September 22, 2014

Making It Real: On Creating a Real Chan Practice From a Virtual Temple

Chan is often discussed, considered, and pondered, but when it comes to figuring out how to live the life of a Chan Buddhist many people come to the conclusion that attending services, entering a monastery -- going somewhere -- is the only efficacious solution.

Whenever a request for liturgy pops into my "IN" basket, it's often a Monday. Perhaps it’s the Western mindset -- Sunday is a day of worship for Christians and since so many Buddhists have converted from Christianity, they often have a vague feeling of loss, of being left out. They miss that ritual, that comfortable and uplifting routine. And so they have those Sunday Service "blues." Usually there’s no Buddhist temple -- of any denomination -- in their town or local community, and if there is one, the language and cultural bariers keep them away. Often all they have is the Internet. And so they write wanting to feel more included as practicing Buddhists, not just as website readers.

We’ve never offered a liturgical service in the past. Whenever I was asked for one, I’d excuse the omission by explaining in a way that had to sound ridiculous: that we’re "a virtual temple with virtual incense and everyone’s always virtually welcome to join us for a virtual service ... "

Virtually speaking of course.

One Monday I received a letter that showed me how foolish and inadequate this was. A man quoted one of my favorite lines from Emily Dickinson:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

He wanted to know what a virtual temple could add to his life. In my mind I rewrote Emily Dickinson’s lines:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a virtual bobolink for a virtual chorister,
And an virtual orchard for a virtual dome.

That settled it: we can carry virtuality too far. As Hsu Yun said, "We can’t be cured by reading the label, 'penicillin'. We need to put the medicine in our mouths and swallow it." We can’t eat the menu or imagine the food.

It was time to offer our readers the opportunity to construct for themselves a service they could follow. It takes only one person to make a congregation. To quote Dickinson again,

To make a prairie, take one clover
and a bee and reverie.
The reverie alone
will do if bees are few.

Our ZBOHY ministry may be virtual, but the practice, our own practice, must be in real time.

We have assembled the elements of service: the invocational prayer; the spiritual message or sermon; the chant; the scripture; the benediction.

Since all of us have different circumstances - different space allocations and different time allowances, we’ve tried to present the liturgical material in such a way that anyone can create a service to accommodate his or her needs.

First, as to space: If we have a room we can convert into a temple, good, but not essential. The room should be cleaned and perhaps painted. It should be emptied of everything except an altar table, mat and cushion.

If we can’t spare an entire room, perhaps we can find a single corner of one to use exclusively for our service. Or perhaps we can find a closet that can be emptied of everything and then redecorated. We can construct a small altar inside it and store our mat and cushion on a shelf. We have to be practical and inventive.

If we can’t spare even a corner or a closet, we should get a sturdy box, perhaps one that fits under the bed, and keep a few altar items in the box. Daily, we can open the box, set up the items, and begin our devotions.

Usually, we require a picture or statuette of the Buddha and/or Guan Yin. No expensive statues are required. A computer print-out of a picture of a statue will serve as well as a statue. If we have photographs of our master and teachers, we can put these in simple frames upon the altar.

Candles are not recommended because they add an unnecessary element of danger to the home environment, especially if there are children or pets around.

As to incense, this is desirable and should be obtained if at all possible. The best incense holder is a bowl or cup that has been filled with any substance that will support the incense stick. Sand, kitty litter, table salt... any of these will support an incense stick, the requirement being one of depth. Two or three inches is usually sufficient to support the average incense stick. If the service must be ended before the incense has burned down, we simply invert the incense stick in the sand or salt. It should never be left burning unattended.

Some people may have difficulty with incense because of sinus problems ... allergies, a cold, or infections. In this case, incense should be avoided and alternate aromatic sources used. A search on the internet for "smokeless incense" may yeild some surprising results of what is available.

If a small tape or CD player is available, these can be used to play chants which we can chant with or to play soft spiritual music. If other people are present, it is best to use earphones. Earphones also hel block out extraneous noises and helps us concentrate.

Finally, we can keep a collection of our favoite liturgical texts together in a notebook. Depending on the time we can allot to a devotional practice, we can select liturgical texts and prayers appropriately from the notebook. We can also vary them each week or month. Examples of these may be the Platform sutra, the Diamond and Heart Sutras, the Gatha of Seng T'san, Song of Enlightenment.

For example, if we have only five minutes in the morning before breakfast, we can recite a short invocation and read a page of the Diamond Sutra, continuing our reading the next time we perform our service. We should also select from the short inspirational messages upon which we can mediate (in the thoughtful sense) while we travel to work or do our household chores, etc.

If we have more time, we can chant the Dharani To The Great Compassionate One and The Heart Sutra as well.

So, rather than insist that everyone follow the same format, we suggest that each person select pages from the various sections selected from this website and, in accordance with the amount of time available for practice, put the selected pages at the front of the notebook. At intervals these pages can easily be exchanged for others to avoid habituation. In this way we keep our practice and the subject of a small or large Dharma message always fresh.

Check the website periodically for updates to our liturgy and essays sections.

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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