazen: to a direct and continuous contact with reality, just as it is. Only then can the student realize the richness and depth of present experience. Only then can he or she say, with any real authority,  “That’s the way it is”.

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