Help Me!

I just finished a semester of Japanese language classes with a wonderful group of people. In addition to American college students, there were people in my class from Taiwan, the Philippines, Spain, Indonesia and Ghana. At least three were Southeast Asian students living in the local Catholic seminary, studying Japanese to do missionary work here.

During a farewell party, a bunch of us performed songs and dances from our home countries. Since I'm me though, I of course sang one of the many Japanese Buddhist song I've learned here. At both monasteries where I trained, we were required to learn goeka, which are Buddhist poems (usually Dogen's) put to music and accompanied by a small hand bell and mallet. Goeka is usually sung at funerals and other Buddhist ceremonies, by both lay people and monks (it's most popular with old, Japanese lay women). The song I chose to sing has my favorite melody, but the words-- a waka by Dogen with two additional Buddha names tacked on at the end for some reason-- sound kind of weird when translated literally into English. Here is the Japanese and English:

草の庵に 寝ても醒めても 申すこと     Kusa no io nette mo samete mo mosu koto
南無釈迦牟尼仏 あわれみたまえ             Namu Shakamuni Butsu     awaremi tamae
南無大恩教主 南無釈迦如来                     Namu Daionkyoushu   Namu Shakanyorai

In a grass hut  
Whether sleeping or waking
I humbly say,
"Namu Shakamuni Butsu
Please show me compassion,
Namu Daionkyoushu
Namu Shakanyorai."

Steven Heine translates Dogen's original waka more poetically as "Each moment waking, sleeping/ In my grass-thatched hut,/ I offer this prayer: Let Shakamuni Buddha's compassion envelope the world." That sounds a lot nicer, but I think literal translations have their own kind of beauty (this week my literature professor remarked that translations are like women: the faithful ones aren't beautiful, and the beautiful ones aren't which I say... maybe we need to get a better library? Anyway.). 

After I performed this song, a Catholic priest in training told me he recognized some of the words from his prayers in Japanese church. This surprised me, because "Namu Shakamuni Butsu" is definitely not in any Catholic mass! The words he recognized were "awaremi tamae" あわれみたまえ which I translated as "please show me compassion." "Aware mi" can also mean "pity" or "mercy."

The reason I said the literal translation of "please show me compassion" or "please have mercy on me" sounds weird is that it brings to mind a kind of Christian rhetoric. When I hear the phrase "please have mercy on me" I think of something like the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner." And interestingly, the word for "mercy" in the Jesus Prayer in Japanese is the same word (awaremi) that Dogen uses in the poem above.

It seems clear that the phrase "awaremi tamae" (please have mercy on me) is not a Christian import, but home-grown right here in Japan. So what does it mean to ask Buddha for compassion or mercy, especially if Buddha isn't a deity? And what does it mean that Dogen (Mr. "Zazen is All I Need") is doing so? I suppose the historically sensitive answer would be that Dogen's unique articulation and expression of Buddhist practice was influenced by the dominant discourses of his time, and that included a lot of recitation of Buddha's name. The Pure Land School of Buddhism is almost entirely faith-based, and it involves reciting Namu Amida Butsu over and over again with hopes of being reborn in the Pure Land. Honen and Shinran, two monks who were instrumental in founding what we consider to be Pure Land Buddhism today, both studied at Mount Hiei before Dogen, so it seems more than likely that Dogen would have been exposed to the flavors of Buddhist practice which involve appealing to Buddha for mercy and compassion.

On the other hand though, I think it might be too easy to attribute "begging Buddha for mercy" on some impure, external strand of Buddhism which infiltrated Dogen's pure shikantaza practice. Asking for help is one of the most basic of our human impulses.

When I think of "Buddha" not as a deity, but as Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, asking Buddha for help seems a lot more palatable. There's a phrase in Japanese, sambo ichinyo, 三宝一如, which means "Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are one." To speak of Buddha means to speak about Sangha, and to speak about Sangha means to speak about Dharma. They are interchangeable.

At least for me, without a community of practitioners there can be no life-long, sustained practice. My practice is entirely contingent upon others. Since leaving the monastery I've continued to shave my head, because I still believe it is a crucial signifier of both renunciation in general and Buddhist monasticism in particular. But I would be lying if I said I continue to shave my head out of a purely self-directed, independent motivation. Usually, when I shave my head these days it's because I know I'm going to encounter a Japanese monk or nun, like when I go to Nisodo for the day, or if I meet up with my teacher. I fear their criticism and want to avoid it, so I shave. By the way, I've stopped thinking fear of criticism is a bad motivation to do something. Sangha reminds me of what it means to be a monk or a nun, and in encountering them, I am challenged to continue practicing with them, in that way.

At the monastery, it's a rule that you can't shave your own head yourself. You have to find a partner, and after they shave your head, you shave their head. There's a whole form to it. Even if it might be faster and more convenient to shave alone, you're required to have your own head shaved by someone else, and then return the favor. The implication is, you can't do it alone, and it goes both ways.

And of course, I don't think Sangha just means Buddhist monks and nuns. That's the traditional definition of Sangha, but I personally think that's an outdated concept. Sangha is whoever practices with me, or whoever encourages me to try to be less of a crabby person. In my case, it might also be the guys in Catholic seminary who think singing about Buddha is a cool thing to do (because heaven knows not many people think that), or my college friends who come once a week to sit zazen with me. All of these people help me a lot.

There's power in numbers, and this is true not only in Buddhism. Last week was finals and I studied harder than I ever have in my life, mostly because I parked myself in the midst of a group of other people who were also studying. I realized that if I were alone in my room I would waste time on Facebook and get nothing done, so I made plans to study with other people. In a group, there's energy, and it's harder to waste time or give up. People encourage and support each other just by being there.

I think that is the meaning of "Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are one." So when Dogen or anyone else asks Buddha, "Please have compassion," it's an acknowledgement that we can't do this alone. Whether the Buddha he's referring to is a deity, a non-deity, or neither a deity nor a non-deity, it's clear that everyone doing this needs help, and that asking for help-- especially singing it-- feels good. At least it feels good to me.


  1. What a beautiful recognition/understanding. We don't do anything alone. Which means anything and everything we do matters and everything that we garner benefit from, benefits others. The bodhisattva vow in motion, completely dynamic.
    Beautiful audio. Keep studying, keep sharing!

  2. 月心、
    Utter thanks, joyous gladness, poignant appreciation: these all swell in me knowing we are entwined together within and practicing as a Sangha.
    Bows, your friend and fellow walker of the Way.

  3. Yes. the patriarchy needs a new dictionary and your insights on the Triple Jewel I will use in my practice and teachings...thank you
    Can't wait until you are teaching in some format.... Clearly you are on your way! Blessings


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